Political penguins, public resources and choosing a side

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nlbGenerally I tend to stay on the sidelines and watch as events unfold. It’s often hard to know which side to take when there is both too little information and too much information available. What I mean by that is that we have very little access to the sorts of details that would enable us to take a critical and rational view of most policies. It took Roy Ngerng’s blog posts and the citizens’ outcry over the Prime Minister’s response to him to get the government to explain to us just what the CPF issue is all about. At the same time, thanks to the Internet, we have sometimes too forceful a flow of opinions and facts – like quenching your thirst at a fire hydrant. This is not in itself a problem. Part of the value of media literacy is the ability to make sense of this voluminous mass of information, and once you read enough and think enough and discuss enough, you start to develop a sense of what your position is and how you want to proceed. My point is that these manufactured gaps and inevitable uncertainties make it difficult sometimes to immediately decide which side you want to stand on when a line is drawn in the sand.

But this isn’t one of those times. I am really horrified at what the NLB has done. Many people have rushed in and written lovely pieces that echo my sentiments. Carol Soon at the Institute of Policy Studies asserts that libraries should promote learning, not police values. Lim Lee Ching, Editor of the Singapore Review of Books, is justifiably ominous when she warns: “The reality is, this is no longer merely about book banning; it has crossed the threshold to take on the spectacle of a pyre…from which no hope may rise.” Howard Lee in The Online Citizen deconstructs the NLB’s actions and the support they got from the Minister for Communication and Information, concluding quite accurately that “We saw no due process in evaluating the books. We saw that NLB would rather destroy books than allow others to benefit from them. We also saw how NLB is more than a mere reflection of what society finds acceptable, but an active player in defining “community norms”, by excluding certain views from public debate.”

I was very heartened to read that writers like Ovidia Yu have taken a stand against the NLB’s actions by refusing to work with them on their literary events. It seems to have come down to this: that the time has come to take a stand. And not just on books, but on LGBT rights as well. I watch with amused disdain as so-called conservatives in America take ridiculously regressive positions on education, women’s health, gay rights, and other issues. I will not stand by idly and watch as those regressive positions enter the democratic space of my country via religious groups whose agendas are dangerous and whose followers wield pitchforks against books. You mess with good people who have done less harm to the world than many who follow your religion – you mess with me. You exclude them from public spaces by agitating against their right to congregate – you mess with me. You manipulate public resources so that they feel shame and are rendered invisible – you mess with me. And by all that is just and right in this world, you mess with books and libraries and I will GIVE you something to pray about.

But in between that regressive fundamentalist position and the liberal response that I identify with are many who are sincerely trying to make sense of the situation. I think these people honestly have no idea how they woke up one morning and found themselves on the wrong side of history. So while there are some who have no trouble joining odiously discriminatory Facebook groups and trolling online debates, there are many more who are struggling to find a way to not be the bad guys even as they stay true to their faith. I get that. But I think the struggle does not need to be so hard. Here, all jumbled up together, are my responses to the typical points* that get raised in debates (forgive me, dear reader, for making you infer the points from my responses):

The books identified for withdrawal and destruction are not primarily about homosexuality (no sexual acts are depicted or referred to), although they do make oblique reference to diversity in family structures, along with many other unrelated points. I think it’s important to take a step back and ask who is afraid, why they are afraid, and whether they actually have any cause for fear. The children may pick up the books? My question then would be – so what? So many people say “I am not a homophobe, but…” and then go on to talk about homosexuality as an ideology that is insidiously spread among the unsuspecting. That DOES point to a homophobic position. Children don’t magically become mature. The people howling for book burning are all adults – no visible maturity there. The development of maturity comes through contact with knowledge via various mediators (technologies like books and computers, but also agents like parents and teachers), and it starts pretty early. The NLB definitely has its reasons. It is precisely those reasons that make the act of destruction even more ominous. I would not call their view of child development merely conservative, if this view leads to the belief that books should be destroyed on the basis of complaints from those who have no idea how to keep religion out of public spaces. I would call that view medieval. What actually does conservative mean? In nature and culture, Singapore is a diverse place. One of the good things about a democracy is that it has space for everyone. We always have to guard against allowing one group to close off that space to another.

