Meet the new boss

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Is murder wrong because it is illegal or is murder illegal because it is wrong?

A few years back, I decided to read Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. I didn’t expect to agree with the book because I knew it was a key text of educational progressivism: I was aware that Freire’s criticism of the ‘banking model’ was used by some to disparage explicit teaching. However, I initially found the book to be abstract and vague. Freire wrote hypnotically about the oppressors and the oppressed, without clearly identifying who these were, while focusing on the need to become ‘fully human’. So when I reached the following sentence, it was as if jolted from a dream:

“However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot resume their former position, do not constitute oppression.”

Freire goes on to expand on the difference between the new regime and the old but even so, it does look a lot like, ‘meet the new boss: same as the old boss’. And as I have discussed before, Freire talks of repressing the old oppressive power and points to Mao’s cultural revolution as a positive example. We can imagine rules governing behaviour under the new regime and consequences for disobeying these rules.

When a group is engaged in a long battle against injustice, it is a victory when laws or regulations are changed to support their position. But it is not an end. I was challenged recently on Twitter as to whether the idea that Australia is breach of the UN convention on the rights of refugees is a strong argument against Australia’s position. I don’t think it is, no. A strong argument would consist of explaining why Australia’s behaviour regarding refugees is wrong.

An action may be in violation of a law or some other form of regulation and it may attract a punishment, and yet that does not explain why it is wrong. Some laws are silly. Some are misconceived. It is possible to break a law, receive a sanction and be morally right. This is the logic of civil disobedience. It’s a social Godel’s theorem: some truths simply cannot be expressed while staying entirely within the formal systems that humans have constructed.

Those who have fought a long battle against a great injustice and who have won that battle and changed the law may say, “I am tired of explaining. You are wrong and the law says you are wrong.” But this is dangerous thinking.

Imagine the young man who is engaged by fascist ideologues or religious extremists. They listen to the young man’s views, take him seriously and invest time and effort in explaining their moral universe to him. Opponents of the fascists or religious extremists take no such trouble. Instead, they tell the young man that he is wrong and his views and actions are unlawful. This may be true, but it is not an argument with much potential to change the young man’s views.

This is not to force a choice. A person who commits an offence should expect to both receive the appropriate punishment for that offence and to come to understand why it was wrong; or at least why others believe it to be wrong. We can have both of these things. They are not mutually exclusive.

And I believe that we should model this in the way we deal with behaviour in school. No, I do not think that a teacher should immediately stop a class to explain in great detail why throwing paper balls is disruptive. Sometimes we need to simply act in the moment and leave any discussions for later. But we should design systems where we explain norms and expectations from the outset and positively reinforce and reexplain those constantly as the contexts vary. When we give a necessary sanction, we should explain why we have done so, even if the student does not agree or we feel that it’s obvious or that we have explained it a thousand times before.

If we explain the need for a sanction then that doesn’t somehow stop the sanction from being ‘punitive‘ as some people seem to think. It is still a punishment and it will still be experienced as a punishment. The danger with mincing our words is that it reduces the precision of our language, and when dealing with student behaviour, clarity is essential. Teachers need to know what actions they may take that are aligned with the culture and values of the school. They don’t need to be given some vague, intangible notion of what not to do.

As teachers, we wish students to understand the world they inhabit. Insofar as we have a responsibility to teach them right from wrong, we have a responsibility to explain why some things are right and some things are wrong. Ultimately, our students may reject these arguments and face the social consequences of doing so, but that is their choice. Humans are not computers. Humans cannot be programmed with rules, whether they are the bad rules of the oppressor or the good rules of the enlightened and virtuous.


24 thoughts on “Meet the new boss

    • John Perry says:

      Which is exactly what Freire argued:

      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.

      Love Freire.

    • John Perry says:

      Greg’s quote was:

      However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot resume their former position, do not constitute oppression.

      Which is saying that – to use a very extreme example – telling former Nazis after the second world war that they can’t go back to being Nazis (say, at the Nuremberg trials) is not curtailing their rights, and is not “oppression”.

