Henry Giroux: Now Is the Time to Break the Spectacle of Ignorance and Violence

This is the 31st in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Henry A. Giroux, a renowned public intellectual, author, and critical educator, who currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University. Giroux is the author of many books, including, most recently, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (2018) and The Terror of the Unforeseen (2019), just out from LARB Books.

BRAD EVANS: Henry, it’s wonderful to once again be in your intellectual company and have the opportunity to discuss your important work. I’d like to also congratulate you on another book publication, The Terror of the Unforeseen, which has just been released by an imprint of the Los Angeles Review of Books. We have talked at length about global issues of power, politics, and violence, but I’d like to turn in this interview to questions of a more biographical nature. You often write about “youth” being targeted and yet overlooked in critical analysis, so can you tell me more about your “formative years”?

HENRY A. GIROUX: I understood from a young age that schools could be a form of pedagogical violence. This began when I was high school student and stood out as a particularly oppressive episode in my life. School was a form of dead time, marked by racial and class segregated pedagogies that were mostly disciplinary and repressive. My educational (or should I say “correctional”) facility, ironically named Hope High School, was segregated along class and racial lines. Poor white and black kids were placed in the “junk” courses, played sports, and were labeled largely through what was defined as their deficits, which included their manner of speaking, dress, and other aspects of their cultural capital. Most of us entered the school through the back entrance and played on various sports teams. Within the space offered through our participation in a high-powered basketball team, we forged strong bonds across racial lines that offered a sense of solidarity and protection from the worse effects of school disciplinary measures. Yet, this space of marginal privilege never offered up the language or modes of resistance that would allow us to fully understand or escape from a ubiquitous hidden curriculum of racist and class violence that we experienced every single day, in the corridors, at lunch time, and in the not so subtle message that we were not wanted at the social events organized by kids from the upper middle and ruling classes in the school. We had no language to resist our own erasure. While some of us were valued for our abilities to play certain sports, this was mere tokenism, as outside of the acknowledgment — to perform without being heard (except in our physically exhausted states) — we were unknowable. Schooling for us was not a place where we realized our capacities to be engaged citizens and as such suffered the violence of being rendered voiceless and thus powerless, at least in terms of being able to narrate our own needs, desires, and hopes. We were defined by what was lacking and paid a price for our status as kids marginalized by class and color. Being unrecognized or treated as unknowable, our sense of subjectivity was not merely in doubt, it was erased.

The school didn’t however operate according to some special rules. The same racial and class registers were at work outside its walls and the latter worked in tandem with how the school was organized into protected spaces for the white rich kids and zones of danger and neglect for the rest of us. The racist and class violence of schooling was reproduced seamlessly, externally and internally, adding to its false facade of normalization. It was hard for me to miss the class and racial dimensions of all of this, especially since I had ample opportunity to play in the gyms in black neighborhoods in Providence, Rhode Island. Visiting the neighborhoods of my black friends and playing in gyms on their turf was easy, but they could not come into my neighborhood without suffering the indignities of racial slurs or the possibility of a brutal assault. It was then I learned you cannot talk about race without class, or class without race, since both shared the violence of being judged as inferior, outside of the bounds of a quality education, and subject to forms of social abandonment. Something too many liberals have failed to grasp with their warped notions of individual agency.

In school, we shared the oppression of being disposable, and that became evident in the dropout rates, suspensions, and criminalizing of behavior organized along class and racial lines. School for me was a blunt instrument of social and cultural reproduction, a pedagogical weapon whose aim was to serve the elite through a smoothly functioning social cleansing machine done in the name of meritocracy. School was a place and space where our social and political agency was denied. My sense of education as a tool of critical awakening, one that was refiguring my sense of agency, first began at that moment when the lived experience of solidarity and loyalty rubbed up against my own unquestioned racism and sexism, which had a long history in the daily encounters of my youth. Sometimes the contradictions between solidarity and loyalty were tested within contradictions that unraveled the common sense of racism and sexism as filtered through the class lens and woven into the fabric of everyday struggles. Treating people as objects or understanding them through established stereotypes was being constantly enacted as I moved through high school, and would be firmly challenged as I met black men and women who refused those stereotypes and had the kindness and intelligence to open my eyes through both their own lived experiences and their access to a critical language that I lacked. My encounter with pedagogy was through the eyes of the lived oppressed. But I didn’t need to “learn it,” I knew how it felt, I just lacked the critical language to explain its conditions. As I look back on that history, I believe that school as a tool of repression and segregation has in fact intensified even though (prior to Trump at least), masked by the myth in which it claimed to be more “progressive.” The hidden curriculum of racism and class discrimination is no longer hidden and is on full display in the increasing criminalization of student behaviors, the emergence of zero-tolerance policies, the increased policing of schools, the ubiquity of a surveillance culture, and the massive underfunding of public education.

