Focus on internal world

The concept of liberation is by no means the sole province of liberation psychology. Freud himself focused his efforts on the poor, believing psychoanalysis would lead to their liberation. During the 1920s and 1930s psychoanalysts created free clinics and dedicated their time to those who could not afford analysis. As Danto (2005) argues, ‘Freud always believed that psychoanalysis would release the reasoning abilities in oppressed individuals and that personal insight (combined with critical thinking) naturally led to psychological independence’ (p. 302). Sandor Ferenczi, a lifelong friend of Freud’s, argued that psychoanalysis should address the real conditions of society, in contrast to other psychoanalysts who argued that clinical objectivity was central to its science and therefore demanded distance from politics and social policy (Danto, 2005).

Many psychoanalysts at that time were also Marxists (for example Erich Fromm, Barbara Lantos, Kathe Friendlander, Wilhelm and Annie Reich) or identified themselves as socialist (for example Bruno Bettelheim, Helene Deutsch, Ernst Simmel). Liberation in their sense was about freeing people from oppressive internal states (for example from neurosis), which would positively impact on their experience of their world and their relationships. As well as liberation being a concept shared by liberation psychology and psychoanalytic theory, so too is an emphasis on the internal world of individuals.

Despite emphasis on social transformation, there is a concurrent focus in liberation theory on the internal world. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire, 1973) and Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (Fanon, 1967) used this focus to examine how oppressed consciousness is created and maintained. This required the world be split into ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the oppressor’, as expressed in Freire’s quote below:

The oppressed suffer from the duality which has established itself in their innermost being . . . The conflict lies in the choice between being wholly themselves or being divided; between ejecting the oppressor within or not ejecting them; between human solidarity or alienation; between following prescriptions or having choices; between being spectators or actors . . . between speaking out or being silent, castrated in their power to create and re-create, in their power to transform the world.

(Freire, 1973, pp. 32-33)

I am curious about the position Freire was writing from with respect to this dichotomy of ‘the oppressed’ and ‘the oppressors’. Was he writing from the position of a critically conscious oppressed person? In what ways might Freire have had privilege? Much of Freire’s descriptions of those who have yet to reach critical consciousness assumes that the oppressed have submitted to the will and power of the oppressor and that their sense of self and identity is only in relation to that which oppresses them (Wade, 1997). Freire repeatedly refers to the oppressed as ‘inauthentic beings’ and ‘spectators’ because an ‘inner oppressor’ remains undetected. Freire writes that ‘self-depreciation is another characteristic of the oppressed, which derives from their internalisation of the opinion the oppressors hold of them’ (1973, p. 49). From this perspective psychological patterns act as a barrier to liberatory social action and are part of what maintains oppression. Similarly, Martin-Baro believed that liberation ‘involves breaking the chains of personal oppression’ (1996, p. 27) and Fanon (1967) described how ‘in the man of colour there is a constant effort to run away from his own individuality, to annihilate his own presence’ (p. 60).

Terms such as ‘internalised racism’ or ‘internalised homophobia’ imply that individuals are stuck in their oppression because it has become a fixed state but also because it comes not just from the outside, but from within. Freire wrote that ‘the oppressed, who have adapted to the structure of domination in which they are immersed, and have become resigned to it, are inhibited from waging the struggle for freedom’ (1973, p. 32). With respect to racism, Thompson and Neville (1999) argue that ‘putting an end to pathology that surrounds racism entails a struggle . . . the struggle requires the individual to examine the aspects of identity that relates to one’s socialisation35 as a racial being and to daringly confront how one has succumbed to the malignancy of racism’ (p. 200).

In contrast, I would argue that homophobia, racism and other discourses of domination are social rather than individual traits. I believe that forms of oppression are processes and enactments and not located within individuals as intra-psychic characteristics. It might be important, therefore, to make sense of the link between social abuse and individual distress in ways that focus us away from the internal world and not towards it.

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