Irony of Life and Epistemological Borders: Experiencing Epistemic Liberation within Imperialism


Entry of the Sete Salões, spiritual place for the Krenak, a Brazilian Indigenous People

It is very ironical that I had to leave my land, Brazil, to realize how colonized my thinking was. This realization came with much suffering and pain because it is not easy, nor a one-time done transformation. Rather, it is an ongoing process of leavening the epistemic cave created and promoted by the modern Western hegemonic paradigm, historically sustained by colonialism, patriarchalism, and capitalism. In my case, it has been even more painful because of my history of sociopolitical engagement from justice and liberation of the poor.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos believes that our contemporary period has strong questions to which the modern Western epistemology does not have strong answers to offer. For him, the Western modernity and the knowledge that sustains it, even among leftist leaders in the Global North, are more part of the problem than of the solution. Sousa Santos suggests that strong answers can be found in the Global South, particularly in the antiimperialist movements of liberation, with their dynamism and ability to reconcile theory and practice. In this dynamism, even Western hegemonic tools, such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are understood and used in a new “counterhegemonic way for counterhegemonic purposes” (Epistemologies of the South, 34).

Perhaps my earlier liberating practices were so imbedded in this counterhegemonic way within grassroot movements that I didn’t realize that to achieve a sustainable liberation was necessary also an epistemic catharsis. Perhaps – but only perhaps because I don’t have the resources and the capacity to provide a comprehensive judgment for that – the lack of understanding the need of epistemic catharsis as necessary as the need of socioeconomic liberation was one of the mistakes of the left parties, leaders, and the grassroot movements that supported them, when they democratically arrived at the political power in the two first decades of the 2000s in Brazil. They mistook country emancipation with socioeconomic development able to raise poor people to the better status of a middle class. In the case of Brazil, all trabalho de base, that is, grassroots work to help create conscientization of socioeconomic condition of oppression and need of political change, made possible the Workers’ Party to achieve electoral success. However, this trabalho de base cooled down after Lula’s elections and his policies that raised millions of people out of poverty. In addition, this movement of conscientization was never enough to create a liberation of the mind, including the minds of those who acted as organic intellectuals within grassroots communities and as leaders then elected for political offices. As a result, the dream of the oppressed was not justice for all, but rather leaving the oppressed class to reproduce the same hegemonic process of domination of a subaltern class.

Space for a meeting of the youth group MIRE–Mysticism&Revolution

The identification that the liberation of the mind – that is, the epistemic liberation as I am calling it – was realized by some intellectuals, notably by Paulo Freire in his Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the guiders of this trabalho de base in Brazil. However, this was never fully embodied by practices and many theories sustaining the political effort of the left, before and after the Workers’ Party federal administration. Perhaps – again only perhaps – this is among the reasons that led the new middle class – built on the opportunities created by Lula’s and Dilma’s policies – embraced a narrative against welfare policies and the capacity of the state to promote economic development, becoming uncritical and devoted to neoliberal capitalism.

I am a person who experienced this national process as a part of it. Although I never embraced the narrative that promoted the parliamentarian coup against Dilma and elected Bolsonaro, I had to place myself outside my own national experience to wake up to the need of revisiting all my own mind in order to continue moving forward without renouncing both the criticism to capitalism and the work for another possible world, based on justice and equality.

Ironically, epistemic liberation begins not with organic intellectuals joining oppressed classes to tell them what they have to do to foster political, social, and economic change, but rather joining them to first learn from them and, only then, being able to offer something, in a process of mutual learning led by the creative, dynamic, resilient, and resistant experience of the oppressed. This echoes Freire’s belief that only the oppressed can liberate themselves and the oppressor, a transformation that includes an epistemic liberation.

In the world of the oppression of any historically marginalized population and social group, one finds knowledge free from the modern Western epistemology. But the realization of this knowledge is damaged when opportunities, offered to representants of the marginalized, come with the hegemonic Western paradigm imposed as a way to kill any form of knowledge that does not fit in the Western epistemology. This occurred with me when I had the opportunity to access education and achieve high and prestigious degrees, such as a Ph.D. This last degree was acquired in a US university that, as any university in the USA, experiences the paradoxical role of both supporting the modern Western predatory model of infinite progress and tolerating dissidents, critical to this same model. However, these dissidents must operate and develop their scholarship within the Western epistemology, with almost no-room for other ways to think and understand the world because they are inferior as anything non-Western.

Although there is this tolerance in US universities, inside them has lines separating the dissidents, reproducing the world phenomena of borderization identified by the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe: “The process by which world powers permanently transform certain spaces into impossible places for certain classes of population” (Necropolitics, 99). Experiencing a sort of academic borderization in US universities, I realized the existence of epistemic lines creating a border which separates and marginalizes anyone who refuses to fit in the epistemological standard established by the modern Western model. Its self-sense of supremacy and legitimacy over any other forms of thinking justify the rejection of any non-Western epistemology.

The borderization occurs everywhere. In term of the production of knowledge, people from former Western colonies suffer a symbolic violence materialized in an epistemological murder of alternative ways of thinking. This violence especially impacts educated people as Frantz Fanon said: “The feeling of inferiority by Blacks is especially evident in the educated black man who is constantly trying to overcome it” (Black Skin, White Masks, 09). Education, especially in universities, is structured and delivered to make us to believe that anything developed in and by the modern Western paradigm is better than our worldviews and knowledges in the Global South. I was educated in this way. Even working for the liberation of the oppressed and the poor, experiencing their knowledge at first hand, when I was in the academic seats, doing research and producing scholarly work, I simply reproduced the Western epistemology. I was told this was ‘the best I could do.’ When I came to the US, I was guided to believe that this ‘best I could do’ would never be good enough for the West because I was [and will always be] a person from the Global South. Little by little, I began to realize this epistemic oppression and how being free from it was necessary for our struggle for liberation and justice in the Global South and among oppressed groups everywhere.


O rompimento das porteiras by Sebastião Salgado

The process of epistemic liberation is slow and painful. It develops in a praxis of liberation with the oppressed. The university can be a hegemonic tool for counterhegemonic ways of thinking, actions, and goals. In the process of epistemic liberation, I suggest an inversion in the meaning of the epistemological borderization lines. I am not restricted in a small place defined by lines imposed by one Western paradigm and its hegemonic epistemology. Rather, I am in a free space, expanded by the richness of epistemological pluralism and their creative practices of resistance. I am free in an unlimited space full of diverse models of thinking that challenge each other, learning and growing from them. Although I am still paying the socioeconomic price for operating in this process of epistemic liberation experiencing marginalization, those who are on the other side of the border are the ones who chose limitation over expansion, oppression over freedom, ignorance over learning, destruction over harmony of peoples and nature. Although they enjoy socioeconomic benefits, I would hate to be on their side of the border.


*Alexandre A. Martins is 2021-22 Hubert Müder Chair in Health Care Ethics at the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics - SLU; an assistant professor at Marquette University in Wisconsin, USA. Author of several articles and books in social ethics, bioethics, and global health, such as Covid-19, Política e Fé: Bioética em diálogo com a realidade enlouquecida (Gênio Criador, 2020); The Cry of the Poor: liberation ethics and justice in health care (Lexington Books, 2020)

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