Freire spends the final chapter discussing his theory of cultural action, or how people create changes in their culture and society. He starts by reiterating the need for praxis (combined reflection and action) and argues that praxis requires theory (a critical framework) in order to be complete. Revolutionary leaders and oppressed people should both use praxis while struggling for liberation so that the leaders are not merely imposing their will onto the oppressed. Otherwise, the struggle will be hollow—Freire says that a “revolution for the people” is equivalent to “a revolution without the people.” A revolution that sees oppressed people as ignorant, or objectifies them, buys into the myths oppressors use to keep their power. To Freire, the key to an effective revolution is dialogue: both oppressors and revolutionaries have methods of changing society, but the oppressors’ methods are inherently “antidialogical.” Just as “problem-posing” education relies on dialogue, an effective revolution must be educational in nature.
Freire spends much of Chapter 4 comparing his theories of cultural action with the characteristics revolutionary leaders must have to be effective at creating change. Just as he does with educators in previous chapters, Freire creates a critical framework for revolutionaries that establishes right and wrong ways to interact with oppressed people. It’s significant that the two frameworks are incredibly similar: in Freire’s view, education and revolution should use similar methods, because both should have the goal of reaching freedom with the oppressed.
Conquest. “Antidialogical action” is a way of changing culture that serves the interests of oppressors. The most important aspect of antidialogical action is conquest: oppressors try to control people and the world by conquering and owning them. To prevent any further cultural change, they create myths about the world—such as the idea that oppression is permanent and encourages freedom, and that oppressed people must adapt to it. These myths are found in everything from religion and economics to education and property. Propaganda and mass media ensure that oppressed people internalize these myths, and cannot have authentic dialogue about the true nature of reality. Freire then emphasizes again that any oppressive situation is opposed to dialogue.
Conquest forces people to view the world on the terms of their oppressors, which is why oppressors use mass media and propaganda to spread their views as widely as possible. Of course, mass media can work in the interests of oppressed people, but Freire does not seem to consider this a significant factor. This may be because mass media is most effectively used by people in power—namely, the oppressors. Freire also critiques propaganda in Chapter 1 because it tells oppressed people how to think and hinders their agency.
Divide and Rule. Oppressors divide and isolate oppressed people to prevent them from organizing together for liberation. This creates rifts among different groups of oppressed people and discourages them from dialogue. One example Freire uses is community development projects that separate local communities from each other—when communities cannot see that their problems are related, they are less likely to fight the oppressors’ agenda. Another is the way that governments approach communities by selecting leaders, instead of treating everyone in the group equally. And since oppressed people are already trained to see their oppressors as good, this can alienate community leaders from the people they are supposed to serve. In this context, oppressors use “false generosity” to make the oppressed believe that they are being helped. However, this false generosity relies on conquest to keep the oppressed in need of help.
Oppressors alienate oppressed people from the oppressor class, and also alienate oppressed people from each other. This process makes it easier for the oppressors to convince the oppressed that hierarchies are the best way to organize society. Hierarchies do not consider humans beings as a single group of equal participants, but rather they give some groups superiority over other groups: teachers have superiority over their students, the wealthy have superiority over the poor, and community leaders are superior to the rest of their communities.
Manipulation. Oppressors use manipulation to control oppressed people and to prevent them from challenging the oppressors’ power. The myths used in conquest are one example of this manipulation, but it also shows up when oppressor and oppressed classes make pacts (or other formal agreements) together. This creates the illusion of dialogue, but in reality the oppressors determine what the agreement is and then often don’t follow it. Manipulation occurs when oppressed people first start to question the oppressive system. To combat it, revolutionary leaders should use critical awareness to constantly question the oppressors’ authority. Freire contrasts revolutionary leaders with populist leaders, who claim to be an intermediary between the oppressed and their oppressors. Freire sees populism, along with things like welfare programs, as tools for manipulation that ultimately distract the oppressed from understanding the actual cause of their problems: oppression itself.
Manipulation relies on the fact that oppressive systems push oppressed people to trust the words and perspective of their oppressors. Freire distinguishes between suppressing oppressed people in an oppressive system, and manipulating them when they begin to lose faith in institutions of power. This is why Freire sees populism as a kind of manipulation: populist leaders attempt to work in oppressed people’s best interest, but they also convince oppressed people that the oppressor class is more trustworthy with a populist leader in power.
Cultural Invasion. In cultural invasion, oppressors impose their own values and beliefs onto an oppressed culture. Cultural invasion makes oppressed peoples’ perspective align with that of the oppressors, so that the oppressors’ culture seems superior. This pushes oppressed people to become more like the oppressors, and stabilizes the oppressors’ position. Freire argues that cultural invasion is both a tool and a result of oppression, and that traditional homes and schools also use forms of the oppressive hierarchy. However, he says that the revolution can also convert “professionals” in education and government who come to understand the nature of oppression. Freire then breaks down the revolutionary process into two stages: “dialogical action” that combats the oppressors’ power, and a “cultural revolution” that forms a new reality after the oppressed have won. While oppressors try to invade, and transform society, revolutions try to develop society in partnership with the oppressed.