Given this history, when did you first become aware of the importance of education and for its liberating potential to be robbed in the active production of compliance? I am thinking here about your personal decision to take up the pedagogical challenge yourself.

My initial theoretical and political understanding of education as a moral and political practice, as a struggle over assigned agencies and as a mode of organized resistance or, if you will as a practice of freedom, had its roots during my years as a high school teacher. A more sophisticated understanding of the pedagogical imperative as a political force only emerged while I was in college during the latter half of the ’60s. I must admit that my first interest in critical pedagogy grew out of my teaching experience as a secondary school teacher in Barrington, Rhode Island. Despite the imposing structure, teachers then at least had certain autonomy in shaping their approach to classroom teaching. At that time, I taught a couple of seminars in social studies and focused on feminist studies, theories of alienation, and a range of other important social issues. While I had no trouble finding critical content, including progressive films I used to rent from the Quakers (Society of Friends), I did not know how to theorize the various progressive approaches to teaching I tried in the classroom. All the while, my pedagogical approaches were being constantly questioned by other conservative teachers as well as by a military-styled vice principal who believed that students should sit up straight and simply allow knowledge to be drilled into them.

My lack of a theoretical language came to an end when I was introduced to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and from then on, my interest in radical pedagogy began to develop rather quickly. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University in 1977, I became deeply influenced by the work being produced at the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies as well as the educational work being done around the sociology of education in England. In the United States, the work of Paul Goodman, Samuel Bowles, and Herbert Gintis on the political economy of schooling as well as the theoretical work developed by Martin Carnoy had an important influence on me. While I learned a great deal from these radical theorists, I felt they erred on the side of political economy and did not say enough about either resistance, critical pedagogy, or the importance of cultural politics. The structural nature of this work was gloomy, over determined, and left little room for seizing upon contradictions, or a theory of power that did not collapse into domination. Moreover, they had a limited sense of how to theorize forms of domination, if not resistance, as not only economic and structural but also intellectual and pedagogical — that is, through the realms of the symbolic and pedagogical.

Hence, I began to look elsewhere for theoretical models to develop a more comprehensive understanding of schooling and its relationship to larger social, economic, and cultural forces. I initially found it in the work of Stanley Aronowitz, Hannah Arendt, and Herbert Marcuse and work of the Frankfurt School. I drew upon this work to challenge the then-dominant culture of positivism as well as the radical educational theorists’ over-emphasis on the political economy of schooling. Theory and Resistance in Education was the most well-known outcome of that work. In the 1970s and 1980s, I also developed a friendship with Donaldo Macedo and Paulo Freire. Freire’s work was especially crucial in using pedagogy to open up a space where the private could be translated into larger systemic considerations and through which individuals could imagine themselves as critical and engaged social agents. For me, critical pedagogy was essential for addressing the power and necessity of ideas, knowledge, and culture as fundamental to any viable definition and understanding of politics. Pedagogy was the crucial political resource in theorizing the importance of establishing a formative culture conducive to creating the critical and informed citizens necessary for sustaining a substantive democracy. My interest in critical pedagogy took a turn as I started focusing on youth and media studies.

Pedagogy for me was no longer limited to schooling, and I started focusing on its role as a force shaping and being shaped by broader cultural apparatuses such as the internet, alternative screen cultures, mainstream newspapers, and journals. In this instance, cultural change is a precondition for changing consciousness and is constitutive of political change. I also became concerned with how the pedagogical workstations of diverse cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream and digital media produced a variety of pedagogical messages in keeping with dominant ideologies regarding the normalization of torture under the Bush administration, the refusal to name capitalism as a central reason for the chaos following the effects of Hurricane Katrina, the failure to name neoliberal racism and its ruthless search for profits and disregard for black people as an important factor resulting in the poisoning of the water in Flint, Michigan, and the failure to name and analyze ongoing neoliberalization of the university as an attack on democracy itself. I also theorized the importance of connecting the pedagogical imperative to a discourse of militant and educated hope, one which would provide the capacities, knowledges, and skills that would enable individuals to speak, write, and act from a position of agency and empowerment.