I think that it is counterproductive to stretch the imagined consequences of recognising LGBT rights to the extreme of enabling socially destructive anarchy. One thing has nothing to do with the other. It might just as well be argued that if we allow religious groups to influence government policy we will end up with a fascist state! There was a time when people thought that allowing women to vote would lead to anarchy. And totalitarian states where no-one can do as s/he wishes have proven to be very destructive. Maintaining a democracy is a delicate balancing act, but one which rests on certain basic principles of equality, justice and secularism.

Is it okay for a child to grow up without either parent? Firstly, it depends on what you mean by okay, and secondly, plenty of children DO for various reasons. That is why we need a public space where diversity is the norm, and not a source of shame. If the family is a happy, loving one, I cannot see how it matters who it contains. Public resources cannot be manipulated by interest groups to exclude people from democratic spaces before the question of rights and resources has been thoroughly and rigorously debated.

The concept of freedom is a very complex one, and it operates at different levels. It is always a valid word, and it always carries with it the implication of ‘unfreedom’ as well. Just as a very simple example, religious freedom in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to mix religion with politics. The freedom to attend an event like Pink Dot in Singapore comes with the ‘unfreedom’ to read certain books in your national library that are relevant to you, to marry the person you really love, and to bring up children in a loving and stable environment that some people don’t approve of. People do keep trying to redefine their freedoms and ‘unfreedoms’, but those negotiations are precisely what keep a democracy alive, as long as information is allowed to circulate freely.

I just needed to get this off my chest. I don’t know how activists sustain their energy for so long. I am already dispirited after reading a few comments by the illiterati. But now is not the time to lose heart.

Niemoller quote

 

* I am grateful to a young Facebook friend who articulated some of these points on my timeline in a balanced and reasonable way, thus allowing me the opportunity to address them in a more detailed and pointed manner than I might otherwise have been able to. 

In defense of women-only spaces

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I am going to admit from the outset that I haven’t figured out quite how to articulate this yet. It’s an emerging idea. I make no claims that it is completely new in the world of feminist thought, but it is new for me. As I deepen my reading and come across works which are relevant, I will provide the details in this post. If you read this post and something comes to mind, I’d be glad to hear it. 

I write as a woman born into a Hindu family in Singapore in 1970. My parents came from Andhra Pradesh in India in 1960 and settled here in Singapore. I’ve written a few posts that deal with my struggle to understand the paradoxical and contradictory nature of the various aspects of my identity. No statement is the final one, as my struggle is still very much work in progress. This little introduction is necessary for any reader who does not know me, because without it, my attempted defense of women-only spaces will make little sense. Here are two prior posts that mark moments of reflection along my journey:

1. Feminine empowerment coded in ritual: August 22nd 2010

2. I am the invisible goddess: June 13th 2012

I have no strong objection to rituals in general, nor do i embrace them on principle. However rituals which celebrate the embodied feminine seem to resonate more strongly with me than those that worship the divine feminine (even though the former are no less implicated in patriarchal structures). 

Recently I attended one such ceremony which, loosely translated, is a baby shower, except that that term doesn’t fully capture the amount of attention devoted to the mother-to-be by her mother, grandmother, sisters, aunts and other female relatives and friends. They put flowers in her hair and bangles on her wrists, while surrounding her with love and music and good wishes. I remember my “Seemantham” 18 years ago as one of the happiest events of my life. I felt so loved by the women who came to bless me and my unborn child. This photo of my mother kissing me makes me smile even now.

seemantham

18 years later, I was on the giving end of the love and attention as a young mother-to-be anticipated the birth of her child.

Such spaces for women to celebrate one another in a culture which is so openly misogynistic are valuable spaces. There are problems of course with glorifying these events as great sources of feminist wisdom. Women who choose not to have children, women who cannot have children, women who are unmarried – anyone who does not comply with the rules – are rendered unworthy of this show of affection, and therefore effectively invisible. But it occurs to me that it may be possible to try to sift out the valuable element of female solidarity from the murky mess of patriarchal rituals. While in theory the ceremony is defined in terms of patriarchy, in its actual enactment there are practices that may be seen as resistance. Or at least, the possibility exists to claim that space for resistance. I’d love to do an ethnography of women-only spaces in ritual cultures at some point in the future.

