The Paradox of Ontologically Violent Resistance

By James Comotto, Washington College


In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire refers to “an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” (44) This violence is a sort of ontological violence because it “interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.” (Freire 44) In refusing to recognize the oppressed as self-affirmed beings, the oppressors perceive them as mere objects — things to be manipulated or ignored for one’s own sake. The acts of dehumanization resulting from this ontological violence enlist the oppressed in a struggle to resist. The resisting oppressed “must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” (Freire 44) This is the ultimate goal; every individual should recognize every other as human. This is the liberation of both oppressors and oppressed.

In the following paragraphs, I will highlight Freire’s thoughts on resisting and overcoming oppressive forces in Pedogogy of the Oppressed to provide an understanding of how he believes the world should overcome violence and begin to love. I hope to emphasize what it means to resist violence so that I can question the logic of Freire’s philosophy. Freire’s logic comes into question when he accepts the paradox in which the oppressed use violence to resist the violence of the oppressors. I believe the solution to the oppressor-oppressed conflict will not be resisting violence with violence but stopping it at the source. The only way to free both oppressors and oppressed is to first instill love in the oppressors. I plan to reject Freire’s resistance in order to propound a more Hegelian-like solution of mutual recognition to the oppressor-oppressed conflict that reflects the thoughts of Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks. I also suggest that universal activities and languages, such as music, can be utilized to achieve this mutual recognition.

Interpretation of Ontological Violence

Freire suggests that liberation can only be reached by the efforts of the oppressed. The oppressors do not have the power to liberate society because they are absent of humanistic qualities — such as love, which is the commitment to others’ cause, their liberation. (89) Their lovelessness results in “false generosities,” which are attempts to assuage the oppressive state without solving the problem. According to Freire, “It would be a contradiction in terms if the oppressors not only defended but actually implemented a liberating education.” (54) The power for reform, according to Freire, can only come from the oppressed, who are temporarily stuck in a contradictory duality of simultaneously desiring and fearing freedom. Nonetheless, Freire gives agency to the oppressed, declaring, “To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it.” (51)

When Freire says the oppressed must “emerge” and “turn upon” the unjust order, he means that he wants them to ontologically resist the oppressors. In other words, he wants the oppressed to develop the self so that they may create their own meaning, and thus, create a sort of independent consciousness that is in opposition to the consciousness projected on them by the oppressors. This, in effect, debilitates the oppressors. Freire suggests that the oppressed must come out and change oppressive society in order to “unveil the world of the oppression and through praxis commit themselves to its transformation.” (54) Then, following transformation, shift the pedagogy from the oppressed to all people in the society so that all are “in the process of permanent liberation.” (Freire 54) When undergoing this project, the oppressed first must resist violence, which was inevitably started and is carried out by the oppressors. Freire puts the entire conflict in the red hands of the oppressors because as loveless individuals, who have denied humanity to others, they are the negation of humankind. (55)

George Yancy, in Black Bodies, White Gazes, elaborates on what it means to resist by fleshing out Black resistance. Yancy perceives Black resistance to be “a form of decoding of the ideological prison house of racist discourse, a discourse that ‘operates in the name of values’ that valorize whiteness and dehumanize Black people.” (111) Yancy thinks that black people must face the terrifying racist discourse of the white oppressors so they may understand it. By understanding whiteness, they create an opportunity to escape it. This escape is a redefining of blackness that is in opposition to the definition of blackness imposed on them by whiteness. While I agree with this stance of decoding racist discourse in the sense that it requires black and white people to interact and better understand each other, I disagree with the second assertion of his thesis. Yancy explains, “I argue that Black resistance, as a mode of decoding, is simultaneously a process of recoding Black embodied existence through processes of opposition and affirmation.” (112) This opposition and affirmation is an ontologically violent resistance to the violence first inflicted by the oppressive white consciousness. This concept of violence resisting violence seems contradictory to the ultimate goal of humanity and liberation for all. I will further explain this paradoxical concept by addressing Freire in Pedgogy of the Oppressed.