I am sure most working-class people who enter into academia will very quickly identify with the structural forms of exclusion you highlight. In my experience, especially in certain quarters of academia, these attempts at policing thought and to make you “play the game” (to my mind one of the most intellectually violent phrases deployed in an intellectual setting), with its normative codes and hierarchical rules, have been imposed with just as much ferocity by those who self-identify with the liberal left than the conservative right. I am reminded here by a wonderful quote by John Lennon, who wrote in his song “Working Class Hero,” “There’s room at the top they’re telling you still, But first you must learn how to smile as you kill, If you want to be like the folks on the hill.” How do those lyrics speak to your experience in academia?

The university has always been for me a difficult site to work in given its often-ruthless attacks from those who follow the established script of mediocrity and neoliberal discipline. Of course, many academics (a term which is quite problematic, after all what we do should never be “academic”) are completely disempowered by virtue of being relegated to a contingent labor force. They are overworked, are paid low wages, and live in fear of being controversial, which amounts to a direct assault on academic freedom. Those dwindling few who have tenure are often comfortably entrenched in the university and more than willing to be seduced by the few privileges they have. Power is seductive, and many academics would prefer to be clever and “play the game” than stand up and fight within and against the university as an adjunct of corporate power. I have felt the consequences too often in my long vocation as an outspoken academic. But we need to remember the power of the university is about more than governance or what Foucault called “governmentality.” It also reaches deeply into the desires, values, and identifications of the people who work in higher education. Moreover, while many try to struggle with its impositions, higher education can be a most depressing space because its daily assaults are about more than policy, they are also experienced existentially every day as emotional body blocks which wear away one’s sense of agency, hope, and willingness to struggle against forms of domination, especially as they emerge within the university. My resistive strategy has been to have one foot in and one foot out of the university. I work hard to produce scholarship that matters and do the best I can in my teaching. At the same time, my educational skills are put to work in forms of accessible scholarship aimed at a much broader public. In the end, these forms of pedagogical imperatives richly inform each other. What is crucial to learn here is that the task of working in a neoliberal-dominated field of higher education cannot succumb to a kind of careless and self-defeating cynicism. The university is a crucial public sphere and must be viewed as an important site of struggle and criticism, in spite of its over-determining mechanisms of control and mediocrity. History has to remain open on this question.

I’d like to press you further on the relationship between class and race as it appears in these troubling political times. If we can talk of updated forms of fascism, it seems to be working through the cracks in the crisis of white male subjectivity and the mobilizing of such devastated communities against those who have even suffered more from the politics of disposability. How do you understand white anger or resentment today?

This new updated fascist politics and capitalism, which I label “neoliberal fascism” in The Terror of the Unforeseen, has its roots in a long history of market-driven policies that have waged war against public goods, civic culture, the welfare state, minorities of class and color, and democracy itself. Neoliberalism has produced immense misfortune through its elevation of a savage capitalism to a national ideal that governs not only the market but all of social life. We now live in a society marked by massive levels in inequality, a landscape of deserted manufacturing jobs, the erosion of social provisions, the harsh imposition of austerity measures, the rise of mass incarceration, and a full-fledged attack on the welfare state. This has resulted in a culture of fear, anxiety, and populist anger that feeds regretfully into the neo-fascist celebration of a toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and ultra-nationalism. At the heart of this merger are elements of a fascist politics and a war culture that produces, sustains, and reinforces a venomous, racist, and militarized white notion of masculinity that has a long legacy in the United States.

In the past, this notion of white masculinity with its racist subtext, misogyny, and warrior mentality was coded and relegated to the margins of American political culture. Under Trump, it has emerged as a badge of honor and has moved from the margins to the center of power. The loss of privilege and eroding economic status by white males as Jason Stanley points out is manipulated as a form of “aggrieved victimhood and exploited to justify past, continuing, or new forms of oppression.” At its heart, the alignment of white masculinity with the racist discourse of hate and xenophobia has to be condemned while also understood as a mode of depoliticization. As a mode of depoliticization, this script of victimhood robs poor and middle-class whites of their sense of agency and possibilities for individual and collective resistance against the very forces of structured inequality and economic and social abandonment produced by neoliberalism.

