The first object I ever stole from a Tesco’s supermarket was a head of garlic. That garlic gave me more of a thrill than any vegetable I’ve enjoyed, in any way, before or since. Stealing it was a largely spontaneous act initiated, unsurprisingly, in the veg section. Before I’d even fully realised what I’d done I’d picked that garlic up and put it in my pocket. I then, somehow, held my nerve to finish my shopping, get to the check-out, smile at the nice lady and walk out the door. Tesco’s still made a profit on me that day but not quite as much as usual.
In the aftermath of this momentous event my first question was…. Why so momentous? How was it that this simple act had caused me so much nervousness in the execution and such a thrill in the accomplishment...?
My thoughts turned to that marvellous book of Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Freire’s preoccupation is “humanization”. His concern is to enable humanity to fulfil its vocation of humanization in the face of a social system which is firmly predicated on mass dehumanization. In the book he analyses the (dehumanizing) system as it stands while propounding theories of how we can undermine this system through a critical pedagogy; that is through a “teaching approach which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate” (Wikipedia entry on “critical pedagogy”).
One of the key concepts of Freire’s analysis of the current system is the idea that the oppressed internalize the oppressor. Living in a system which continually oppresses and dehumanizes her, a woman will idealize her oppressors. For her, to be fully human is to oppress and to this she aspires. This phenomenon plays itself out in many different ways: In a South American village a man is picked out by the landowner to be his representative and enforce his demands; rather than resisting, the man carries out his orders with relish, zealous in his attempts to crush opposition to his master’s will. Or, again, a woman of the ‘50s complains bitterly that the new feminism is denying a woman her femininity – forcing her out of the home and into the work place.*
At the heart of this internalizing of the oppressor is a distrust of freedom. Freire explains it this way:
The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility. Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion. (p. 23, 24)
I am reminded of the words of another great chronicler of oppression, James Baldwin. In his book “The Fire Next Time”, an account of Baldwin’s experience of racism as a black man in America, he writes:
Furthermore, I have met only a very few people… who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear… We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know,… Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them… (p. 77)
It seems somewhat disrespectful at this point to return to that head of garlic – Baldwin and Freire were concerned with oppression far worse than anything I have ever experienced – however my contention is that the nerves I felt as I approached that checkout were the result of the violent resistance of my internalized oppressor. Despite my self-conception as a person of liberated thinking and non-conformist ideas I realised after that day that I have a very real monkey on my back – a veritable King Kong.
The thesis runs like this: I have lived for twenty-nine years in a social system for which the concept of private property is sacred above all else. If someone is said to “own” something, in the legal-economic sense that our social system recognizes, then their rights over that thing are inalienable and incontrovertible. The concept of ownership trumps all other considerations, bar none.
Hence we live in an ever-warmer world in which the rights of the SUV-owner prevent any infringement on the structural integrity of their vehicle (i.e. we’re not supposed to slash their tyres). We live in a world where a mining company’s legal ownership of a mineral lode in Northern Australia allows them to lay waste land which may have traditional owners but which legally belongs to a very compliant state. We live in a world where a vast portion of the land in Africa is devoted to cash crops despite the fact that the locals are starving; this because the country is in debt and, effectively, the banks own the land. This is the system that I have internalized; above all other things the oppressor inside me wants me to honour and validate the concept of ownership.
And that explains my slightly unhinged response to the nabbing of a head of garlic. I was striking at the heart of a system on which my world is based. Who’d have thunk it?! But before I get too carried away – I am not suggesting for a moment that we can shoplift our way to a better world – let me clarify. It is important to understand that the momentousness of this event is entirely internal, entirely within me. Tesco’s don’t give a monkey’s about missing garlics and they never will. This is not about bringing down corporate behemoths.
However it is something that is worth pursuing. I learned a great deal about myself, and the system in which I live, that day and in the subsequent days when I have gone so far as the occasional gourmet packet of nuts. The liberation of one’s soul from the gorilla embrace of a dehumanizing social system is perhaps any person’s first vocation. I need to understand the extent to which I am affected and controlled by the system in which I have been raised, before I can set out about bringing down that system.
According to Freire, this system operates through a ‘banking’ model of indoctrination in which “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (p. 46). Thus I have been all my life a passive recipient of the notion of ownership; I have understood ownership to be the first and greatest principle of human organization. I did not arrive at this understanding through my own activity (as a subject) but I was told what to think (as an object).
On the other hand this process of “understanding through shoplifting” is an example of the liberating pedagogy of which Freire writes:
Authentic liberation – the process of humanization – is not another ‘deposit’ to be made in [wo]men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of [wo]men upon their world in order to transform it. (p.52)
In this process I am a subject. I have played an active part in understanding the world around me and, in the company of my fellows, I have reflected on the implications of that action. I now understand for myself that this system of ownership is not necessarily an inviolable tenet of any human society. Rather it is insidious and, at times, clearly oppressive and so I can choose not to participate in it.
Of course this is not the end of the story. As I said before we can’t shoplift our way to a just world. However in understanding a little better how our system operates I can hopefully take more decisive and consequential action in the name of liberation. And it is this possibility which is the truly momentous one; and the one of which the oppressor is truly afraid. Tesco’s doesn’t give a monkey’s about missing garlic but it does care a lot that it be allowed to continue to profit under the full protection of the law and with the compliance of society. Freire again:
In their unrestrained eagerness to possess, the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; thence their strictly materialistic concept of existence. Money is the measure of all things, and profit the primary goal. For the opporessors, what is worthwhile is to have more – always more – even at the cost of the oppressed having less or having nothing. For them, to be is to have and to be of the ‘having’ class. (pp. 34, 35)
Shoplifting has become a discipline for me now. I have a friend who used to live in the Australian desert and who, in his various starlit travels, would encounter the odd highly venomous snake. As a young man he would happily grab them by the tail and watch their serpentine writhing before removing the offending reptile far from his evening campfire. But as time went by, he said, he lost his nerve. He could no longer quite bring himself to get that close to a curious snake and so he would have to move his camp or drive it away with fire rather than pick it up as he used to.
And that’s a little how it is with me. If I allow myself I can feel overwhelmed by the little trauma of defying the system in which we live. Even though I am quite aware of the system’s hideous consequences, aware of the logical extremes which ownership reaches in the weeping of a starving child, I find myself inevitably being sucked back into compliance with the system. The internal oppressor is so strong!
But, in defiance, just as I try and meditate regularly and free myself to be, I also try and shoplift regularly so that I can land an occasional blow to that fearsome internal oppressor. So that I can be free to think for myself and with my fellows, and pursue a vocation that humanizes.
* I am reminded also of those Muslim women who insist that to wear the veil is to be free. There are many of course who simply assert their right to choose; there are though, inevitably, some for whom a woman should not have the right to choose.
Another example is given by Franz Fanon in “The Wretched of the Earth”:
The colonized man will manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people. This is the period when the niggers beat each other up, and the police and magistrates do not know which way to turn when faced with the astonishing waves of crime in North Africa…