The Praxis of Social Justice Dialogue

By Lester Asamoah

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“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. . . But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone…” – Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.88)

This opening quotation from Paulo Freire’s work is a great starting point behind the philosophy of dialogue. And, more importantly, why dialogue is so important and urgent. We, or at least those interested in social change, must be involved with the praxis of dialogue. But how can we do this effectively? What are the steps? Clearly, there’s a lot of discourse that is unproductive, and even unhelpful.

I will establish simply how we can begin to think about the praxis of dialogue. Next, I’ll discuss how to create meaningful dialogue. Finally, I’ll discuss what I believe is ineffective and effective. To my audience of social justice advocates: I must stress that this is only a glimpse into a certain philosophy and up to critical debate and interpretation.

What is dialogue?

What is meant by dialogue? Dialogue is a back and forth process between two people in learning about or analyzing the world in some way. Largely borrowing this definition from Freire, I want to make it clear that is a two way process. Its importance in being a two-way process is vital in a world where we conduct a great deal of our communication of ideas either by social media, or listening to people who are experts in a certain field speak on their experience. How can we understand the plight of homelessness by never speaking to someone who is homeless? The simple answer is that we cannot. And we wind up with policies where we “know” how to engage with these issues by marginally dealing with them.

Our means of conversation and dialogue have evolved. We can chat online, or on Skype. We have more diverse communities than ever before. There’s no limit to what we can learn about others. We have a unique way to take advantage of our technological and cultural placement. But before we talk to people and try to develop understanding, we have to remember one critical fact: every person is capable of cognition by the virtue of being human, and we should never assume that anyone is below us or unable to express complex thoughts about something. People doing the opposite of that sentence have brought great ruin to the world from their hubris.  

How can we think about meaningful dialogue?

Meaningful dialogue is about listening. That’s not a secret. Why doesn’t it happen this way? It’s because privilege and power dynamics exist. While these dynamics exist, we have to acknowledge this: If you’re reading this, you likely have some sort of privilege and power. Now, I don’t have the magic formula to get the most powerful people to the table, but Freire notes that we can make a difference with oppressed people to help them realize they’re oppressed. Note that he does not say to lecture people, but he says engage with dialogue. And also note that people that are oppressed are able to express their opinions and take action.

For those of us that are concerned with social change, there’s hope in a bottom-up approach. But we will not be the heroes. I repeat, we will not be the heroes. Empowerment cannot be taught by lecture or monologue, Freire says. But active discussion with those that are oppressed, Freire claims, will help people realize that oppression does not have to be permanent. In dialogue with people of similar or higher privilege than us, we can discuss in a hope that it leads to the understanding they can be empowered to be in the solution. This process is slow and requires patience. Freire’s work is called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – pedagogy means the practice of teaching. This is at odds with certain ways to invoke social change. But, this is one of many ways to invoke change; a way that can be simultaneous with others.

What has worked and what has not?

I alluded to what doesn’t work – the notion of assuming that we have a higher cognition than others. We have different experiences, perhaps different values, and come from different walks of life. But by virtue of being alive—thinking, therefore they are, as Descartes would say—means we should get to know what people are thinking by hearing it firsthand. The process of dehumanization assumes that people have no cognition. People sometimes act irrationally, and may be even unfavorable to talk to, but all of us have cognition. We see people taking food stamps draw comparisons to animals, or students of Islamic background face discrimination for their creativity. People believe(d) that if one is on food stamps, their cognition is desperately dependent upon the government, or a young man’s cognition is limited and dependent on his religious background.

What works? There’s no surprise that the opposite of assuming we are better than others works. We, as individuals that care, must be open to the idea that everyone deserves human respect. And when we see others treat individuals as less than human, we have to challenge their thinking. Most importantly, we must seek to love the individuals that feel less than human. This, as Freire says, is a constant praxis of action and reflection. We have to be reflective of what we are saying, and we have to take action as people of consciousness to increase the level of consciousness. Most importantly, we have to realize that people have different ways of interacting with the world, and that must be respected. Though, if someone interacts with the world in a way that is destructive, we have to respond.

In terms of covering the philosophy of dialogue, much less the overall work of Freire, this is incredibly limited. However, it’s a starting point for us to think about how we interact with the world, the people in the world, and what we can do to empower each other instead of suffering though one-way dialogues that are ineffective, and even harmful. We have a great societal challenge ahead of us. American and global history has been marred by unthinkable marginalization and violence. However, violence does not have to be our destiny moving forward.

Lester is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

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