“What we need is not to break the tie, but to make it healthy – to wrest it from its patriarchal context, to allow for its full impact on us, strengthening the line of women” (Arcana 1985, pg. 149-150, quoted in Koppelman 1993 [1].)

Koppelman’s argument was about detaching real feminine ties from the psychoanalytic tool of patriarchy – where psychoanalysis was applied to separate daughters from their mothers in order to strengthen the patriarchal machinery. But we could use the same argument about wresting the tie from religion. Not just mothers and daughters but all feminine solidarity. Koppelman suggests detaching through narratives about mothers and daughters. I’m suggesting detaching through celebrations of femininity.

All religions assume a theory of toxic femininity – that femininity is somehow dangerous for men. This leads to the emergence of a masculinity that is in practice toxic for women – at best it infantilises them, and at worst it abuses them. bell hooks [2] wrote beautifully about the need for men to be free of patriarchy as well in her book “The will to change: Men, masculinity and love”. Her theory is that men and women need to work together to dismantle patriarchy. There are as many women as men who are complicit in perpetuating the oppressive structures, and there are as many men as women who suffer from the oppression. In the context of Hinduism, Sharmila Rege [3] has written about how Brahmin women comply with patriarchal structures in order to maintain their supremacy over women of lower castes. All this is by way of saying that there can be no gender-based classification into villains and victims categories. The patriarchy is too complex for that. The ideal anti-patriarchal future is one in which masculinity is not toxic, and women therefore do not need exclusive spaces.

However my sense is that both need to happen at the same time. Where the theory that femininity is toxic is so deeply embedded in daily practice and spiritual pursuits, masculinity in its most toxic forms is a real presence in women’s lives and may necessitate a retreat into women-only spaces. Do these spaces need to remain women-only forever? Perhaps not. Perhaps men who are able to detoxify their masculinity may enter with no adverse effect on women. Is being a women sufficient for membership in this space? Perhaps not, given the patriarchal bargains so many women make. But awareness and consciousness-raising seems to be an important part of reclaiming women-only spaces for detoxification. On their own, these spaces may do nothing more than reinforce theories of toxic femininity and practices of toxic masculinity.

Footnotes

[1] Koppelman, S. (1993, February). Between mothers and daughters: Stories across a generation: The personal is political in life and in literature. In Women’s Studies International Forum (Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 47-56). Pergamon.

[2] Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.

[3] Rege, S. (1995). Feminist pedagogy and sociology for emancipation in India.Sociological bulletin44(2), 223-239.

Dancing backwards

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ginger rogers fred astaireThere’s a quote by Bob Thaves in response to praise for Fred Astaire, in which he says “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels.” This is a small e.g., but a good one, that illustrates how the social construction of the world locates the default in one group of people, forcing others to accommodate themselves to that. As a result, what is easier for one group makes them look better, more talented, more dedicated, more powerful etc. When in actual fact the effort the other groups have to put in to overcome the bias against them means they may only rarely be able to match up. So because in the culture where that form of dance originated men are usually taller, and some attempt at height symmetry is desired, women compensate by wearing heels (rather than say, men compensating by dancing with bent knees). The dancers have to face each other, and men have the default privilege to move forward, so women have to compensate by moving backwards. These compensations make dancing well that much more difficult. And there is no inherent reason why the world cannot be reconstructed such that the default is a shared one, except that losing their privilege makes people in power howl in protest.
The Ginger Rogers quote is often used to celebrate how awesome she was. She was definitely awesome. But celebrating her compensation hides the reason she had to compensate in the first place. Attention should turn to dismantling defaults, not celebrating accommodation.

That Lazy Feeling

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lady washing dishesI feel too lazy to do the dishes

Could you do them just this once?
I do all the macho stuff
all the manly stuff
I do so much
no one does as much as I do
but could you do the dishes
just this once
because I feel lazy

You know I support you
you know I call myself a feminist
because women are people too
you can’t say I am a chauvinist
because i am not the kind who
beats women up
or believes they should stay at home

Just this once
do the laundry
cook the dinner
wash the dishes
I’ll do the manly stuff

I’m just feeling lazy today.

