“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Steve Biko, South African anti-apartheid activist.
We begin the rites of socialization as infants and our conditioning continues throughout our lives through a multitude of relationships, institutions and experiences. Krishnamurti states it more precisely in Freedom from the Known, “For centuries we have been conditioned by nationality, caste, class, tradition, religion, language, education, literature, art, custom, convention, propaganda of all kinds, economic pressure, the food we eat, the climate we live in, our family, our friends, our experiences—every influence you can think of—and therefore our responses to every problem are conditioned.”
Essentially, our conditioning teaches us to know and accept the boundaries within the overarching social structure we live within. Many people declare we must learn to function within the limits of our society for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they believe it is to get along better with others or to know how things work in our society to properly navigate the system, get what we want from it or change it. Personally, I’m far more interested in what happens when we question our conditioning.
My condensed understanding of our conditioning goes something like this: we are continually being manipulated to live a life based on the illusion of fear, which effectively disempowers individuals and chains us to a paradigm that values preserving the power for the world’s elite. To better explain how the elite continue to benefit from my conditioning, take a look at some of the ways I have been conditioned. Think of the inherent fear, hierarchy and domination built into this limited portion of my conditioning. As a child, I was taught to seek my family’s approval. As a woman, I have been trained to meet other people’s needs before my own. As a partner, I have been primarily shown relationships of control and dependency. As a white person, I have been conditioned to fear People of Color. As an economically privileged person, I have been told all my needs and desires can be bought. As a schooled person, I have been instructed to accept school as the best way we learn. As a teacher, I have been told students must be controlled. As a citizen, I have become a dependent subject of the State. As an American, I have been trained to embrace a throwaway consumer culture. As a Westerner, I have been asked to accept that our civilization is the most advanced.
Essentially, this conditioning has made me a servant to the demands of fear, the global economy, government, school and authority at large. In turn, I have been effectively kept from answering the calling of my own free will. If I (and everyone else) remain in this hierarchy without questioning it, working to dismantle it or creating an alternative to it, modern civilization will continue on its merry way. However, the merry way of civilization isn’t so merry when it requires destruction en masse of the environment, spirit, local economies, communities and indigenous ways of knowing. It also requires that the majority loses and never achieves the glamorous life we are taught to emulate and deserve. Meanwhile, the elite continues to benefit from this paradigm, while the rest of us are just drones for the hive. This is why I agree with Steve Biko’s statement, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
However, when I question the structure of society, I let go of the paradigm I have been taught. I reclaim my mind and personal power through questioning, rebelling and stepping outside the dominant paradigm. Other people and institutions may punish me for my rebellion. They may chide me and try to push me back in line. They may label me an idealist or in other words, impractical. But, once I began my path of unlearning my deepest conditioned fears, I realized it was scarier to live in a state of fear, than to live in a state of freedom. Now, I work towards creating my life and embracing my dreams.
Is this scary and overwhelming at times? Of course, it is! I have to deal with all the hidden dark sides of myself created from years of conditioning and unlearn those patterns. I have to find ways to engage in the world that do not replicate my conditioning. I have to seek spaces where people encourage my deprogramming. However, beyond the struggle, I know my commitment to questioning my conditioning and unlearning what I deem harmful to others and myself is a vital part of social change. I cultivate my critical consciousness and deepen my awareness of the world within and without, and this I believe is my most potent weapon.
-- Sarah looks forward to writing more about the journey of unlearning, of being a swapthagami and how these are tools for a social revolution.