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questions of freedom and discourse

rb.richx's picture

as i began to read phillips’ book, i quickly grew weary of his style of questioning. he sets the stage with his question, “what is insanity?” by not coming forth with a solid definition. since sanity is something dealing with the disability community, i’ll use a common phrase to frame the conversation – “nothing about us without us.” phillips instantly gives ‘equal’ weight to all participants rather than putting personal experience at the forefront with someone who has psychosis or other more “severe” mental illnesses that cause individuals to be labeled as “insane” or “crazy” – which, by the way, are often used as slurs. by giving ‘equal’ weight to all voices in such a conversation, he allows for the continuation of the already common oppressive ideas held by larger society. the closest it seems that the conversation gets to delving into these questions of psychosis and disability is from a psychiatric social worker – a man who, out of the group, might be in the best place to educate the group, but is not given the proper space to do so.

should we give equal weight to all voices? how do we acknowledge when a point or thought is presented, or when a point or thought is diverted from, in a way that upholds dominant and/or oppressive societal standards? how do we decide whose voices are “more worthwhile” if there isn’t an equality to our listening?

these questions very much shaped the conversations that we started with the question, “what is freedom?” in the socrates café in rittenhouse square and in my presentation for my experimental essay. i wish to examine three different spaces – the discussion at rittenhouse square, the classroom discussion at bryn mawr, and the classroom discussions at rcf – rather than the answers individuals gave. this is not because defining freedom is uninteresting or unimportant, but because the question “what is freedom?” will, i think, be partly answered through the examination of the separate spaces.

a person at the café said something that i believe i am summarizing here: “nothing can be created in a space that is not diverse/a space is not beneficial unless it is diverse.”

to go in-depth into a conversation without a common ground – whether it be relatively homogenous culture, thought processes, political stances, similar/same readings done to give an entry into conversation – seems almost impossible to me. i think that what often occurs is a stalemate because of the differences that emerge in a space that has extreme diversity in opinions. this is not to say that there are no disagreements in our classrooms at bryn mawr, or that more homogenous spaces are inherently “better”, but that a more satisfying conclusion can be met, or that action is more likely to happen with most people on ‘the same page’. in part, i say this because, in the prison and in the classroom conversations, there often were fewer divergent opinions on “big-picture” topics. when there were disagreements, they were often discussed in a way to complexify understandings and discourse. the spaces in which there is some homogeneity or equality means that the space itself effects the roles and comfort levels of individuals.

i want to be careful in establishing the prison as a space of full agreement. several 360 students said that they felt “more free” in the prison classroom, speaking more openly and truthfully. this is in part due to academic pressure being lifted once outside of the institution, but it also could do with, as tong reflected, how some of us students care less about the opinions of the incarcerated individuals. we, as free individuals inside an institution of power, are (some of us unknowingly) in positions of power. we could leave at the end of the evening. we had more control over the discussions, over the readings, and over the “last word”s. but there were also several students who did not feel this way, and many students also felt pressured in the socrates café, despite our knowledge that we would likely never see each other again.

those other students – myself included – felt extremely conscious of this power dynamic and the effects of being there as a group of college students from an “elite” institution. i wondered (and feared) that our presence and inherent “us” and “them” energy made the incarcerated individuals raise their discourse rather than speaking from their own kind of knowledge and “intelligence”. in this way, i think the prison classroom was, for some of us, more like the socrates café, in which students felt the power dynamics at play, which hindered the ways that we spoke and altered our comfort levels.

the conversation that we had in joel’s class, in which i posed the question of defining freedom a second time, was perhaps the most comfortable conversation for me and several others. students no longer had to be in a position to tone back discourse like in the socrates café, nor did they have to take on the role of mediator/educator/facilitator. the differences without ourselves became more part of the conversation, as we were a smaller and more homogenous group, though not as homogenous as the woman in the socrates café seemed to believe.

throughout the semester, i believe that us 360 students often challenged each other, but in ways that were hopefully productive or complexifying. i doubt that we all came from the program with the same opinions on the topics we discussed, but we discussed them in a meaningful way and in a relatively candid way. the pressure, however, is still on within the classroom because of the presence of professors and being within the institutional space; because of this, students’ roles are different, and we are often pushed to examine issues in a way that must be meaningful or tie back to theoretical discourse/academic texts.

this is, i think, what made these experimental essays important; often, our essays built on personal experiences or creative writing that often came from places of high emotion. while the classroom discussions might have been the ones that had the most covered in a single conversation, the dynamic and pressure made many people uncomfortable.

i wonder, then what is the discomfort? is this the pressure that is felt within classroom spaces, or is it instead the fear of not sounding “smart” enough to be taken seriously? these pressures certainly affected the people who were in the discussion spaces alongside us 360 students. the people in the socrates café, and likely those within the prison, felt that our collegiate experience and ‘intelligence’ meant that they could only speak up when they were fully formed thoughts. is that the fault of our presence, or because the academic institutions themselves create a persona and assumed quality to all their attendees?

is this not the only cause of the discomfort? should we not be somewhat afraid to make mistakes that can cause lasting effects or hurt? does the pressure cause people to be more thoughtful? in creating the prison classroom, for example, we do call it a classroom, complete with texts and “homework”. did this press the incarcerated individuals to raise their discourse in a way that created the really thoughtful conversations that emerged within the thursday and friday spaces? would the 360 classes – or any conversations within academia – be as thoughtful without some kind of pressure?

i currently don’t think i have the full answers to these questions, but i am inclined to say that some pressures might be morally beneficial for myself – such as the caution around causing lasting hurt – but i don’t know that extreme pressure causes “better” discourse. i find that i feel most free and engaged with academic discourse when it “matters” to me, when i’m not doing it just for the sake of participation.