Or if you find it so hard to do it
I’ll get you a maid
There.
What a good feminist I am.

An inspiration by any other name? Musings on the Menstrual Man

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arunachalamI came across this article today, about Arunachalam Muruganantham, the ‘Menstrual Man’ of Amit Virmani’s documentary film. In the article, Vibeke Venema of the BBC World Service describes Muruganantham as ‘The Indian Sanitary Pad Revolutionary’. I’ve been watching friends share the article, as well as videos of Muruganantham’s talks. In fact I shared some myself when I first started noticing this man’s work some time ago. But it has slowly dawned upon me that there is more to this narrative of the triumph of innovation and enterprise over ignorance and superstition than meets the eye. It all comes back to the word ‘revolutionary’. What does that mean? What does being a revolutionary entail? What are the implications of being a revolutionary?

This article I found interesting because it not only highlighted Muruganantham’s work, but his personal sacrifice and philosophy as well. His wife and mother are back with him now, but for a while there was every possibility that he would be alone for life. Such single-minded dedication is rare, especially in the face of so much opposition. It’s one thing to develop your idea with all sorts of support and social sanction. But it’s another thing entirely to have to work against every single norm you’ve been raised with and every single individual you love in order to realise your goal.

I find it problematic that people appropriate his experience to add to their management slogans: ‘pursue your passion’, ‘live your dream’, ‘fight against all odds’ etc. The reason they can do this is that the odds he fought against are not ones that they personally hold as important. So to them, what he did seems like this big success story, one that they feel they could support right from the start. After all, he was fighting ignorance. What’s not to like? But it becomes a very different story when the ‘odds’ being fought against are ones that you personally value. What is the line between a terrorist and a hero?

From the perspective of his family and village, he was overturning norms built over generations. It isn’t just in villages that menstruating women are segregated. I personally know women who won’t enter their prayer rooms at home when they are menstruating. Just because this man figured out how to fit his solution to menstrual mismanagement into a business model, suddenly he is a hero for the world. But at the root of the venture for him – at least at the start – was to demystify menstruation and thereby allow women to fully function in society, rather than hiding their rags, falling prey to infection, and being seen as too dirty to mingle with others. If women are disallowed entry to temples because they are dirty when menstruating, making them menstruate cleanly would take away the material basis for the symbolic marginalisation. I am not saying that this was his prime motive. I am saying that it was all part of the same principle. He couldn’t bear for his new bride to live a part of her life separate from his. This in itself overturned a lot of customs and beliefs. Menstrual secrecy is part of the formalisation of gender zones in some societies.

Just to be clear, my point is not that what he did was wrong. In fact it was simply wonderful. What I want to do is try to articulate how hypocritical it is to applaud his radical idea while we still point fingers at anyone who tries to overturn norms that we subscribe to. It is only by othering his family and village members that we can see him as a hero right from the start, see his sacrifices as noble. From their point of view, he was a heretic, tearing apart the fabric of their society. That he did what he did is certainly laudable, but let us be honest with ourselves about the exact way in which we frame him as inspirational for us. Would we do what he did – in the context of our OWN society? Overturning our OWN norms? Would we even have the capacity to be critical about them?

‘Feedback’ as a power game

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We are so used to being subjected to various administrative processes that often we don’t question them anymore. After all, that’s how you get efficiency – not just when the people in charge do things in an orderly way, but when the people they are in charge of follow along without making a fuss. Singapore is a VERY efficient place. And all that efficiency can sometimes make us forget that administrative processes and devices don’t fall out of the sky fully formed. There is nothing natural about them. It is PEOPLE who devise them, with particular motives, and particular implications. In these motives and implications is a story of power, however deeply embedded it is. And in the technological society where technique (as Jacques Ellul explains it) is everything and everywhere, the story of power can be so deeply embedded that even the people devising the administrative processes may not be aware of it. Among all the forms of technique that administrators employ to efficiently govern their institutions, perhaps there is none so pernicious in its embedding of power games as those mechanisms which are devised in the name of “feedback”. The word sounds so innocuous. What could be so bad about telling someone how they have done? Surely everyone takes that information in a perfectly neutral way and uses it to improve their performance. From the point of view of the organisation, it is the epitome of efficiency. And you know, it is even more efficient if that “feedback” is encoded in an official document – a form. After all, we all know that a paper trail is by far the most effective way of keeping track of essential communication within an organisation. Forms make good sense because they provide a standardising template.