Freire’s discussion of cultural invasion in the home is particularly interesting: he argues that the traditional dynamic of the home (in which parents are dominating authorities over their children) can be traced back to the social conditions that dominate oppressed people. Both homes and schools are spaces where young people learn how the world works, so Freire argues that they are spaces where people learn to adapt to an oppressive reality—not only oppressed people, but also “professionals” who unwittingly use an oppressive culture to try and help the oppressed.
Cooperation. From here, Freire discusses “dialogical action,” which is what revolutionary leaders should use to attack the oppressors’ antidialogical methods. Revolutionary leaders must have the support, dialogue, and trust of oppressed people to be effective, and cooperation is how this happens. Unlike conquest, cooperation allows a revolutionary group to focus on oppression as a primary problem to solve. Leaders should account for oppressed peoples’ internalized beliefs while validating their knowledge—and Freire includes a quote from Che Guevara that emphasizes how oppressed people helped create his political ideology. When done properly, this cooperation can create a fusion of the oppressed and their leaders into a united force.
It’s important that Freire frames his entire theory of cultural action around dialogue: it emphasizes the responsibility of revolutionary leaders to act in partnership with oppressed people, not on their behalf. By citing Che Guevara, one of the most prominent revolutionaries in Latin American history, Freire shows in a concrete way how regular people have historically made vital contributions to liberation movements—and how Guevara recognized this as a leader.
Unity for Liberation. While oppressors see unity as dangerous, revolutionary leaders must seek unity in every part of the liberation movement. This is a difficult task, because oppression inherently divides and alienates people from the world and from each other. For example, when oppressed people believe that the future is fixed, they will believe that changing the future with others is impossible. Therefore, achieving unity requires oppressed people to understand how and why they hold these beliefs—they must become aware of the myths that the oppressors have imposed on them. If successful, oppressed people will begin to see themselves as member of an oppressed class, a larger group that stands in opposition to the oppressor class. This diminishes the oppressors’ power, and enables the oppressed to more easily organize.
A key theme of Freire’s theory is that oppressors keep people separate, while revolutionaries must rely on bringing people together. This process of bringing people together often occurs in stages: Cooperation can lead to Unity for Liberation, which then leads to Organization. When oppressed people unite, they cannot simply see themselves as members of an oppressed class—they must also feel compelled to take action against the oppressor class. Otherwise, the difficult task of unifying the oppressed can be threatened, because oppressors can use institutions of power to manipulate and suppress.
Organization. Organization is the opposite of manipulation, and is the natural result of unity. While unifying the oppressed, revolutionary leaders are also trying to organize them to view liberation as a common goal. These leaders must show “witness” to oppressed people—they must express the importance of liberation, and show that they are acting out of love and faith in the oppressed. Freire points out that oppressors do organize themselves apart from the people, which is why revolutionary leaders must organize “themselves with the people.” Although these leaders should use discipline and guidance to keep their group focused, they cannot manipulate or conquer the oppressed along the way. To Freire, organization is a “highly educational process” that teaches both oppressed people and their leaders how to wield authority and freedom in service of each other.
In Freire’s view, oppressed people should not blindly trust the authority of a revolutionary leader, just as they should not blindly trust oppressors. Instead, revolutionaries have an obligation to prove their humility, trustworthiness, and love for people through “witness.” The act of witness ensures that oppressed people have the power to accept or reject anyone who wants to guide them in the struggle for liberation. Ideally, educational and political leaders work on the terms of the oppressed people they seek to serve.
Cultural Synthesis. Lastly, cultural synthesis is the opposite of cultural invasion. Freire says that all cultural action either attempts to preserve or change society; when it includes dialogue, cultural action can overcome the contradictions of oppressive society and achieve liberation for all people. Cultural synthesis does this by treating different cultures equally, and giving them both the same authority. Freire then points back to the “thematic investigations” in Chapter 3, noting that the process can help create cultural synthesis among the oppressed. It pushes people from different cultures to support each other and engage in dialogue, and it brings oppressed people’s goals together with those of revolutionary leaders. Freire ends by returning to the broader ideas behind his cultural action theory: it is necessary to theorize methods for freedom because the oppressors need to theorize methods for domination. This theory of dialogical action is the direct result of praxis and dialogue among the oppressed and leaders, with the goal of humanizing all people.
The term “synthesis” recalls Freire’s notion of dialectics, and the idea that people can synthesize competing perspectives into a single resolution. Although cultural synthesis follows a dialectical logic, the scale here is larger than at other points in the text: cultural synthesis does not only rely on dialogue between people, but also on dialogue between entire cultures. The end of Chapter 4 mirrors the beginning of Chapter 1, as Freire returns to the “central problem” of humanization. Cultural action, and dialogue, for Freire, are not only theories—they are a concrete set of tactics that people can, and should, use in the radical struggle to humanize.