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«Published in Journal for Social Distress & The Homeless, 2009, vol. 18, 3 & 4, 231-268. The Cultural Psychology of Oppression and Liberation Carl ...»

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Mao Zedung, not exactly a stranger to, or enemy of, the revolutionary struggle, similarly worried about the culturally-based backward thinking among the Chinese peasantry with whom he worked for decades. He said: “given the various kinds of deeprooted feudal relationships in the countryside, it will not be an easy task to raise the class-consciousness of the peasants to the extend that they all realize that, in the end, it will be essential to eliminate the feudal remnants.”11 Other problems abound with Jimenez’s orientation.

Who belongs to “the popular majorities”? Whom should we follow and support? Whom should we refuse to ally with? Presumably Jimenez and Montero are not members, for they are privileged university professors. Is the wage-earning supervisor of the meat department at a supermarket a member of the popular majority? If a peasant owns 100 hectares of land is he a member?

If a farmer rents a room out to travelers is he a member of the majority or is he a landlord or

cited in Nick Knight, 2007. Rethinking Mao:

Explorations in Mao Zedung’s thought. Mass:

Lexington Books, p. 98.

capitalist? Who decides? Jimenez does not address this question that is vital to the politics of liberation. Indeed, he is incapable of addressing it because he has no analysis, no criteria, no program.

“The popular majorities” is a nebulous, ambiguous term with no recognizable, or useful, meaning. It is also semantically incoherent; for a majority is more than half the population, so there cannot be multiple “majorities.” Jimenez’s term deliberates spurns more precise, useful social designations such as working class, or peasantry.

These terms would identify people’s social position and provide some basis for understanding and evaluating their behavior -- as Mao did in his analysis of the peasantry during the Chinese Revolution.

Mao made a very precise class analysis of different interests among the peasantry, including rich peasant, poor peasant, landlord, and merchant which were carefully defined. This allowed him to identify the different “levels” of class consciousness, social critique, and allegiance to the revolutionary struggle that currently existed. It also helped Mao to understand different kinds of education that needed to be addressed to the different groups in order to help them understand the sources of their problems, and to understand the kinds of solutions that were viable12. “Popular majorities” loses all this valuable information about people.

Furthermore, even the truly oppressed cannot be uncritically admired, supported, and loved. Their perspective is often ignorant, superstitious, prejudiced, and sexist. They may wish to participate in privately owned enterprises and the system of commodity production. They may endorse IQ tests, lobotomies, or fascism; they may lynch Negroes;

they may mistreat women. Should we follow them?

Here, Jimenez hedges his bet. He adds some recognition that a critical perspective must be

added to support for the popular majority:

“Drawing on Liberation Theology, Martín-Baró pointed out that Latin American psychology must identify the virtues of the oppressed people and adopt a critical commitment, defined as identification with the oppressed, and at the same time, a necessary distance to examine with critical eyes the proposals emerging from their own praxis (meaning a conscious practice).”

Stuart Schram & N. Hodes (Eds.) Mao’s road to

power: Revolutionary writings 1912-1949, vol. IV, Armonk: Sharpe, 1997 First of all, this contradicts his opinion that we should adopt the perspective of the people and follow them. Now he allows us to be critical. Why the change?

Moreover, this new opinion introduces another question. What would be the perspective that forms the critical eye to evaluate peoples’ proposals? How does one decide which peoples’ proposals are acceptable virtues and which need to be criticized?

Remember that we are prohibited from introducing ideas outside the people’s perspective. (Jimenez follows Montero & Sonn in omitting any mention of Marxism or other political-economic theories that could be of service.) It thus becomes problematical what perspective would inform the critical eye trained on the people.

Furthermore, who would be the critical evaluator? Jimenez? Then Jimenez would be the truth czar. But what criteria would he use to decide what to criticize and what to approve about the people’s behavior?

He repudiates objective science, which inexorably lands him in arbitrary subjectivism.13 He tells us that “Martin Baro had established that psychology must go beyond a scientist obsession with objectivity and instead focus on the urgent needs of the poor majorities in Latin America and find new ways of See, Carl Ratner, Epistemological, Social, and Political Conundrums in Social Constructionism. Forum Qualitative Social Research, Oct.. 2006, vol.6, #3.

(online at my web site) (re) searching the truth from their own perspective.” But this returns us to adulating the people’s perspective with no possibility of critical evaluation. Jimenez takes us from glorification to criticism to glorification all by declaration, with no justification for any of his contradictory positions.

In addition his renunciation of objective science in the struggle to solve urgent needs is astonishing. If the poor are dying of dysentery and are in urgent need of treatment, are we to repudiate a scientific obsession with objectivity in our search for a cure?

Does Jimenez want to discard all the medical science that objectively understands the causes of dysentery? Should we renounce all the engineering science that knows how to treat polluted water which is a source of dysentery? Should we renounce engineering science that knows how to treat sewage and prevent dysentery? Will popular opinion provide better solutions?

Obviously not. Jimenez’s subjectivistic, antiscientific, anti-realist epistemology prevents addressing the people’s urgent needs.

I recently visited the Ganges River in India and saw the horrific result of relying on “the people’s” perspective. The local Indians think it is true that the river is blessed by god and that when animals and people die they should be blessed by god by being thrown into the river. So the river is full of dead cows and people, it is terribly polluted, and the wonderful people are dying from drinking and bathing in the water. Is this one of the peoples’ truths we should respect and elevate over scientific obsession with objectivity? Will this lead to solving peoples’ urgent needs?

