After reading Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, terms like ‘violence’ and ‘generosity’ have taken on deeper, clearer meanings for me. These two terms are used broadly in society, often more like umbrellas over a mass of assumptions and prejudices rather than as identifiable and definable words. They are terms that have been strategically used by individuals and societies to maintain status quo, justify actions, and inform conceptions of self and others. In Freire’s writing I was struck by the partial definitions of these terms as well as the connections between them. I can now more clearly see how “generosity” depends on systems of oppression and “violence” is more often a window than a mirror.

For one radio talk show host, the following definition of violence sufficed: “Violence is violence, and violence is wrong.” This claim to objectivity and truth is in fact a farce. Is eating tofu violent? What about the land it was grown on, the water affected, and the workers who had to spray chemicals on homogenized plants? When violence is defined as violence, leaving listeners to fill in all blanks, the picture doesn’t necessarily include white-collar crimes, does it? The violence of poverty is almost universally denied, replaced with assumptions about the poor’s “barbarism” which rationalizes separation between people and continued dehumanization. I think the radio host might have elaborated like this: “violence is any damage to human bodies (who are on the right side of the law) or damage to property (not personally owned) and violence is wrong.” In this paradigm, “there exists only one right: (the oppressors’) right to live in peace, over against the right, not always even recognized, but simply conceded, of the oppressed to survival. And they make this concession only because the existence of the oppressed is necessary to their own existence,” (p.11). When members of the oppressed classes and peoples instead assert a desire for their own humanity, and make a drastic break with the dynamics of the oppression, their rupture is seen solely as violent instead of as (also) an act of love. “Violence” is a catch-all phrase that rarely looks at privilege, thus placing the agents of violence almost always outside the self.

How then, could generosity possibly be violent? Generosity can hide behind egoism and paternalism and, as Freire writes, it can fail to question systems of oppression or the reasons why some are able to give “generously” while others are the “unfortunates” in need of help. Freire says that “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 found 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,” (p.2). So what is the source of generosity? If I am to locate myself in this discussion, which I am trying to do, I should not try to dive into the deepest recesses of my mind or actions. I do not actually need to look far to find evidence for my complicity in what Freire discusses. When I give gifts to my friends, (usually also relatively privileged individuals like myself) I am giving to them the time I spent finding materials or items, the costs involved, and any time I spend making something. While I try to be a conscious consumer, my ability to shop at a variety of places results in involvement in a market system that is made possible by cheap labor, wars for resources and control, long distance travel (pollution) and a reinforcement of a material consciousness (seeing objects and staff as having a monetary value). How apt is Freire’s term, “false generosity” with regards to a relatively thoughtless item that comes from someone with resources who spent just a few minutes picking it out and swiping a card. The value of the gift is then assessed in monetary or gestural value; not only the single gift but much of social interaction among privileged classes is associated with making gestures at generosity while simultaneously protecting and acquiring wealth. Freire discusses a dialectical conception of self among the oppressed wherein each person is some form of an internalized oppressor (chp. 1 and 2). With false generosity, I think there comes a different dialectical self conception but of a different sort: complicity within systems of accumulation erodes at one’s ability to humanistically assess situations (as opposed to materialistically, monetarily) and so gestures at generosity (authentic, humanistic, sharing of time/energy/love) are made with the knowledge that they are little more than gestures. These gestures, among the humans close to our lives, can ameliorate uneasy feelings about the effects of personal actions on places and people far away, further stifiling recognition of systemic violence. Why else would token gestures at being environmental, humanitarian or accountable be so effective in molding consumer activity? Gestural “false generosity” that does not threaten the source of the oppressors’ power diassociates the violence of global domination for accumulation; this is because on the small scale it can feel as if one’s position in society is one of helping people, not one dependent on wars and poverty.

True generosity, humanism, and risking acts of love and trust are what movements need today. Not paternalistic “generosity” nor understandings of “violence” that are not self-critical.


2 thoughts on “Freire, generosity and violence

  1. I saw Freire’s work on literacy up close in Nicaragua, Brazil and Cuba. It is exhilarating to see liberation unleashed through learning. In South Africa, Tutu and Mandela also affirm the “violent” impact of oppression on the oppressor.

  2. Rose Kreston, one of my contributors for “Teaching Diversity”, makes a similar argument to Freire about students who can “oppress” with their desire to “care” for the disabled, for example.

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