2. Oppression

Ideology, dogma, domestication, false generosity, transformation (Key thinker: Freire)

Word of the week: 'Should'

Idea of the week: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law" (Immanuel Kant). In other words, 'What if everyone did that?'

Key points
  • Our only true vocation is to become more fully human
  • To treat others as objects of knowledge, not as sources of it, is an oppressive act
  • Oppressors are also dehumanised because they dehumanise others
  • Domestication is about wanting to change other people's consciousness rather than changing the situation
  • Domestication pre-determines a future for people
  • False generosity is about keeping people down, making them believe they are happy with their circumstances
  • Transformative action means we enter into the situation of others so we can fully understand them
  • We create new situations through transforming actions

2.1 Lecture

Having a difficult conversation

I am convinced that many instances of misunderstanding occur simply because people don’t have the skills to undertake difficult conversations: if you are upset, it then becomes easier to fire off an outraged email or to needle and tease someone and be sarcastic than it is to talk rationally, reasonably, and compassionately with someone else about a troublesome issue that concerns you both. Having a difficult conversation is most difficult if 1) you enter into the conversation in bad faith, that is, if you don’t truly want to resolve the problem in a fair, honest, and open way that respects the thoughts, feelings and experiences of both parties, and 2) if you don’t have the communication skills and emotional literacy to conduct such a conversation. There are, of course, entire books and websites dedicated to this topic, so if you need skilling up in this area, I suggest you conduct some internet searches, buy or borrow some texts, or talk to someone you know who is good with this kind of thing. For the moment, though, and in keeping with the general approach in this book (and especially in this chapter), I am going to provide you with some conceptual ground on which to build these types of conversation.

In any communicative act, Dewey tells us, both the recipient and giver of communication are affected (Dewey 2004/16 CIT TO COME!). To receive a communication, he says that we need to ‘get outside’ of our own experience and see the world as another sees it, that we need to consider what ‘points of contact’ exist if we are “… to have an enlarged and changed experience” (Dewey 2004/16, 2???). It means setting aside our ego and finding and feeling a true empathy with the other person – with what they are feeling and with how they experience the world. So, start here:
  1. Enter into the other person’s experience of the situation. Truly listen to them, give them time to talk, and don’t be crafting your response in your head while you are meant to be listening (this is a common phenomenon). Moreover, don’t be tempted to talk over them or to interject with your own perspective on things. What you need to do here is to detach yourself and your own emotions from the situation as much as possible. You also need to find out exactly what is going on in a way that validates the other party’s experience but which still gives you a chance later on to put forwards your own. You could start with something like, “We seem to be having some difficulties in communicating. Do you want to tell me what’s happening from your perspective?” or “You sounded pretty upset on the discussion forum. Something must have gone on that you felt uncomfortable about. Can you tell me about it so I can understand it better?” The essential thing is that you step back and try to grasp the situation as it is when looked at from an outsider’s perspective – not as it is in your head. If it helps, think of this as a data-gathering exercise. You can prompt further conversation by asking, “What else is there?” “What other things do I need to know?”
  2. Show empathy and understanding. Rephrase and repeat what the other person is saying and say it back to them. Confirm your understanding of their perspective and seek clarification on anything you are unsure about: “So you’re saying that when I do this, you feel like that” or “I’m not sure what you mean by that. Can you tell me a bit more?” Again, you are seeking a full comprehension of the situation, but you are also showing good faith in wanting to understand how the other person sees things.
  3. State your own perspective. When it’s your turn, talk about your own concerns and needs but try to link them to the other party’s concerns – not in a defensive way, but rather in a way that gently points to the common ground of the issue. Be specific: don’t just say, “What you said was unfair and you should apologise.” Rather, say, “When you wrote that stuff in the forum I was confused because I didn’t know what I had said that might have made you angry. I felt embarrassed, because it looked as if I’d criticised you personally in my previous post, when that wasn’t what I thought I’d done at all. And then I couldn’t sleep because I was worried that I’d upset you so much and because I felt misrepresented and a bit humiliated.” Notice that this kind of talk is about the speaker’s feelings and perceptions only: it doesn’t seek to lay blame on the other person.
  4. Identify issues of common concern and work towards a solution – or give an apology. Once you both have an understanding and appreciation of each other’s experience of the situation, you can identify the areas of common concern and problem-solve some solutions: “So, it seems that the real problem is that we each have different expectations of how discussion should work in the forum. I’d be happy to get a gentle text or private chat message from you as a reminder that I might be getting a bit hot under the collar about a topic. This would really help short-circuit a possible blow-up on my part!” “And I’ll make sure to read and re-read any post I write and to sit on it for at least ten minutes before I hit ‘send,’ just as a way of making sure that it doesn’t come across all wrong.” If, however, you are clearly in the wrong, admit it: apologise and mean it. A true apology does not provide an excuse for why you acted as you did; a true apology recognises the hurt you have caused someone and seeks to repair that hurt, without condition.
-- Megan

