The Poor Know More than the Rich: Paulo Freire on What the Impoverished Can Teach Us All (Personal Reflections XV)

Freire Trust

Our world is characterized by an ongoing “conflict” (not to say “war”) waged by the rich and powerful against the poor and politically powerless. It’s all an inheritance of colonialism, which did not disappear after World War II. Instead, colonialism simply took other more sophisticated forms. As J.W. Smith puts it, the system changed from “plunder by raid” to “plunder by trade.” The enduring point is to keep the wealth and power where it’s been since the onset of the colonial era – with the plundering powers (Europe and the United States) which have systematically robbed the resources of the former colonies whose populations today (unsurprisingly) constitute the world’s poor.

One cannot be neutral in the conflict just referenced; one must take sides.  As our friend and mentor Paulo Freire put it, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

My forty-plus years of travel, teaching, and scholarship in the Global South (Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Cuba) have taught me the truth of Paulo’s words. Not to decide is to decide – in favor of the status quo.

When sides are consciously taken with the poor and oppressed, a whole counter-narrative emerges that rarely gets a hearing in the United States whose official policy favors the rich and powerful. The counter-narrative about history, economics and politics comes from the underclasses that so concerned Paulo Freire and the liberation theologians I’ve studied with in the countries I’ve just mentioned as well as in the U.S. and Europe.

But here’s the Freirean point: the counter-narrative of the poor is more comprehensive and informed than the one typically pedaled in the United States. In fact, the U.S. story (pretending to be neutral) is actually the product of one-sided “banking” model of education that endorses oppression as normal and inevitable.

Let me explain.

Paulo Freire famously contrasted what he called the banking concept of education with “education for critical consciousness.” In the banking model, teachers make deposits of knowledge into the “accounts” of passive, unsuspecting students. What they learn is mostly irrelevant to their everyday lives. However it amounts to the “official story” which remains unquestioned and explains the given order as normal and good.

On the other hand, education for critical consciousness “problematizes” the students’ own reality and asks them to come up with solutions to real dilemmas: for example, their own hunger, its causes, and how to escape it. In the process they learn how the world works and come up with strategies to change their immediate experience.

Freire also made key distinctions about the stages of consciousness typically passed through by learners  among the world’s majority poor and oppressed. Normally, he said, students begin with the resigned attitude that “to be is to be under the oppressor.” They see no exit from their poverty and life’s circumstances. From there they pass to a second stage: “to be is to be like the oppressor.” They take the rich and powerful as their role models.  They want to be like them – rich and successful. Finally, if they persevere in the growth process, poor students arrive at a stage where they realize that “to be is to be neither oppressor nor oppressed.” In that stage they start taking active and proactive measures against their own poverty and oppression.  They work to change the world.

[BTW: Part of my quarrel with Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” (which is where these reflections began) is that it reflects Freire’s second stage of consciousness – to be is to be like the Oppressor. In the play, African-American and Hispanic actors literally pretend to be their white oppressors; they actually celebrate the ones who enslaved and exterminated their ancestors – the ones who excoriated Native Americans in the Declaration of Independence and who wrote slavery into the U.S. Constitution.]

Towards accomplishing the task of changing the world, the poor have an epistemological privilege in their analysis of life in general. Though typically far less formally educated than the rich, their perception and analysis is characteristically more comprehensive and accurate. They might not be able to make the historical references or to employ the academic jargon; they might not use complete sentences or be grammatically correct, but simply put, the poor know more about life.

Why? Think about it for a minute.

Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street execs rarely really see them. The poor are located in different parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never saw the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized west know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions. I’m talking about “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on such people every day, they remain only abstractions. That is, few of us know what it really means to live under threat of hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” (like Malcolm X or Mumia Abu Jamal) their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

However despite such comprehensive knowledge, the critically conscious poor and their representatives find little place in mainstream analysis which comes overwhelmingly from white, well-to-do, and university-educated men.

This is why I’ve learned to give scant credence to mainstream media (MSM) explanations of the world and always takes pains to understand reality from the viewpoint of the epistemologically privileged poor and oppressed – found outside the MSM. Those viewpoints are more comprehensive and informed.

Such Freirean insights are, I think, worth thinking about.

(Next week: My study of liberation theology in Brazil)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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