The statement “free your mind” is often used as a hollow call to think ourselves out of oppression, as if it were a case of mind over matter. Used in this way, the statement is indeed vapid and ignorant, but there is a serious case for interrogating the beliefs and value systems we hold dear, that maintain and promote oppressive social contracts. We cannot simply think ourselves out of oppression, but we can think about the ways that we buy into these systems without everyday behaviour. At the heart of it, oppressive systems aim to dehumanise both the victims and the benefactors. The thinking that frees us from these systems must then concentrate on humanising all of us. Where do we start? The answer lies in our current internalised belief systems.
When we default to accepting oppression as “just the way things are” we are accepting hegemony. Hegemony is the ideological influence that legitimates the norms and ideas that make oppression a form of common sense. So, when we stay indifferent to gender and sexual oppression, for example, we are buying into hegemonic ideas that make certain people’s oppression normal and even justified. When we do that, we have abandoned our humanity. When we look at the suffering of another human being and we are not moved to intervene, or at the very least denounce it, we have separated ourselves from their humanity and so lost our own.
The importance of solidarity in this discussion is paramount. A great example I like to use is a disability. First, because it is something that is not thought about immediately when people think of systemic oppression, but also because it shows just how systems dehumanise us all to disconnect from each other. People with disabilities are often not counted in conversations about oppression because disability is seen as a trick of nature, when in fact, society is built to be deliberately inaccessible to them. Another fact to remember about disability is that it is a reality that all of us can experience, and most of us will eventually. In disability studies, it is said that nobody is able-bodied — everyone is temporarily able-bodied because if you live long enough, you’ll become disabled. Our realities are not as disparate as we think.
This is not to say that we must only care about the freedom of others because it might affect us, but to say that if we work towards an inclusive, human-centred society, we are investing in the well-being of everyone. The saying umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person because of other people) never ages concerning this discussion and certainly bears repeating.
What I hope to communicate with this installment of the series, is that freeing our minds from the ideological barriers that have obscured our humanity from us is an important step in imagining ultimate freedom. We cannot imagine a freedom project in which some of us are free and others not. We have justified the oppression of certain people as common sense and with such faulty cognition, we are ill-equipped to imagine holistic freedom. Any freedom project that accepts partial freedom is doomed to failure.
It is on us to listen and collaborate on forging a new humanity that does not stipulate conditions for inclusion, but leads with compassion if we are to imagine and realise true freedom. It is not easy to unlearn prejudice by any means but is certainly possible if we commit. Freedom is possible if we start refusing to participate in oppressing each other before we even turn our attention to the overlords and administrators of the systems. We must start somewhere and this is a first step worth taking.