Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Roundabout as conflict-avoidance versus Malcolm X’s psychology of liberation

by Denis G. Rancourt
This essay was first posted on the Activist Teacher blog.

In the present essay I introduce the general notion of “roundabout” as a mechanism of conflict avoidance used by privileged social justice activists. I then contrast this pseudo-liberation activism with the needed true liberation activism of Malcolm X, which I argue to be consistent with the model of liberation of Freire.


The now familiar concept of “pacifism as pathology” was introduced by Ward Churchill as the central characteristic of First-World middleclass so-called social justice activism. Churchill argued from history that all liberations were leveraged through violence and proposed that pacifism as cowardice was pathology. [1]

Gandhi stated that it was better to practice armed resistance than to use pacifism as an excuse for cowardice [2]. Both men (Churchill and Ghandi) saw acceptance of and self-justification for one’s (legal or circumstantial) slavery as pathology.

Paulo Freire’s work showed that all hierarchies, no matter how cushioned in comfort, are violent and oppressive and argued that we could only fight our own oppression – that “solidarity” meant standing side by side with those fighting our same oppression. Freire advanced that all liberations had to be rooted in and driven by the struggles of the oppressed themselves no matter how underprivileged and that inter-social-class “solidarity” was insignificant and limited to rare individuals who joined in battle on the front lines. [3]

Churchill concentrated on the use of pacifism as an excuse to avoid the needed direct confrontation with the oppressive system. He and others have deconstructed and exposed First World pacifism as avoidance; including mainstream life-style environmentalism, ecological or economic isolationism, love ideologies, and so on, when taken to be activisms in themselves. These authors did not explore the main creative active strategies whereby pacifism can be enacted.

I explore the latter strategies of evasive action (roundabout) used by the most activist-minded sector of concerned citizens.

My goal is to provide a radical self-criticism for dedicated anti-hierarchy (social justice) activists to help ensure that we are as effective as possible and are not simply fooling ourselves. I hope that my analysis will help us to more easily recognize when we are fooling ourselves and wasting our energies and will help us to identify optimally effective outlooks and strategies.


Education and progressive legislation

Here is an example. A visible minority suffers racism. As a way of avoiding effective direct challenges to this racism, members of this visible minority ally themselves (in “solidarity”) with privileged social justice activist whites in order to train the majority societal group away from overt racist behaviour using social engineering managed by the establishment - using sponsored “education” and progressive legislation.

As a result, a privileged class of educated and integrated whites become self-conscious about racist behaviour and self-sensor their racist expression, the establishment strengthens its illusion of fairness, and the minority looses its ability and perceived legitimacy for effective direct daily confrontations against now-more-covert racism.

A victim in this particular roundabout is the collaborating visible minority because it puts its efforts in collaborating and its hopes in the social engineering rather than practice its liberation. It denies itself praxis (in the sense of Freire) and instead integrates itself more fully with the oppressive dominant hierarchy, thereby becoming more oppressed and more of an oppressor. Other victims are the lower social class individuals of the visible minority who loose actual solidarity with the now more integrated higher social class individuals of the visible minority and who are saddled with a stronger establishment more able to deflect their legitimate and persistent interests.

The above described roundabout is common as a general model for any oppressed group in a “free and democratic” First World setting: women, queers, blacks, language or cultural minorities, working class, working poor, homeless, disabled, non-status, elderly, disease-infected, professional workers, students, migrant workers, colonized aboriginals, prisoners, consumers, wage earners, tenants, home owners, single fathers, single mothers, and so on.

The above example involves a social class divide of the oppressed group but the class divide is not an essential feature because the roundabout is equally effective when there is no underclass of the oppressed group.

The essential feature of this roundabout is that the collaboration with the establishment, with the hierarchical system of control, is a conscious or unconscious diversion (in terms of personal psychology and personal resource allocation) away from effective direct confrontations, away from the praxis of liberation and away from Freire’s needed revolt and authentic rebellion.

The dominant group partner in this roundabout also avoids its own immediate oppressions, instead of its members practicing their liberation. As a result of this dedicated exercise of avoidance, members of the dominant group partner in the roundabout are perpetually depressed, in search of “hope”, and routinely experience “burn out” despite self-identifying as privileged. This is because the authentically concerned dominant group partners (as opposed to the cynical higher-hierarchical-level dominant group partners such as law and policy makers) are attempting to removed themselves from their own pain and have denied themselves any possibility of directly and effectively addressing their own immediate oppression.

