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Why care?

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, April 25, 2005

Seniors composing their last column for The Observer typically offer nostalgic insight into the friendships that made their time at college as valuable as it was. While the relationships I have been able to form here have certainly catalyzed good memories and individual growth, I will instead use this article to discuss what I perceive to be barriers to healthy relationships.

A simple look at some of the differences among people around us, or even more evidently at those among people in distant parts of the world, makes it clear that there are two categories of human experience: the universal and the changing. The universal includes all unchangeable facts about humans and how they relate. The changing, on the other hand, consists of the constructions of the collective psyche, derived from human perception but also manifest quite concretely.

These changing constructions utilize sets of stories and mythologies to teach us how to interpret the world around us and to view our own role in it. They include components of race, class, beauty, authority, consumption, popularity, politics, power and infinite other levels of identity to which we ascribe ourselves. Different cultures and communities each hold their own set of stories and assumptions.

But some stories do not correspond as well as others with the universals of human experience. Slavery, for example, was a reality based on deeply fallacious assumptions regarding human value and difference. Were the assumptions upon which slavery was based any different than many that still exist today, even amongst compatriots on a college campus?

We judge slavery due to the fact that it led to such sharp division and suffering, and because it was based upon an ideology that valued some human lives more than others. It was not just the physical institution of slavery itself that was offensive; it was the way that slavery affected the social fabric, pitting one against another, forming strictly hierarchical and consequently oppressive relationships of master and slave. It was the way that assumed differences allowed one to justify the exploitation of the other. This institution deprived both slaves and slave-owners of their humanity, as all parties to divided human relations are losing the opportunity for free and trusting relationships with each other.

It is through crossing boundaries for encounters with the assumed “other” that this realization is born. It could be two freshman of different race, national or class backgrounds who get put in a dorm room together and still form equal friendship. It could be travel to a foreign country and making friends with Italians, Chileans, Ugandans or Chinese, witnessing the way that assumed differences can melt to an awareness of radical sameness.

Theorist Paolo Freire wrote of his personal experience working with poor peasants in the Brazilian Landless Movement as one of entering “a process of mutual liberation.” He came to discover the way that divisions are oppressive, and prevent people from experiencing true and equal relationship with others in recognition of shared humanity. Freire called his increasing awareness of the effects that hierarchical structures have on the fundamental ways we relate with each other the “awakening of a critical consciousness.” Many would describe it simply as figuring out what really matters in life.

This commentary is not to say that we should all begin reading radical Brazilian revolutionaries. It is to note that broader structures such as class or race, when divisive and hierarchical, have debilitating effects on relationships. And, if participation in rightly-ordered relationships is the fullest expression of our humanity – and I’m fully convinced that it is – then we should question the worth that these institutions may have and constantly challenge our own role within them, ensuring that we may be neither exploited nor exploiter. Each of us has a vested interest in doing so.

Michael Poffenberger is a senior anthropology and peace studies major. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.