      You said

      When those who were oppressed then oppress the oppressors that is oppression – and no better than the previous oppression.

      Which – if we use my (once again, admittedly extreme) example – would be like saying that telling former Nazis that they can’t go back to being Nazis is just as bad as being a Nazi. Which, evidently, it is not.

      Freire’s word was “restraint”, not “oppression”. And I know that he struggled to communicate this concept (amongst others), as evidenced by the confusion you expressed.

      You also said that Greg’s quote “suggested” a particular thing. Anything quoted out of context can give the wrong suggestion or impression. By giving greater context, as I have done with my subsequent quote, shows that the original suggestion was misleading.

      • The Nazis are a bad choice of example, as it was not the oppressed, in their case, who restrained them, but others who were not oppressed but decided that the Nazis were acting immorally or illegally (i.e. by invading sovereign countries). As you say, quoting out of context is often misleading. Perhaps I would have been better to have said that former oppressed persons then restraining their oppressors might be oppression – it rather depends on the oppression and the oppressors. Taking your example of the Nazis, imagine that the Nazis are now restrained but they break out of their restraint and oppress those who restrained them. Is that oppression or not?

      • Part of the problem with Freire is that he talks mainly in the abstract and gives very few concrete examples of what he means. However, on one of the rare occasions that he does, he writes approvingly of Mao’s cultural revolution. I don’t find this encouraging.

      • John Perry says:

        he writes approvingly of Mao’s cultural revolution

        Actually, most of that content is on what Mao wrote, rather than what he did. The only mention of the Cultural Revolution is when he discusses:

        The pedagogy of the oppressed, as a humanist and libertarian pedagogy, has two distinct stages. In the first, the oppressed unveil the world of oppression and through the praxis commit themselves to its transformation. In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation. In both stages, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.

        And the only remark he makes about that is:

        This appears to be the fundamental aspect of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

        Neither approving nor disapproving, in my estimation: I would even call it “cautious”. Don’t forget that Freire was no friend of totalitarian governments, and as proof of this had suffered as an exile for several years. From the introduction to his book by Donaldo Macedo:

        It is not surprising that my friends back in Cape Verde—and, for that matter in most totalitarian states—risked cruel punishment, including imprisonment, if they were caught reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

        Obviously his impression of Mao’s China at that time was that it was not a totalitarian society, and in the absence of the internet he wouldn’t have had information ready at hand to prove otherwise. I don’t know if he changed his mind about Mao later in life, but as I am using Freire in my research I will send you any information that I come across. Do we stop listening to Stevie Wonder because he praised Robert Mugabe in the original version of “Jammin'”?

      • “Do we stop listening to Stevie Wonder because he praised Robert Mugabe in the original version of “Jammin’”?”

        Possibly not. But Stevie Wonder was not writing influential books about oppression and the oppressed.

      • John,
        Can you imagine what some people might say about restraining students? The distinction here is pretty fine: restraint is good and oppression bad. The restraint imposed at Nuremburg was quite extreme in some cases, perhaps it is not so simple to just switch words and problem solved we are now on the good team.

        Couldn’t you find a more articulate philosopher to untangle the difficulty of the rights of the many verses the liberty of each of us.

  1. John Perry says:

    Actually, Eichmann was tried in Jerusalem. And there was a strong resistance movement in France (occupied by the Nazis) and in the Warsaw Ghetto (ditto). But back to Freire, who clarified his position:

    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.

    If you’re going to become an oppressor, you haven’t “restored your humanity”. A police officer who humanely restrains a person behaving dangerously (and by definition oppressing others with their dangerous behaviour) is not “oppressing”; but another police officer using disproportionate force against an otherwise harmless individual (examples of which have recently come to light in the press in Victoria) would definitely be considered “oppressing”.

    • But he seems to be talking about revolutions

      “Once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact that the new power has the ethical duty to repress any attempt to restore the old oppressive power by no means signifies that the revolution is contradicting its dialogical character. Dialogue between the former oppressors and the oppressed as antagonistic classes was not possible before the revolution; it continues to be impossible afterward.”

