Sunday, July 15, 2007

Friere and the problem of power in helping people

Friere (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Action Reflection: The activist is useless without reflection – there is no conscious direction. Reflection without action is also useless, it gets nothing done. - This concept is very similar to the metaphor of a car. It can’t get to its destination if it is not moving, or if it is moving in the wrong direction. It needs direction and action to achieve a goal.


The power of definition: One of the exercises is to get people to express their situation and see it for what it is, from their own perspective, not the perspective they have been fed for so long. This argument has a lot of similarity to Said and the concept of the Oriental. It was a category that was defined from the outside, and covered diversity and fit into the worldview of colonialism/oppression. The same thing happened with the “Nobel Savage.” These categories are based on a rejection of empathy, equality, and efforts at understanding. It is the construction of an other. The other is defined by the core, uppers, insiders, and is what matters. The periphery, lowers, outsiders, the other, are defined as what is on the other side of the boundary that creates the category of insider. In the case of colonialism, it was European / non-European. I personally never learned of a country that named itself non-European. This is a given identity. Rejecting this given identity for a self-defined identity is a process that rejects the status that is given, and empowers people to be equal, because each has a unique history, both are people, and each story is of equal value. African history is not a chapter in the book of European history. They are all sections in Human history.


The oppressed have to shake off oppression for the sake of the oppressors as well as themselves. Oppressing kills the humanity in people. It is a bondage that the oppressor can rarely shake off themselves. What does it mean to us in Canada to be the oppressor? It isn’t a common identity characteristic I take for myself, being in the development studies program and devoting my life to the poor. But there is something there. I enjoy my university degree and the prestige, and the moral superiority of the concern for the poor, and the standard of living I am able to maintain (because of little hands) because of my education. I have two lives. I go to work and spend that life working for the betterment of those suffering in poverty, then I go home to my Ikea condo. And I’ll be damned if I don’t feel cheated when an engineer makes more money than me with less education and experience.

Well, I did choose to work for the cause of poverty. I am not willing not to work on the cause of poverty. Within that qualification, I would like to get ahead as much as the next person. I would also like to do this ethically, not fighting against myself and with my consumption habits. But the wonders of global capitalism make it possible for me to not know the conditions in which my consumer goods were made.

I am losing track of where I was going. Solidarity with the poor v. being the oppressor. Is it possible to do both at the same time?

I think so, I do it at work and at home. I am an oppressor vis a vis the genetic lottery that gave me good health care, almost free education, cheap consumer goods. But I am also in solidarity with the poor because that is my existential identity.

When I evaluate my life I ask: What have you done for the poor today? I don’t ask how much money I made. Or if I have the approval of my superiors.


Here is another interesting thought I have been mulling over. I am part of something larger than myself (fighting poverty, injustice and death). The poor have one responsibility, take care of themselves, so I (social agencies) don’t have to, and so they can contribute instead of cost they system money. Within the social safety net is a built in hatred for the poor, mind you, it is also a love, because without the poor, my life would be meaningless (Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling).

But, I don’t focus on caring for myself (the advice so often given out to homeless people). I focus on this larger thing that I am a part of and I find my identity in. If I just had to take care of myself, what’s the point? Why get out of bed in the morning?

I think a good way of summarizing this idea is the Nihilistic gospel of the Social Safety Net.

Once again, I think this gets back to Friere’s point on the power of definition (identity construction). If the poor are given the chance to define themselves (instead of being classified as homeless, or poor), and each individual finds their story, and the explanation of why they are homeless, what they are struggling and succeeding with, then perhaps appropriate solutions can be found. They will have a clear picture of what large social forces they are a part of. Instead of accepting the identity of loser, down and outer, addict, homeless, and all the power relations that are associated with those titles. Maybe these people can find their identity in their story, their history, and be equal human beings with the rest of “normal” society.

So what is a more appropriate gospel for the Social Safety Net? One that focuses on story telling, and recognizes the individuality of people (v. the faceless herding of the current shelter system). This may be the Housing First principle manifest in the Thames reach organization. The organization sends taxis out to go find “rough” sleepers – people sleeping outside, and offers them an apartment, then they are offered what ever resources they need, counselling, job training, etc.

But this project of identity creation is also grounded in an existentialist understanding of people’s responsibility; not blaming social forces, but recognizing their role in the same time.


Karl Polanyi argues that the problem with capitalism is that no one is ultimately responsible. Unemployment (homelessness) is the fault of the “invisible hand.” Perhaps the movement of existentialism is in reaction to the invisible hand. Which are the rules that everyone agrees to play by, but seemingly, no one established. My Marxist friend describes this situation as the problem of liberalism – you can see the problem, but are powerless to change anything.

This gets back to my dualistic life as a good liberal. I work against oppression and to improve the plight of the poor during the day. Then at night I consume and live the life of a “normal” (in the sense of the power of definition) middle class citizen (v. non-citizen, ie. homeless person). The steps in the value added chain separate me from assuming responsibility. What is the existential cost of this distance, of disempowerment? I can not change my situation, so I can not make decisions, so, I can not create who I am.

Kierkegaard talks about the anxiety of possibility – the possibilities of who I can be, then the anxiety of being that person, asking what if.