Except for the fact that at the receiving end of all this administrative efficiency are people. Who are messy in their refusal to react to any action in exactly the same way. Just as I was musing on the power game that “feedback” is, I read this article in the Washington Post about a study of people’s responses to performance appraisals. To quote from the article:

New research by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University looked into how people respond to negative feedback they receive in a performance review. They guessed that people who are motivated by a real desire to learn would respond well to getting critical feedback in a performance review, using it to improve how they work without much in the way of complaint.

They were wrong.

Those who like to learn—presumably some of the best employees—were significantly bothered by the negative feedback they received. The research is a reminder not only of how much people dislike criticism, but of how dangerous performance review tools like rankings and ratings can be….

Those with the strongest learning goal orientation were still significantly unhappy with the constructive criticism they had received.

What this study suggests is that “feedback” can be a dangerous thing, even depressing good performers, no matter how “constructively” it is phrased. I would like to suggest, based on a critical framework, that the reason people get discouraged by feedback is because they KNOW at some level that it is a power game. You work your butt off, you try to do everything right, and at the end of the day someone who may not even be much better at her/his job than you are at yours gets to write down on paper what s/he thinks about your performance. And the most galling thing is that her/his word counts more than yours. How can that NOT be about power? To make it even more suspect, this study tells us that it may even have distinctly INefficient results on subsequent performance!

So why do people in power still insist on formal channels of “feedback” if it does not actually improve performance? I argue that the practice continues in ever more innovative ways because it reinforces the power asymmetry. And my educated guess is that for something that purports to afford standardisation, it actually opens the way for very arbitrary manipulations and consequences. Using a sociotechnical lens allows us to see that a “feedback” form is much more than just a piece of paper that provides a helpful template. Motives matter. They get embedded in the design of the form, and the way in which the form is designed can lead to new ways of using the form, which can then lead to re-designs of the form, and so on. At every point decisions are made. And every decision is part of the power game.

We don’t have to keep considering this in the abstract. I have an example of this power game that I’d like to introduce. It is hypothetical after a point, but the building blocks of the hypothesis are in place, enough for us to make some plausible extrapolations based on what we know about the context. Foreign domestic workers in Singapore face a lot of hardships, as can be seen from numerous articles on the website of “Transient Workers Count Too” or “TWC2″ for short. Yet their mistreatment by numerous actors and devices is the result of a complex web of processes – cultural, economic, and administrative. The following is just one example of how some of these factors come into play in a power game:

You know a mall is declining in value when the shops and restaurants get slowly edged out by the maid agencies and tuition centres. One mall that is trying valiantly to resist this creep is Bukit Timah Plaza. Popular Bookstore, DBS Bank and NTUC Fairprice give it some respectability, but the “maid agencies” are gathering on the fringe. I detest these agencies. There seems to be not a shred of recognition for the humanity of the young ladies they treat as commodities. I have seen these young ladies standing for hours in the agencies, in various grotesque performances of efficient servitude and eagerness to learn to please their masters.

Today I walked past one of these agencies and saw a news clipping proudly displayed on their glass door:

maid agency feedback

This made me even angrier. Imagine the situation. The foreign domestic worker (henceforth FDW – the word ‘helper’ is as objectionable to me as ‘maid’ because it denies the professional nature of the relationship and therefore the worker’s right to be treated fairly) is in a position of vulnerability. She lives with her employer, isolated for the most part, from her family and friends. She follows arbitrarily set rules, work hours and practices. She has no real way to negotiate the terms of her employment – at the level of this lived reality – with her employer. We do not even need to go so far as to bring in FDWs who are abused by their employers. Even in a perfectly cordial situation, the FDW is vulnerable to arbitrary power games, often unconsciously enacted by well-meaning employers.