      • John Perry says:

        Once again: this was the 60s. Very different era. I’m sure his take on it would be different now, and he’d probably use a different word. He’s still consistent in that quote, though – still applies to the “Nazi” analogy I used above.

  2. One could see the Brexit vote in the UK as the oppressed making an attempt at removing what/who oppressed them. Those who protest that the vote was based on ignorance are sometimes seeking to renew or continue the oppression of those who have felt themselves oppressed. That is, a political class with a particular world view (global and neo-liberal) have consistently oppressed those who do not hold those views, because those view have caused them economic and social pain. I could attribute the divorce of a friend, for example, to the neo-liberal political consensus – the friend was unable to sell property when needed thanks to the economic crash caused by lack of regulation of financial institutions: this problem resulted in relationship failure and misery. One could see many in this situation deciding that they were oppressed by the neo-liberal establishment and voting against it: thus making one of the causes of Brexit (there are others, naturally). Trying to re-impose global and neo-liberal ideas on such people by those who now feel themselves oppressed by the Brexit vote would be renewed oppression.

    • John Perry says:

      You might be on to something there with the Brexit analogy. I don’t really know enough about it (Brexit), nor am I in the UK to be able to gauge public sentiment, to argue one way or another. The best I can make of the last few years (Trump, Brexit etc.) is that it’s too early to tell. Sorry, Mao said that as well, didn’t he? 😉

      • Think Mao said sorry about the cultural revolution – Mandy Rice-Davies moment, perhaps.
        Brexit, we are constantly told, has divided the UK. There are good economic, social and political reasons to leave the EU, but these are rarely addressed by those who wish to remain, who prefer to stigmatized those who voted to leave the EU as uneducated and old – to the extent that I have heard that some young people (socialists btw!) say that the over 60s should not have had a vote in the 2016 referendum as they were going to die soon. Leaving aside that more over 60s voted to remain than did under 25s, had the referendum been a general election (the analogy is just passable since the electorate was that used for a general election) then Leave would have had a landslide since two-thirds of constituencies voted for it. That people who voted remain and still wish to stay in the EU tend to make ad hominem attacks on ‘Leavers’ I find disconcerting. I see many reasoned arguments for leaving the EU, but struggle to find the opposite. So we have two camps, the ‘little Englanders’ (sorry, I know this is an ad hominem attack, but actually this phrase is usually used to stigmatize Brexiteers) who think we need to rely on EU membership to be a viable country, and those who wish to turn to the world again and have our fish back! (Really! Fishing is a big issue, as the UK government finally seems to have realised. Membership of the EU has destroyed the UK fishing industry through the Common Fishery Policy, (opened UK waters to all EU member states on a quota basis) helped along by British banks who would not fund UK fishermen to buy extra quota rights from other member states, whilst other member states could buy extra quota rights in UK waters.)
        The EU is also being awkward about Brexit, because clearly they see a contagion problem – this has not gone down well with anyone much in the UK except those who see no wrong possible in the EU.
        Not much about Freire – sorry! But his ideas about the oppressed seem to be playing out in the Brexit situation, with the former oppressors trying strongly to bring about a counter-revolution which will bring them back to their priveleged position over those they think of as unintelligent and unworthy of being listened to – one could see Plato’s Republic playing out here as well, those who want to stay in the EU seeing themselves as the guardians of what is good, against the uneducated ordinary citizens.

    • John Perry says:

      I often hear this comment about Marxist school curricula and so forth. Unfortunately I never see or hear these observations backed up by evidence: for example, school curricula that is explicitly Marxist, or peer-reviewed research that has analysed a specific school system and can critically describe WHY it is Marxist.

      Until I actually see evidence of this sort, I have to assert that there is NO Marxist school curricula, whether in Australia or elsewhere.

  3. I haven’t seen a Marxist school curriculum either- I don’t think pedagogies based on Marxist Ideas have any place in education- especially when we have approaches based on cognitive science that will likely do a better job.

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