Am I able to create my identity and make decisions to the extent that I do not depend on the material comforts of western life? Does my soft bed and the indoors keep me from being who I am?

But, I suppose choosing the comforts of life over solidarity with the poor is an identity choice and I become that choice.

Can a choice be made without Sarte’s Anguish, Forlornness, and Despair? Maybe that was an existential choice. I have put those elements into the choice to serve the poor with my life. But is the situation of comfort getting in the way of the implementation of that choice? Or is the implementation the choice?

This is the split between who I am and how I live. It is hypocrisy.

On the other hand, I see my role one of empowerment. Gaining a position of authority and being an insider, upper who can disempower myself, and pass that power onto the communities I will work with; creating capacity and resiliency to deal with future problems.

I suppose mine is a slippery slope, ensuring that the identity of who I am is defined by what I do for the poor, not the comforts I have, and the selfish personal choices I am bound to face. Because the more I choose comfort the more I will find my identity in comfort instead of solidarity with the poor.

Right, the Anguish, Forlornness and Despair are qualifications for making an authentic choice. So the more I go through, the more authentic I will be.

There is a similar Christian idea, God has a plan for your life, and if you follow this plan you will be happy, if you don’t you won’t be happy.

Both of these correspond to my situation because solidarity with the poor is an authentic choice for me. But, comfort is something that I slide into unconsciously. I do not go through AFD, and therefore, it is not an authentic life.


Here is my fundamental question, what is the point of getting up in the morning if you aren’t working toward the betterment of other people? I guess a lot of people have their families.

Is responsibility for other people the only reason for living?

And, what are the power relations in this situation? I am dependent on those people needing me, and I am more powerful than those I am responsible for. They do not have responsibility for themselves because I have it. I am in control of the people I am responsible for. And this is my reason for getting up in the morning.

I sound like a sadistic prison guard.

Is social services a sadistic prison?

Oh, the complexity of altruistic existential exploitation.


The ironic part is that maybe I need to be part of something larger (fighting poverty) because I haven’t faced my own mortality, finitude. Am I comfortable with my finitude; can I find a point within myself for getting out of bed in the morning?

Without poor people I would be nothing, I would have no identity. This doesn’t scare me though, it is the goal of my life. Because then I can dissipate into infinitude. This is a nonsensical way of saying that I would be alright with not having an identity if there were no poor people. I could live for myself. – I say this because when I do enjoy material possessions, the guilt is that everyone can’t enjoy them. I am separated from the rest of humanity by my access. I don’t want to be separated by winning. I want to be completely ordinary, have my life not stand out in any way. What I mean is that I would love to live in a world where there was no haves and have nots. And if I do live in a world with haves and have nots, then I want to be in the latter group. My hypocrisy is that I am in the former group.

2 comments:

Jerrod said...

Hi Jeff,

Good thoughts. Bill Phipps really kicks your ass with the whole "What does faith/life look like as the oppressor?"

Check out "The Irresistible Revolution" by Shane Claiborne. He works with "The Simple Way" in Philadelphia which serves to embody ministry, justice and presence with urban poor. Shane is an evangelical but is really beginning to raise awarenss of justice issues in a theological context. He has partnered with Sojourners on numerous occassions for iniatives and dialogues.

No silver bullet here - but another voice that speaks directly about the integration of faith into this existential dialogue you are working through. Actually - dialogue?? more like reflection. Invite more people to speak with you, it may help.

Jerrod

Jerrod said...

Hi again Jeff,

I actually posted quite a lengthy second comment to this blog but it was lost somewhere. I'll try to summarize.

Quit Bitching!!

That's it - simple eh?

What I mean is that you will never completely identify yourself with the poor unless you are actually poor. When I read this post and when I recall our conversations I tend to think that you know exactly what you need to do in order to fully identify with the poor - actually become poor. Chose the radical life of poverty and "live" with the poor and seek to bring justice and strength through a shared life rather than from some secondary space. Shane Claiborne did this. Mother Teresa did this. Christ did this through the incarnation. If you choose this lifestyle you are part of that type of community. An upside down, backwards, humble, integrative and subversive community - looking a lot like the kingdom of God.

The reason you feel like a hypocrite or that you sense a power imbalance is because this is true. All of us are hypocrites. All of us live in an imbalanced world. Either you choose to live in poverty and find complete affinity with the poor (like many Latin American theologians & priests - whom already had the vow of poverty to assist them) or you quit bitching, acknowledge the tension of your relationship with the poor and keep serving them. It's okay to have mixed emotions and motives in any social justice iniative - that's the reality of the power imbalance. Acknowledge it and move on. When you feel criticized as a hypocrite (or if you criticize yourself) - AGREE - then continue to serve.

When I was in poverty I understood what it was like to be poor much more than I do now. I don't know if I have the guts to go back there - feeling as though I barely made it through. However, I know that experience with poverty has biased my view of the poor in general. I am constantly challenged to analyze my views and expectations. I'm a hypocrite at time as well. That's how it is. This tension will always be there. Deal with it.

I don't mean to be flippant but apart from selling all your possessions and following Christ (which I know you "small e" evangelical heart is really talking about) you will always feel the tension between affluence/poverty and justice/apathy.

Don't let the legitimate problem of power freeze you into inaction. Either change your situation or acknowledge the tension and press forward.