Organizing and politics

Another example of roundabout is when a concerned and sensitized individual, often burdened with survival guilt associated with his/her relative privilege and damaged by an institutionalization (school, work, etc.) against which he/she has no personal experience of effective resistance, identifies an injustice needing to be redressed and launches into “organizing” as a substitute for immediate and direct action, as a substitute for initiating a praxis of liberation focussed on one’s own oppression.

This type of organizing is based of recruiting membership, education regarding the issues, building a growing pool of progressive opinion, and so on, but it guards itself against “radical” actions that would scare off potential allies and clings instead to the mythology of a critical mass of opinion as a motor for societal change. [4][5]

In contrast, organizing that supports liberation is driven by the need for efficient learning, protection and power amplification in a group of individuals already joined in solidarity via their practices of liberation. It is an organizing that is an organic part of the praxis, not a holding pattern of risk and confrontation avoidance.

Deferring societal agency

In another roundabout the concerned and sensitized individual makes a conscious decision to temporarily sacrifice himself/herself to fully integrate the system and to seek advancement within the hierarchy with the rationalization that he/she will be more able to make positive change once a sufficient degree of power and influence is achieved.

The nature of a hierarchy is of course such that this is impossible. The rare individuals who break free from the top layers are expelled from the establishment. The other climbers serve the system astonishingly well or blame themselves for failure and drop out if they cannot.

The sacrifice of willing integration is a large price to pay if the individual does not discover rebellion and creative anti-hierarchical sabotage as methods to change the system from within. Workers and students play the system to survive and their suffering is evident in absenteeism (both physical and mental), indifference, detachment, cynicism, escapism, self-destruction, and so on.

This process and these difficulties are described by Schmidt for the case of professional workers [6]. Adapted to our schooling, this is the story of our institutionalization into the hierarchy, into an economy controlled by concentrated power. In this sense, student liberation during the developmental years would be a most fertile ground for societal transformation [7]. This is why schools are guarded from outside influence and from ideological divergence as rigorously or more than prisons. [8]

Anytime the individual substitutes direct self-defence using his/her body, language, personal influence in community and personal power at school or at work with some indirect or circuitous make-work near-zero-risk scheme that involves going along or convincing others to also not act, then the individual is practicing roundabout rather than liberation activism.


The Black Panther Party (originally the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence) was founded in 1966, one year after the murder of Malcolm X. The spectre of such an organized and focussed resistance was the main concrete driving force which led to significant civil rights gains for blacks. The Black Panther Party was eliminated by the white state’s (FBI) political assassination unit known as COINTELPRO which was also involved in the Malcolm X assassination. Today US blacks disproportionately populate the lowest economic class and US prisons.

In the words of Rev. Albert Cleage [9]:
“Malcolm X was tremendously important, beyond our comprehension today … Malcolm laid down certain basic principles that we can never forget. He changed the whole course. The first basic principle that Malcolm laid down that we can’t forget is this: The white man is your enemy. That is a basic principle, we can’t forget it. I don’t care what else they drag in from wherever they drag it – remember one thing, Malcolm taught one truth: The white man is our enemy. We can’t get away from it, and if we accept and understand that one basic truth, his life was not lived in vain. Because upon that one basic truth we can build a total philosophy, a total course of action for struggle. Because that was the basic confusion which distorted the lives of black people, with corrupted the movements of black people.”

“He didn’t just say it … he went out and he lived it. He asked for moments of confrontation. He said we have got to break our identification, we can’t go through life identifying with the white man or his government. … We must break our identification with the enemy, we must confront him, and we must realize that conflict and violence are necessary parts of a struggle against an enemy – that is what he taught. Conflict, struggle, and violence are not to be avoided. Don’t be afraid of them…”
This foundational principle that in the hierarchical oppression of blacks your enemy is your enemy can be generalized to any particular hierarchical oppression and to all oppressions by hierarchies.

The oppressor by nature is your enemy. You cannot collaborate with your enemy devoted to your oppression and come out ahead. At best, you will be used and transformed into your enemy.

Malcolm X’s psychology of liberation is one where you recognize that the oppressor is an enemy that you cannot integrate, where you know that this enemy can only be deterred by your strength and your willingness to defend yourself.

In this psychology, like in Freire’s, you do not fight the enemy in order to replace him in a hierarchy. You fight for liberation, not for an opportunity to create your own system of oppression. But you fight. You understand that this is an enemy and that all hierarchies can only violently oppress.

If it’s not clear that you are oppressed or that your oppressor is your enemy, then not only are you trapped and confused but you also protect and serve the oppressor. And you act against all those who are oppressed by the oppressor. You collaborate.

