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How the Occupy Movement Helped Americans Move Beyond Denial and Depression to Action

The spirit of liberation psychology--a tradition from Latin American protest movements--has been embraced by U.S. Occupy participants.

 While the term liberation psychology is less commonly known in the United States than in Latin America, the spirit of liberation psychology has been embraced by U.S. Occupy participants.

Liberation psychology, unlike mainstream psychology , questions adjustment to the societal status quo, and it energizes oppressed people to resist all injustices. Liberation psychology attempts to discover how demoralized people can regain the energy necessary to take back the power that they had handed over to illegitimate authorities. 

The Occupy movement has tapped into the energy supply that many oppressed and exploited people ultimately discover. We discover it when we come out of denial that we are a subjugated people. We discover just how energizing it can be to delegitimize oppressive institutions and authorities. And when these oppressive authorities react violently to peaceful resistance, their violence validates their illegitimacy—and provides us with even more energy.

With liberation psychology, we no longer take seriously the elite’s rigged games that had sucked us in and then sucked the energy out of us. We move beyond denial and depression that the U.S. electoral process is a rigged game, an exercise in learned helplessness in which we are given the choice between politicians who will either (1) screw us, or (2) screw us. We begin to engage in other “battlegrounds for democracy.”

Corporate-collaborating journalists, politicians and other lackeys of the elite ask, “What are the goals of the Occupy movement?” They are deaf to the answer no matter how loud we yell. If they did understand, they would then have to stop being lackeys. But their elite bosses do understand that the Occupy movement is a demand for economic fairness—a frightening prospect for the elite. The elite then divide into two camps: (1) throw the demonstrators a bone so they go away, but give them no power; or (2) give them nothing, just destroy them. This is not news to liberation psychologists.

Origins of Liberation Psychology

Ignacio Martin-Baró (1942–1989) was both a Jesuit priest and a social psychologist in El Salvador, and it is he who should be given credit for popularizing the term liberation psychology . As a priest, Martin-Baró embraced liberation theology in opposition to a theology that oppressed the poor, and as a psychologist, he believed that imported North American psychology also oppressed marginalized people throughout Latin America.

Martin-Baró’s liberation theology, his liberation psychology, and his activism for the people of El Salvador cost him his life. In the middle of the night on November 16, 1989, Martin-Baró, together with five colleagues, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter, were forced out to a courtyard on the campus of Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, where they were murdered by the US-trained troops of the Salvadoran government’s elite Atlacatl Battalion.

Many liberation psychologists, including Martin-Baró, have gleaned much from Paulo Freire (1921-1997), Brazilian educator and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed . Freire stressed the importance of conscientização—critical consciousness and awareness of the effects of trying to operate within an alienating and dehumanizing social structure. Freire recognized a certain psychology of oppression in which the downtrodden become fatalistic, believing they are powerless to alter their circumstances, thus becoming resigned to their situation. 

With critical consciousness, individuals can identify both external oppression and self-imposed internal oppression. Critical consciousness is aimed at ending fatalism so that one can free oneself from self-imposed powerlessness. It is a process in which changes in one’s internal world result in taking actions to change one’s external world, and taking actions changes one’s internal world.

Critical consciousness cannot be learned in a top-down manner. It is essentially a self-education process among equals. Liberation from fatalism and powerlessness is a process in which participants are not mere objects of instruction or of treatment. Instead of being acted upon, they are taking actions, learning, and then taking even more powerful actions. These are defining characteristics of the Occupy movement.