2.2 Tutorial

This week's discussion reminders:
  • Don't assume anything about anyone: their background, their beliefs, their opinions.
  • Am I dominating? Is this my bandwagon? Am I giving others time to talk?
  • Am I accommodating of differences in how people express themselves?

The aim is to create an atmosphere that is
  • Dialogical
  • Civil
  • Respectful
  • Non-defensive
  • Non-judgmental
  • Ideologically neutral
  • Safe
  • Open

Tutorial 2.2.1 Provocation (groups of 5-6)

  • People should.

Tutorial 2.2.2 Describe and analyse your relationship with a person you have difficulty communicating with (work in pairs)

It's best if you talk about someone who your tute partner doesn't know. If you suspect your tute partner does know the other person, then find another tute partner.
  1. Who is this other person? Are they a colleague, a family member, a friend, a neighbour? Provide some context if you need to. Use a pseudonym if you judge it is called for.
  2. What is it that the other person does or says that you don't like? What is it that irritates you about them? What would you prefer them to do or say? How often do you think or say the following about them:
    • If only they didn’t do/say ...
    • I wish they didn’t act like ...
    • I wish I could somehow make them see that ...
    • I don’t understand why they have to ...
    • ‘Why can’t they just ...?
    • They must be stupid.
  3. Why can't or don't you understand each other? Where do you seem to 'fall down' in the communication stakes? Don't try to explain things based on the fact that the other person might be from a different generational or socio-cultural background to you (why not?). Instead, employ some of the concepts we covered in today's lecture. In other words, talk about how you (and they) are preventing the other from being fully human. To what extent are you trying to
    • Domesticate the other? Why do you need them to act or speak in particular ways?
    • Determine a future for the other? Why do you need them to be locked into certain ways of being that best suit you?
    • Change how the other thinks about things? Why do you need them to be happy with the situation?
    • Ignore what you might learn from the other? Why don't they have anything to teach you?
  4. How can you enter more fully into communication with the other person? More fully into their experience? Would it really make a difference? What if they just didn't care? What if they spit bile, hate your guts, and put a curse on you? [Someone, please remind me to tell you a story about underperformance ...]

