Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire on Social Conflict

Paulo Freire on Social Conflict

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire is a Brazilian philosopher of education. Those on the Right would call him a “radical” because he believes that poor people shouldn’t be exploited and children should be taught to think creatively and critically. For Freire, oppression and education are linked–the more you have of the latter, the less you will have of the former, which is why the oppressors try to restrict education.

I will talk more about Paulo Freire’s philosophy of education in a future article. In this article, I want to introduce a few of Paulo Freire’s main sociopolitical concepts. Freire’s concern for those who suffered from colonial oppression in his native Brazil informed his thinking. As a school teacher, he began trying to tackle the problem of illiteracy that exceeded 60% in northeastern Brazil. He worked with government agencies on promoting literacy, and grew to realize that the problems of illiteracy and poverty were related to authoritarian attitudes that were deeply ingrained in all aspects of society, even in how parents related to their children. He saw that education is more than learning skills, education is about people discovering themselves as creative agents and becoming more human. After teaching for years, he went back to school to get his doctorate and learn philosophy of social justice. (I can so relate to that.)

Central to Paulo Freire’s social philosophy is his insight that within oppressive dynamics, the humanity of both the oppressor and the oppressed are diminished. This idea is similar to Hegel’s identification that the master-slave dialectic gives neither the master nor the slave sufficient recognition to realize themselves. Freire believed that political and legal reforms were on their own insufficient to change oppressive dynamics because people in all classes had internalized the historically pervasive authoritarian oppression. Everyone has been conditioned to maintain the dynamic of authoritarian oppression. This includes the oppressed, who have internalized oppressive structures and are conditioned to keep their place in the social hierarchy. Worse, Freire realized, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors. People embedded in oppressive dynamics become opportunistic oppressors: bosses of their workers, parents of their children, and other situations in which there is an imbalance of power.

This is why the quote in the above graphic is important.

Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

This thought expresses Paulo Freire’s concept of internalization of oppression. Not taking sides in social conflict is not a neutral act but a reinforcement of that conflict. It shows a lack of consciousness of not only oppressive dynamics but of one’s own agency to affect one’s life and social reality and work toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Put another way, the refusal to acknowledge oppression is to work on behalf of the oppressors. These ideas echo the thoughts of many other scholars of colonialism and social oppression.

The first step in empowering people, Freire says, is raising their consciousness of their own internalized oppression. This comes about and is fostered by democratization of conversation between people in which they discuss and learn from each other about their own power and agency. Is this radical? If so, then being radical is a positive thing.

Freire on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The Freire Institute.


  1. Wonderful! Wrote my undergraduate senior thesis on Freire and Beauvoir. Looking forward to the future article!

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