Paulo Freire’s fear of freedom

Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been in the box of largely unread books that I’ve dragged with me from house to house, from shelf to shelf, as I’ve moved every few months over the years. This weekend, compelled by recent events and stilled by a sickness I brought home from the equator, I finally sat down with the introduction, preface, and first chapter.

Freire (Brazil, 1921 – 1997) talks about the concept of conscientização, the process by which we learn to recognize political, social, and economic contradictions and to “take action against the oppressive elements of reality.” He asserts that we are often afraid of true freedom, and that we are disposed to “confuse freedom with the maintenance of the status quo.” If conscientização – a new, profound, self-produced awareness of systemic contradiction – threatens our status quo, “it thereby seems to constitute a threat to freedom itself.” In other words, awareness and action can feel threatening to our perception of freedom, when, in reality, freedom can only come as emancipation from the reality constructed for us.

Freire urges the oppressed – and indeed all humans – to construct and build our own futures, to act as Subjects (those who know and act) rather than Objects (those who are known and acted upon). To act Subjects, we must recognize and align ourselves with history but not succumb to the “rightist” belief that the future is determined by a “well-behaved”, “domesticated” present, or to the “leftist” myth that the future is predetermined by fate or destiny. Freire labels these sectarian views as “reactionary” because they rely on “forms of action that negate freedom.” These fixed, rigid perceptions of history and the future linked to it constrain thinkers in “circles of certainty from which they cannot escape.” The sectarian thinker constructs his own “truth” that is, by Freire’s definition, a myth.

Freire says that we gain our freedom by struggling to build the future and by “running the risks involved in this very construction.”

Sectarians on either end of the sociopolitical thought spectrum are held captive by their own mythical “truths”:

[The rightist sectarian or the leftist], as he revolves about “his” truth, feels threatened if that truth is questioned. Thus, each considers anything that is not “his” truth a lie. As the journalist Marcio Moreira Alves once told me, “They both suffer from an absence of doubt.”

An absence of doubt! Absolutely! Without curiosity, without the compulsion to learn, and with rigid adherence to baseless truths or prescribed ideologies, we are constrained by Freire’s “circles of certainty.” We are oppressed by our own lack of curiosity, by our own absence of doubt. Liberation (from dehumanization, from false truths, from the status quo), Freier argues, is the work of radicals.

…the more radical a person is, the more fully he or she enters into the reality so that, knowing it better, he or she can better transform it. [The radical, in pursuit of liberation] is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled. This person is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them.

To be a curious, critical, radical in the face of canned, prescribed truth, is to be a human being in pursuit of liberation, of freedom.

The word radical can refer to the extreme, the opposite of moderate, the antithesis of status quo; and at the same time it refers to the root, the system where the foundation takes hold and is grounded – rooted – the subterranean place from where all growth / progress / revolution emerges.

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