The Paradox of Ontologically Violent Resistance

Freire suggests, “it is…precisely in the response of the oppressed to the violence of their oppressors that a gesture of love may be found. Consciously or unconsciously, the act of rebellion by the oppressed (an act which is always, or nearly always, as violent as the initial violence of the oppressors) can initiate love.” (Freire 56) Freire discusses violence here, not as an act of force to cause physical pain, but as the act of redefining the self in order to reject the definition imposed on them by the oppressors. The oppressed are creating their own ontological state, their own meaning of being, that negates the ontological state determined by the oppressors. Freire believes this act of ontological violence by the oppressed will initiate love in the oppressors. In other words, he believes that ontological violence, in response to the ontological violence of the oppressors, will initiate the oppressors to commit to the liberation of the oppressed. Freire accepts this paradox because the violent response of the oppressed is for the sake of humanization while the initial violence of the oppressors was for the sake of dehumanization. For some reason, he believes that taking away the dominating powers of the oppressors is the first step to instilling humanistic values in them, which they lost at the commencement of the oppression. He believes that by the oppressed becoming self-affirmed, and thus denying the oppressors their ontological identity, which is the negation of the oppressed, the oppressors will be instilled with humanistic values.

This self-proclaimed paradoxical statement by Freire about the violent resistance of the oppressed in response to the violence of the oppressors, I believe, invalidates the violent resistance of the oppressed. Freire recognizes that if the oppressed resist, the oppressors will resist in return. However, I do not think Freire sees the ontological tug-of-war that resistance causes; if the oppressors enact violence and the oppressed resist with violence, then the oppressors will simply continue to resist with more violence. This pattern may continue without the problem being solved. Therefore, it is only a short-term answer to the problem. For instance, Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks demonstrates this tug-of-war resistance in his personal account of experiencing oppressive whiteness as a black man that had already been self-affirmed and responsible. Fanon explains:

Whereas I was prepared to forget, to forgive, and to love, my message was flung back at me like a slap in the face. The white world, the only decent one, was preventing me from participating. It demanded that a man behave like a man. It demanded of me that I behave like a black man or at least like a Negro. I hailed the world, and the world amputated my enthusiasm. I was expected to stay in line and make myself scarce. (Fanon 94)

Fanon was a black man — a black consciousness — that searched the world for recognition; however, the white world — white consciousness — refused to recognize him as a man. Fanon attempted to rationally make himself known by proving himself worthy of the white consciousness, but he failed because the white consciousness irrationally defined him by the color of his skin and nothing more. Fanon then began to lose the fight between the white and black consciousnesses. He began to become a dependent consciousness and wished to be forgotten by the independent, white consciousness out of fear of being for another.

Fanon, when faced with the white Frenchman, may speak to him in perfect French, with superlative intellect, and polite manners. However, this makes no difference to the Frenchman because he only values these traits in a white person. The Frenchman irrationally defines Fanon’s skin as an entity that negates intellect so his person is worthless and deserves no attention. If Fanon were then to act irrationally in front of the Frenchman in order to gain his recognition, the Frenchman would use this irrationality to justify defining a black man as worthless. Fanon learns that the Frenchman creates a barrier of rationality and irrationality in order to project himself as an independent consciousness, as the creator of meaning. This Hegelian story by Fanon demonstrates an independent consciousness that is irrational; however, a consciousness is rational by definition. Thus, the independent consciousness may be invalid; it may not exist. Independent consciousness itself may be an irrational illusion.

If the so-called independent consciousness is an illusion projected by the consciousness on itself, then it validates the dependent consciousness as rational and real. It determines the dependent consciousness to be the only type of consciousness in a world where consciousnesses collectively depend on each other. Thus, the independent consciousness is only a mask that covers the dependent consciousness; whiteness is only a mask that covers the black skin worn by all humans. Black history is shared equally between all races. It is the history of mankind. It is real and rational. It will never go away because every human is dependent on it as they are dependent on each other.