as i started to reflect on the various spaces with some of these many questions, i had originally arrived in part at the conclusion that the discussions had at bryn mawr are inherently better than the conversations had in the socrates café. i don’t know that anyone – those of us from the bi-co or those various adults at rittenhouse square – came out of the conversation feeling in any way revitalized or interested in considering the topic on a deeper level because of things said in the discussion. instead of a give-and-take conversation that occurs within the ideal space of the socratic method, it felt to me more like a debate at moments, in which we weren’t learning from one another. very few people shared personal parts of themselves. the only instance of this that i can recall, though, was powerful to me; a woman related her concept of freedom to us as shaped by her recovery from addiction (which was not lengthy, but was nonetheless poignant to many of us, i believe). the discussions that come out of our 360 classrooms, though, seemed thoughtful and more stereotypically ‘intelligent’, where people had more time and space to speak and follow trains of thought without having someone be a hands-on facilitator.

however, i fully support dialogue and resistance in spaces that are not institutionalized and uphold existing hierarchies of oppression. because of this, i cannot fully support academic spaces that exclude the very people who are analyzed (especially when the are analyzed in an often through the lens of reductive narratives that focus on hurt and pain in communities). in this way, the prison classrooms are extremely important to use as spaces of community building and dialogue about the prison reform or abolition work that we often held in our 360 classrooms. further, the socrates café, while i and several others found ourselves at a loss, confused about our roles and overwhelmed through our lack of knowledge of the hierarchies of the space, are arguably more radical inherently than academic spaces. phillips has held these non-academic spaces throughout the country, and in each there is space for non-academics to have intellectual discussions. likely they still feel pressure, though, to sound scholarly in order to speak to a larger discourse created through the space. people came of their own volition in the café – and somewhat in the prison classroom, though often there is a pressure to be part of programs to get out – which is unlike with higher-ed classrooms in which people must attend to get their degrees. to an extend, though, there is a sense of people “checking in” to their schools in a similar way. with these people that had some sort of freedom, we all came to occupy/create these spaces, which has led me to conclude that with freedom comes a curiosity to understand it.

in all three of these spaces, freedom is felt at varying levels and, whether we as students were aware, our voices were often the most privileged and acknowledged. arguably those with the most power are the older adults with experience and also who had academic backgrounds, making the professors the ones who were “freest”. likely their voices would go the most heard from, at least in accordance to our younger, student points of view. and, as chris phillips and several at his café demonstrated, the casual café-goers also privileged joel’s voice the most, asking him several times what his thoughts were, as if his word would be the ‘correct’ and final say.

this dynamic did not seem as obvious in the prison classroom. does this mean that the incarcerated individuals – largely poor, uneducated women of color – did not put as much weight on the voices of professors? i also was in a classroom with no 360 professors and thus cannot fully profess to knowing…

though i found our professors aware of their places of privilege (and many times privileged students’ voices over their own), the desire to privilege their voices speaks to the hierarchy in which we as a society do largely put our trust and “weighted” listening on older see: traditionally higher-ed) scholars. in many ways, this of course makes sense because scholars often have an area(s) of expertise.

but do scholars inherently have more knowledge of a space or peoples than those who are part of the community the scholars are studying?

i think that the classroom of incarcerated individuals began to break this down in the most tangible way of all three spaces, especially in the friday group; the books they read, while deliberately chose by the professors, still were chosen to put the experiences, knowledge, and (largely non-academic) intelligence at the forefront of the conversations.

but does this mean that we absolutely should put the voices of the incarcerated individuals first?

a fellow student and i noted a few times that we had difficulty in our thursday classroom when some of the incarcerated individuals spoke as if they knew a fact, but that we knew to be false. we both agreed that it was difficult to know when to exercise our privilege on higher education and freedom from incarceration to correct them. both of us placed more weight on the voices of the incarcerated individuals above our own. for myself, at least, i can say this was because of a moral dilemma that i still don’t understand.

does being more aware make us less free? is everyone involved slightly more free when there is an awareness of the hierarchies at play? does freedom remain unchanged until there is work to undo the oppressive hierarchies?

i believe that our resistance as part of the 360 was predicated on knowing what we were attempting to resist. we developed one understanding, but we, as prison educators, need to somehow bring the incarcerated individuals’ ideas to play on that, no matter the space. i think that each and every space has varying levels of oppression, and thus varying levels of freedom. conversations that involve any sort of discourse will continue to privilege those with academic backgrounds until we as a society put more equal weight on the voices of the communities we research and work with, who have the concrete experiences we discuss.


jschlosser's picture

I really appreciate this essay and I'd love to talk about it more. For now, though, let me mark a few points of contact with some of the academic discourse I've thought about.

First, there's an implicit epistemology in your argument here that parallels that developed in feminist standpoint theory. This theory advocates for inclusion precisely because we cannot know except through the experience of participants; we each have a standpoint that only we possess and that only we can articulate. Any generalized point of view comes with blinders when particular folks are excluded. I find this helpful because it's a reminder that "privilege" or not, everyone has a perspective not only worth being heard but vital to our understanding of a given experience or situation.

Alongside feminist standpoint theory I'm hearing an echo of an argument about the "tyranny of structurelessness." This was a famous phrase coined by Jo Freeman to describe the limits of organizing movements in the 1960s, in particular how a lack of structure reproduced patriarchy for many of the same reasons you note that hierarchies were reproduced in these various settings (e.g. deference to professors in the Socrates Cafe). This continues to be a challenge for organizations committed to equality and wishing to prefigure the world they envision: one cannot simply equalize, as you point out; at the same time, one needs to name the inequalities while contesting them. Francesca Polleta has a great discussion of this in her book Freedom is an Endless Meeting.