Tutorial 2.2.3 Individual reflection

Today's tute
  • Am I ever sarcastic? Do I mock or deride others? Do I gossip? Do I speak negatively about others? Do I think I am better than others? Do I think some people are stupid? What are the effects of these thoughts and/or actions? Do I safely and legitimately discuss or work through this stuff? Or do I go further than that?
  • How can I know when I am preventing someone else from expressing their humanity? What practical things do I need to look for a regards my own thoughts and behaviours? Being sarcastic? Gossiping others? Feeling overwhelmingly irritated? Wishing people were doing, saying, or being someone or something else? Being insistent about my own point of view? Trying to convince others through being insistent? Not letting others talk? Not truly listening to them and instead trying to concomitantly craft a response in my head?
  • Who have I pre-determined a future for? Certain individuals I am close to? My parents, siblings, neighbours, friends? Whole categories of people? White people? Indigenous people? Asians? Africans? Americans? Muslims? Christians? Jews? Rural people? Poor people? Rich people? Middle-class people? Disabled people? Gays and lesbians? People in the military? Greenies? Economists? ;) Who do I have biases against?
  • How often do I label others -- either verbally or in my head? As trouble-makers, idiots, stupid, boring, ugly, humourless, smelly, badly dressed, selfish, prudish, promiscuous, boastful, wishy-washy, pushy, difficult ... Why does any of this matter?

Regular questions
  • Am I truly the author of my own actions?
  • Am I conscious of the beliefs that inform my actions? What are my motivations?
  • Am I deciding who to be?
  • Do I confront the world, unveiled, as it really is?
  • Do I work toward unity in my actions? Am I a self-constituting, unified agent with a commitment to acting morally?
  • Have I learnt anything from you?

2.3 Readings and resources

external image chuy-pedagogy-of-the-oppressed.jpg

2.3.1 Suggested reading

Part of Chapter 1 of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire.

While the problem of humanization has always, from an axiological point of view, been humankind's central problem, it now takes on the character of an inescapable concern. Concern for humanization leads at once to the recognition of dehumanization, not only as an ontological possibility but as an historical reality. And as an individual perceives the extent of dehumanization, he or she may ask if humanization is a viable possibility. Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion.

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people's vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors; it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity.

Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human. This distortion occurs within history; but it is not an historical vocation. Indeed, to admit of dehumanization as an historical vocation would lead either to cynicism or total despair. The struggle for humanization, for the emancipation of labor, for the overcoming of alienation, for the affirmation of men and women as persons would be meaningless. This struggle is possible only because dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.

Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors who oppress, exploit and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to "soften" the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity," which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands -- whether of individuals or entire peoples -- need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

Man, good or evil? by Erich Fromm
Taken from Chapter 4 of Man for Himself. An inquiry into the psychology of ethics
Read the whole book (kind of)

The choice between life and death is indeed the basic alternative of ethics. It is the alternative between productiveness and destructiveness, between potency and impotence, between virtue and vice. For humanistic ethics all evil strivings are directed against life and all good serves the preservation and unfolding of life.

Our first step in approaching the problem of destructiveness is to differentiate between two kinds of hate: rational, "reactive" and irrational "character-conditioned" hate. Reactive, rational hate is a person's reaction to a threat to his own or another person's freedom, life, or ideas. Its premise is a respect for life. Rational hate has an important biological function: it is the affective equivalent of action serving the protection of life; it comes into existence as a reaction to vital threats, and it ceases to exist when the threat has been removed; it is not the opposite but the concomitant of the striving for life.

Character-conditioned hate is different in quality. It is a character trait, a continuous readiness to hate, lingering within the person who is hostile rather than reacting to a stimulus from without. Irrational hate can be actualized by the same kind of realistic threat which arouses reactive hate; but often it is a gratuitous hate, using every opportunity to be expressed, rationalized as reactive hate. The hating person seems to have a feeling of relief, as though he were happy to have found the opportunity to express his lingering hostility. One can almost see in his face the pleasure he derives from the satisfaction of his hatred.

Ethics is concerned primarily with the problem of irrational hate, the passion to destroy or cripple life. Irrational hate is rooted in a person's character, its object being of secondary importance. It is often directed against others as well as against oneself, although we are more often aware of hating others than of hating ourselves. The hate against others is usually rationalized as sacrifice, selflessness, ascetism, or as self-accusation and inferiority feeling.

2.3.2 Extension reading

2.3.3 Other stuff

View the other parts
Part 2
Part 3

The Stanford Prison Experiment -- some footage may upset some viewers. Such experiments are no longer legal.

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Part 2
Part 3