If “psychologists must adopt the perspective of the popular majorities and follow them on their historical path towards liberation,” then what do social scientists have to contribute? Evidently, only to remind us to get out of the way of the masses.

For experts are proscribed from contributing any theoretical knowledge or methodology or scientific obsession that is outside the people’s indigenous perspective. There is clearly no need for us to get PhDs in social science if we are only going to follow the popular majorities. It seems that Jimenez has just rendered himself, and all of us professional social scientists, irrelevant to the movement for liberation.


Glorifying indigenous people is pseudo humanism. The words sound humanistic in supporting popular movements, however, the approach is reactionary because it offers no specific analysis of problems that could open the door to viable social liberation. Indeed, it impedes this kind of analysis with its reckless denigration of science, objectivity, expertise, and political parties with leadership.

When Marx spoke of a working working-class perspective as the guide for social change, he was not referring to contemporary outlooks by workers.

He was referring to an objective, theoretical perspective that had workers’ interests at its core.

It was a perspective that comprehended the political economic basis of the exploitation of workers, and the need for a new socialist political economy that would solve this problem. The Marxist perspective is working working-class in that it takes working working-class oppression as its target of analysis and solution. The working working-class perspective has to be developed by studying Marx’s complex analysis of capitalism and socialism. The working class does not have this deep understanding simply by virtue of being oppressed.

The working working-class perspective is not the perspective of the working class (as currently constituted.) To conflate the two is romanticize working class consciousness. It assumes that economic, political, educational, and medical oppression have no effect on the consciousness of the people: Despite all this oppression, the people have nevertheless acquired clear knowledge of their problems and how to solve them. This is a novel, illogical conception of oppression, and psychology in general: it presumes a radical divorce of consciousness from social influence, an isolated Cartesian mind. Oppression may be all around us and even wrack our bodies with disease and disability, but it stops, somehow, at the borders of the mind.

This romantic notion contradicts the body of empirical psychological research that proves otherwise -- namely, that psychological functions are formed by cultural factors and vary with cultural factors. Specifically, lower class conditions adversely affect cognitive competencies.

Romanticization also contradicts the empirical facts of oppressed behavior which is mystified and destructive in many ways.14 Romanticization also contradicts the inability of the popular majorities to figure out any solution to massive social problems and lead us to the promised land. My coop members and managers and employees can’t organize novel social relations in our coop food store. What have the popular majorities said about restructuring the world economy to escape the catastrophe that is upon us?

Oppressive psychology has ominous consequences for social and psychological improvement. It keeps people ignorant about the causes and solutions to their problems, and it makes solutions appear unattractive to us.

For instance, many people reject collective solutions because these appear burdensome and intrusive to their bourgeois sensitivities (privacy, independence, negative freedom).

Thomas Frank (2005). Whatʼs the matter with Kansas?: How conservatives won the heart of America. N.Y.: Holt.

Oppressive psychology is an active force that leads people to actively resist accepting novel ideas that could help them. The people play an active role in preserving their own oppression by utilizing their agency to reject collective solutions. Oppressive psychology actively keeps up trapped in oppression, both by recapitulating existing oppression and by eschewing solutions to it. And it works through our agency, through our desires, expectation, motivation, selfconcept/confidence, and preferences.

Oppression does not manipulate from the outside like a puppet master pulling the strings to our limbs. Oppression works from inside us, through our culturally constituted psychology to animate our behavior. This is why we need a cultural psychology of oppression to explain how “our” “inner” psychology is really not our own at all, is not empowering or liberating. We must acquire a new psychology through a systematic analysis of the cultural origins, characteristics, and function of our oppressed psychology and how it oppressively traps us in oppression, and what a new cultural system and cultural psychology would look like.

The cultural psychology of oppression introduces the notion of social agency. Agency is thoroughly infused with cultural features.

Therefore, agency oppresses us by acting.

Agency is not outside oppression, it is an agent of oppression. “Our” agency is a Trojan horse. It appears to be our own that empowers us to realize our objectives. But it is really the oppressor’s agency that has been implanted inside us and does the oppressor’s bidding, to empower that person, not us. We are utilizing the oppressor’s agency in our actions, not our own. It appears to be our own because it is inside us, and because bourgeois individualism has led us to believe that our individuality is our own. But this is ideology. The agency inside us is not necessarily ours.

If this is true, then validating people’s psychology is validating their cultural psychology of oppression. It is not validating their “own” personal psychology because we have just seen that psychology is not their own. What appears to be a humanistic validation of personal empowerment is really the dehumanizing validation of oppressed and oppressive cultural psychology. It is reactionary to validate and glorify people as they are. It is not progressive and humane. Validating mystified psychology masks its mystification, for validation assumes that people are agentive and not mystified. Thus, validating psychology validates society because it implies that society does not mystify people’s psychology. This insulates society from criticism. Social leaders can applaud validators of psychology and say “see, in our society people’s psychology is fine;

even liberation psychologists agree.” Liberation psychologists persist in glorifying the popular majorities. Because these majorities have not had the benefit of extensive formal education, they must have acquired their understandings outside formal education and scientific training. This leads Jimenez, Montero, et al. to romanticize informal, situated learning as more truthful than scientific training -- as a show of respecting the experience of the people.

However, this is backwards. We should not glorify the people as they are, and glorify their experience as the standard for how life (e.g., education, medicine) ought to be, and reject all other experience and knowledge. For the way people are now is oppressed, including their consciousness.

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