Instillation of Love Eliminates Need of Violence

We must remove the white mask from the “white” person’s face because this illusory mask provides the white man with the ability to be violent. In other words, the false, white consciousness creates the illusion that the black man is something not human. Thus, I do not think that black people or any other oppressed people will make progress by reaffirming themselves and resisting a false entity. This resistance is ontological violence inflicted on the white people, the oppressors, which will not result in achieving the ultimate goal of humanization and liberation of the entire society. I think that instillation of love in the oppressors must be accomplished first before any progress can be made. The instillation of love is the act of instilling a commitment to the liberation of the oppressed. A commitment to liberation implies that the oppressors must come to recognize the oppressed as human, and thus, deserving of freedom. By instilling love, the mask of the oppressor is removed. If there is no instillation of love into the oppressors then they will have never sufficiently learned humanistic qualities and the conflict will never be resolved. Additionally, instillation of love in the oppressors should be the first step of resistance because the revolutionary oppressed could not dialogue with the oppressors, considering love is a necessary requirement for dialogue, and the oppressors are loveless. If love is instilled in the oppressors then the opportunity for dialogue becomes available and violence is not necessary. Therefore, I suggest that violent resistance is incompatible with engendering love, and could not be a solution to the oppressor-oppressed conflict. There must first be love.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon talks about a vicious circle, in which by black resisting white and vice versa, both black and white are perpetually referred back to themselves. If a black man self-affirms, the white resists by remembering that they are still the negation of that Negro, so the black man self-affirms again and again. Thus, Fanon makes a prescription to “go beyond…immediate existential being” in order to “apprehend the being of the other as a natural reality, and more than that.” (192) In other words, instead of repeatedly self-affirming in a form of resistance, “restore to the other his human reality, different from his natural reality, by way of mediation and recognition.” (Fanon 192) Instead of turning away from the unjust order, embrace the oppressor, and maybe then, they will embrace back. In Hegelian terms, the oppressors and oppressed “recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other.” (Hegel 112)

Furthermore, history cannot be used as a means of self-affirming and resisting. In order to resolve the conflict, the oppressors and oppressed “both have to move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that genuine communication can be born.” (Fanon 206) We must not accept the other as a thing that merely exists. We must question and come to know them. In Fanon’s words, we must “simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other.” (206)

I think it is clear that the oppressed can be the agents of change by exploring and coming to know the other because the oppressors may be more likely to react in human ways. The oppressed don’t need more violent acts but more human acts to empower and encourage the humanity of the oppressors. I think this interaction and learning on both sides also teaches both sides to be human, to love. It seems only right that the oppressed do not take what is rightfully theirs, but that they incite the oppressors to give it back. Only when the oppressors are willing to give the oppressed their humanity back, is the conflict successfully solved for the long term because then it is certain that the oppressed have learned to love.

I think the oppressed must be extraordinarily courageous to explore the oppressors in order to engender humanity in them. The interaction between oppressed and oppressor is a potentially terrifying prospect that may lead to physical violence, and therefore, this may be asking too much of the oppressed. I recognize this terrifying prospect and will later suggest a solution that involves a safe time and place for interaction. Within a safe zone, the oppressed must not fear the hatred and anger of the oppressors. They must recognize that the ones who started the violence, the oppressors, are as afraid as the oppressed. Thus, the oppressed help the oppressors develop enough courage to voluntarily end their violence by being courageous enough to learn about the oppressors. In this way, no violent resistance from the oppressed is ever needed.

I believe that by putting on a mask, the oppressors relieve themselves of their responsibility to others. They irrationally justify their desire to not understand other humans because they are cowards, and they fear what the other humans will think of them. By taking away their own humanity, they relieve their fears but also deprive themselves of human interactions, those interactions that call for empathy and compassion for another people or person. Without these interactions, which provide the opportunity for the oppressors to remove their masks, they will never have the courage or reason to remove the masks themselves.