This agency has decided to go the extra mile in improving their service! They ask the employers for “feedback”, and then write up this feedback in the form of a letter to the FDWs providing advice on how they can better serve their employers. This is adding insult to injury! Not only does the hapless FDW have to follow the arbitrary rules the employer sets, she also has to read a litany of her faults via the mediation of the agency – which adds an extra layer of distance between her and her employer, and further reinforces her lower status. Someone in the Straits Times decided this was worth writing about as news, and the agency was so chuffed with the publicity that they proudly displayed this letter  on their glass door. Now, anyone coming to the agency takes it as a given that “feedback” is part of the package, that it is a good thing, and that they don’t ever need to view their FDW as a human being with feelings and opinions of her own.

Not all feedback is of this variety of course. There are formal feedback systems that help the powerless to articulate their concerns and anxieties. Students’ anonymous review of teachers in universities is a good example. These feedback loops do not exist as relations of domination or as technologies of governance when we view them from the perspective of the powerless. They are specific conduits that help communication to circulate “freely, without obstacles, without constraint and without coercive effects” to quote Foucault. The relation of domination embodied in a feedback system that is unidirectional from a position of power – employer to domestic worker, for example – is inhibitive and delimiting in ways that are not always immediately perceived by those with power, but viscerally experienced by those without.

Someone posted a quote on Facebook the other day from the British television series “Yes, Minister“:

” … but Humphrey, you’re more concerned with means than ends …

of course I am minister, administration has no ends … “

This made me laugh, as it would anyone who is familiar with the dry wit of Humphrey Appleby. However it contains what I think is a blind spot of technocrats – that their administrative processes and devices have no ends. It is not that administration has no ends, but that the means ARE the ends, insofar as the means are the means of maintaining both the efficiency and invisibility of power structures. And each new technique builds on the ones that come before in what seem like perfectly logical ways. At each stage there is a moment when intervention is possible, when the power game can be made visible and questioned. But that moment is brief and usually rationalised away as an inefficiency.

When we spot such a moment, I’d like to think that is the time when we step up to the plate and make an attempt – however quixotic it may seem to those who lack imagination – to reclaim a scrap of our humanity.

Revisiting Freire’s work: Howard Gardner, Noam Chomsky and Bruno della Chiesa

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I’ve been reading Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“, and one of my favourite things to do is to look for videos in which people discuss books I’m currently reading. That’s how I came across the video embedded above. Howard Gardner moderated the discussion with Noam Chomsky and Bruno della Chiesa. Held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education as part of its Askwith Forum series, the discussion was about the impact of Freire’s work and its relevance for education today.

My first contact with Freire was when I encountered the term “critical literacy” in the context of educational research in Singapore. Some dedicated Googling led me to Freire, and I quickly got the sense that there was nothing very critical – in the Freireian sense – about any curricular design in Singapore. At that time I still didn’t understand why. I read a paper by Aaron Koh that critiqued the co-optation of the term by educational planners in Singapore, but my understanding still remained very much at the level of exasperation that something could be implemented that could really move the young of the nation to be politically active and yet it was not being done. Repressive Singapore government etc etc.

It took actually reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to understand the very specific context that Freire was addressing with his work. I had assumed from the way the terms “critical literacy” and “critical thinking” were being used in the Singapore context that it was precisely this context that critical pedagogy was meant to be able to address. But of course it was not. Freire was critiquing the approach of communists in Brazil – who claimed to want to free the oppressed, yet went about it by telling the peasants what to think. Freire argued that the oppressed need to be ‘conscientized’, or made aware of their oppression, so that they could then decide for themselves the terms of their liberation. The power of the prepositional choice comes through very clearly: Pedagogy OF the Oppressed, and not Pedagogy FOR the Oppressed. The learning must come from the people if it is to belong to  them and be authentic for them. Not be pre-determined for them and  then poured into them. In the case of the latter, which Freire refers to as the ‘banking model of education’, pedagogy becomes another form of oppression, and not a means of liberation.