One does not like to live during a time of war and one does not like to have enemies. But this is a time of war and you are harmed by the system, denied your full humanity, as surely as the million directly killed in Iraq and as surely as those held in the open air prison known as Gaza and illegally maintained by Israel.

By not fighting your own oppression directly as an individual person you protect the same system that practices these war crimes. By not understanding in your pores that this system and those who sustain, protect and project it are your enemy until they stop, by not understanding this, you are co-opted into collaborating and into denying yourself your own liberation.

You can’t even start a praxis of liberation until you start to recognize the enemy. And you can’t sustain the struggle without knowing who the enemy is and that he is the enemy.

There is an us and them. You are oppressed and you have an oppressor. Indeed, you are oppressed by an entire hierarchical system of oppression. You target where you can best defend yourself, where you will inflict the most punishment. Call it punitive justice.

As soon as you loose sight that you are dealing with an enemy, then you are part of the oppressor. All the internal and external forces will make every attempt to confuse you on this point and to buy or to force your cooperation. In particular, those who invest in roundabout will vehemently pressure and coerce you to follow them because you represent a threat to their psychological investment [4][5].


If I keep my individual personal agency, my direct ability to have influence, my direct bodily ability to defend myself against my oppressor understood to be my enemy, at the point of my strongest connection to my oppressor, then I will not partake in roundabout. I will have all my available resources for my praxis of liberation which will naturally include organizing and community.


[1] “Pacifism as Pathology” by Ward Churchill, 1986.

[2] "Resolving the Israel-Palestine Conflict: What we can learn from Gandhi" by Norman G. Finkelstein, 2009.

[3] “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire, 1970.

[4] “On the racism and pathology of left progressive First-World activism” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[5] “The Activist Wars” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2009.

[6] “Disciplined Minds” by Jeff Schmidt, 2000.

[7] “Need for and Practice of Student Liberation” by Denis G. Rancourt, 2010.

[8] “The Student as Nigger” by Jerry Farber, 1969.

[9] "Myths about Malcolm X" by Rev. Albert Cleage, speech delivered in Detroit, February 24, 1967.

Denis G. Rancourt was a tenured and full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He practiced several areas of science which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals. He developed popular activism courses and was an outspoken critic of the university administration and a defender of student and Palestinian rights. He was fired for his dissidence in 2009 by a president who is a staunch supporter of Israeli policy. [See]


greg macdougall said...

interesting stuff. amd some good analysis

however, from my understanding, you are cherry picking from Malcolm and not dealing with his later revelation, after going on pilmgrimage, of changing his stance on 'the white man is the enemy'

here are some of Malcolm's own words, from

"I feel like a man who has been asleep somewhat and under someone else's control. I feel what I'm thinking and saying now is for myself. Before, it was for and by guidance of another, now I think with my own mind."


"That is when I first began to reappraise the "white man." It was when I first began to perceive that "white man," as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes and actions. In America,"white man" meant specific attitudes and actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men. But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook about "white" men."


"You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. This was not too difficult for me. Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds it. I have always kept an open mind, which necessary to the flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of intelligent search for truth."


"We were truly all the same (brothers) -- because their belief in one God had removed the "white" from their minds, the 'white' from their behavior, and the 'white' from their attitude."


" My pilgrimage broadened my scope. It blessed me with a new insight. In two weeks in the Holy Land, I saw what I never had seen in thirty-nine years here in America. I saw all races, all colors, -- blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned Africans -- in true brotherhood! In unity! Living as one! Worshipping as one! No segregationists -- no liberals; they would not have known how to interpret the meaning of those words.

In the past, yes, I have made sweeping indictments of all white people. I will never be guilty of that again -- as I know now that some white people are truly sincere, that some truly are capable of being brotherly toward a black man. The true Islam has shown me that a blanket indictment of all white people is as wrong as when whites make blanket indictments against blacks."


"I know that societies often have killed the people who have helped to change those societies. And if I can die having brought any light, having exposed any meaningful truth that will help to destroy the racist cancer that is malignant in the body of America -- then, all of the credit is due to Allah. Only the mistakes have been mine."

Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall said...

Wow, great post. As an activist in Seattle's African American community between 1987-2002, I was most troubled by economic attacks on Seattle's central area. In the early 80s, the state, city council and the feds colluded to route an Interstate feeder through the black community - and in doing so destroyed 1/3 of the small businesses that provided jobs for the city's African American residents. I write about this, along with my own close encounter with the seamier side of US intelligence in my recent memoir THE MOST REVOLUTIONARY ACT: MEMOIR OF AN AMERICAN REFUGEE ( I currently live in exile in New Zealand.