A Suggested Solution of Universal Interaction

In order to have these interactions between the oppressors and oppressed, there must be a space, time, and reason to safely interact. I propose that oppressors and oppressed, white and black, can touch, feel, and discover each other through engaging in universal activities. These universal activities encapsulate what make up the consciousness of all individuals, what many refer to as play. All people play. They engage in sports, dance, music, or any other type of game or art. These activities either cause people to work together as a structured team or explore each other’s expressions. They demonstrate peoples’ similarities and accentuate their differences, and thus give both sides a better understanding of the other. This understanding of the other, by engagement in universal activity, supports unity among all people, oppressor and oppressed, white and black.

The world must find ways to engage in primal unity, that which Friedrich Nietzsche relates to the Greek God, Dionysus. Dionysians create a world of selflessness that is in constant tension with Apollonians, those who are characterized by detachment and restraint, and thus are self-centered. Nietszche explains, “Under the magic of the Dionysian, not only does the bond between man and man lock itself in place once more, but also nature itself, no matter how alienated, hostile, or subjugated, rejoices again in her festival of reconciliation with her prodigal son, man.” (10) If the oppressed realizes, through all the rightful anger and hate of the oppressors, that there is still a common bond of humanity between them that must be awakened, violent resistance becomes less significant. For example, the arts, such as music and dance, have their own universal languages that are capable of connecting human to human. Instead of emerging and turning upon the oppressors, the oppressed strike a human chord in the oppressors that engenders human qualities, such as love. Nietzsche, on the effects of these unifying experiences, explains:

Now the slave a free man; now all the stiff, hostile barriers break apart, those things which necessity and arbitrary power or “saucy fashion” have established between men. Now, with the gospel of world harmony, every man feels himself not only united with his neighbour, reconciled and fused together, but also as one with him, as if the veil of Maja had been ripped apart, with only scraps fluttering around in the face of the mysterious primordial unity. Singing and dancing, man expresses himself as a member of a higher community: he has forgotten how to walk and talk and is on the verge of flying up into the air as he dances. (Nietzsche 12)


In the Dionysian spirit, rationality and irrationality become insignificant; the rational or irrational resistance of both parties becomes undone. Instead, both parties recognize each other as fundamentally human. The impudent mentalities of the oppressors and oppressed are undercut by their own instincts toward unity. Instead of perpetually self-affirming and propounding idiosyncratic languages in order to prove to the other their existence, their existence becomes justified through mutual recognition and a universal language.


For an individual to be human, recognition by other humans is necessary. If a group of individuals reject their humanity by dehumanizing another group then they inflict ontological violence on that group. They become oppressors and oppressed. Since it is a paradox to fight ontological violence with violent resistance, I question Freire’s logic of resistance. I believe resistance may only be a short-term answer to the conflict, considering oppressors may ceaselessly resist back rationally or irrationally. The long-term answer will be to remove the masks of the oppressors. The oppressors may only remove their own masks and they must have courage to do so. This courage can only be given to them by the oppressed, who must gain the courage to interact with the oppressors on a human level. This includes discovering a means of instilling love in the oppressors to help them understand and become dedicated to others’ liberation. I suggest this may be implemented by engaging both sides in universal activities, including the arts and sports, or any other form of play. By coming to understand and appreciate each other through universal themes and languages, both sides may learn to love. Ontologically violent resistance, thus, may be avoided.


Works Cited

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Trans, Charles Lam Markmann. New York:  Grove Press, 1967. Print

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. Trans. Myra

Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 2010. Print.

Hegel, G.W.F. “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage.” Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford   University Press, 1977. Print.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tradegy Out of the Spirit of Music. Trans. Ian Johnston. Nanaimo: Vancouver Island University, 2008. PDF File.

Yancy, George. Black Bodies, White Gazes. The Continuing Significance of Race. New York: Rowman & LittleField Publishers, 2008. Print.

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