In fact this stress on the preposition OF as being the key to Freire’s approach was pointed out by Bruno della Chiesa in the above video. Chomsky provided some important historical background, but it was Bruno’s* comments that really drove right to the heart of Freireian pedagogy. There are two major points from the discussion that I would like to draw out here, and both emerged from audience questions:

(1) In the US – specifically at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where this discussion was held – Freire’s work does not appear on the curriculum. It was pointed out that this was surprising, and the audience member who brought this up asked if the lack of Marxist and other critical scholarship was because it was seen as dangerous. Howard Gardner replied that it may not be seen as dangerous. Rather, it might be seen as irrelevant. This is when it got interesting, because both Bruno and Chomsky contested Gardner’s bifurcation, arguing instead that “irrelevant” is a mask for “dangerous”. Bruno gave an example that I have transcribed below, because I found it both relevant for my interests, as well as fascinating. It is from his work with the OECD, which is the organisation responsible for PISA. Bruno described his response to PISA when it was introduced, as well as the criticism he faced when he raised some critical objections:

“PISA is certainly a very interesting study. However, some of us – a minority, a small minority – had a critical stance from the beginning and said well look, PISA is interesting. It’s certainly one of the most powerful comparative tool that has been developed so far in terms of – well, you know – comparing performances of fifteen-year-olds here and there. However, it’s statistics, for god’s sake. And it’s only statistics. You have statistics which you… what does it tell you? Nothing. You remain at the surface of the whole thing. And then the discussion started but it was crushed very quickly. “Oh you guys are old-fashioned. You are like sixty-eighters”. Or it said “Oh look at your hair”. You’re completely superseded. You know, exactly that sort of things. And I said “Well look. I wonder actually if it’s not too easy to say – to take for instance a book like that, or in what we’ve done, examples that are yes maybe a bit out of date – to completely dismiss very powerful ideas that go back well beyond sixty-eight, to the gospels, or to the other writing of wisdom that we have in all great philosophical systems. Just one thing. Quantophrenia. You know this tendency of…the social sciences to put everything in numbers in order to look serious. Like the natural sciences. But in fact it is in the first place to look serious that at the very end of the day it is much worse than that. It is a way to not go deeper into the explanation. Again, it is one thing to say so many people are living under this standard of poverty. Once you have said that, you are still not asking why are these people living under that standard. And when you say, for instance, in this country or that country in studies like PISA, for instance, so many children succeed, so many children do not succeed, et cetera, fine. Now let’s talk. Why is that? We can go further, we can go deeper. PISA provides the tools for that. But as soon as you start to discuss it – and you say well look at the sociocultural and socioeconomic background of these kids who are failing at school, then you are called a communist.”

Chomsky put the finishing touches on this narrative when he used Samuel Huntington’s “Crisis of Democracy” to explain that in the neo-liberal view, critical perspectives are deemed irrelevant precisely because they are dangerous.

(2) The question of the relevance of Freire’s work for the developed world was raised. Freire was quoted in an interview as saying that his work should not be imported into any other country. Rather, it should be revisited. In the US for example, it was pointed out that the middle class is both the oppressor and the oppressed, unlike in Freire’s time when there was a clear delineation between the oppressors – a small elite who had everything – and the oppressed – a large majority of poor people. There was no firm answer on the question of how to practically reinvent the theory for developed countries, but Bruno did describe situations in which “critical education” was introduced, but more as a “hollow incantation” than any substantive pedagogy. This, he said, was because in a neo-liberal framework, we want some critical education, but only for the elite. Otherwise “it starts to become unmanageable”. As Chomsky phrased it, if people become aware of their oppression, “they start to go after the throats of those with power”. In fact, the “crisis of democracy” was precisely identified as an excess of democracy, with the accusation that institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young were not doing their job, which was why people were protesting, demanding  their rights, and generally making nuisances of themselves!

This brought me full circle, because it gave me new understanding of the initial introduction in, eventual co-optation by and ultimate disappearance of the term “critical” from Singapore’s educational discourse. It is not because Singapore is unique in its ‘authoritarian democracy’, but because such critical thinking is irrelevant for an avowedly neo-liberal context. What IS the scope for reinventing Freire’s theory in this context? That’s something that I need to read and think more about.

* I realise I have referred to him by his first name instead of by his last. My only excuse is that I was so taken by his humour and insight that I simply couldn’t think of him as anything other than just-plain-Bruno. Plus there is all that hair.