This mammoth neoliberal assault on public life and the planet has produced widespread suffering and misfortune through an expanding network of disposable populations that work in tandem with a culture of fear and the collapse of traditional forms of community, solidarity, and civic identity. People increasingly feel isolated, experience forms of social atomization, and inhabit a crippling loneliness that make them susceptible to the lure of polarizing discourses, the rhetoric of hate, and appeals by alleged self-proclaimed strong men who claim that they alone can solve the problems of those living under the weight of death-dealing forms of exploitation, depression, and exclusion. Bernie Sanders is right in stating that authoritarian leaders such as Trump “redirect popular anger about inequality and declining economic conditions into violent rage against minorities — whether they are immigrants, racial minorities, religious minorities or the LGBT community.” This is particularly true for segments of the white male population who are constantly being told that they are the victims of a society that increasingly privileges racial and ethnic minorities.

Susceptible to calls by demagogues to express their anger and resentment at the societal selfishness, greed, and materialism that surrounds them, many white males have found a sense of identification and community in the racist, sexist and xenophobic appeals of a range of current demagogues that include Trump, Bolsonaro, Orbán, and Erdoğan. While I don’t want to excuse the poisonous politics at work here and its dangerous flirtation with a kind of fascistic irrationality and the toxic pleasures of authoritarianism, the white males seduced by the pleasures of a toxic authoritarianism need to be addressed in a language that not only speaks to the roots of their fears and economic securities, but also as Michael Lerner has brilliantly noted, to those fundamental psychological and spiritual needs that have been hijacked by a ruthless capitalist disimagination machine. The underlying supports and backdrop for this racist, militarized, and toxic masculinity that appears to easily to inhabit the abyss of racial purification, social cleansing, and a hatred for the other must be understood against a neoliberal worldview that celebrates greed, elevates self-interest to a national ideal, privatizes everything, and enshrines unchecked forms of individualism and a ruthless survival-of-the-fittest ethos. There is no room in this ideological straitjacket for compassion, social responsibility, solidarity, or a respect for others and this is precisely where the neoliberal machinery of death joins hands with the white supremacist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric of fascism.

The pain and suffering of different groups under neoliberalism has to be understood not through shaming whites or other supporters of a fascist politics, but through efforts to unite these disillusioned groups across race, gender, and class divides. Those groups victimized by neoliberalism share decades of practice in which wages have been gutted, job security disappeared, finance capital emptied towns and cities of jobs and drained industries and saw the promise of a better future evaporate for their children, if not themselves. This shared suffering has to be mobilized through a new language of critique and hope, one that aims at building a mass social and political movement that rejects equating capitalism with democracy and embraces a democratic socialist project in which matters of freedom and justice become inseparable from matters of equality and economic justice. White racism, ultra-nationalism, and the politics of disposability are the hallmarks of a neoliberal fascism that feeds on hatred and polarization of which the consequence is a social system marked by economic and political inequality and chaos. The racism and anger fueling a white version of hyper-masculinity is a symptom not a cause, and the latter has to be understood and addressed by analyzing the merger of neoliberalism and a fascist politics that is spreading across the globe.

I’d like to conclude with a personal question, which I hope doesn’t sound too Freudian! If you would go back in time and put your arm around a 14-year-old boy called Henry Giroux, who is practicing alone on that basketball court, what advice would you give him?

I would tell him that growing up in a neighborhood in which the body is the primary resource for surviving will teach him many lessons about what it means to confront a myriad of struggles, but that it is the connection between his mind and body that should be valued as a source of strength in the world he will confront. I would also tell him that education takes place not only in schools but in the wider society and that he will have to learn how to cross a number of borders by mastering a diverse number of literacies extending from print culture to screen culture. I will emphasize that developing his sense of agency will take courage and a willingness to take risks and to learn how to think otherwise in order to act otherwise and that he must not fear taking a strong moral and political position, though he will often meet with unwavering and sometimes brutal resistance. Equally important, I would tell him that his own formation and sense of agency in a world filled with danger and corruption will depend not only on what he learns that will be meaningful, critical, and transformative but also what it means to unlearn certain regressive behaviors, ideas, habits, and values that the dominant culture imposes on him as second nature. I will emphasize that growing up in a society poisoned by hatred and addicted to violence necessitates that he be vigilant in refusing the seductions of power and he will have to be focused and disciplined in order resist those forces that will relentlessly work to diminish his capacity to be a critically engaged subject. I will tell him that in order to narrate his own sense of agency, he will not only have to understand the symbiotic relationship between intelligence and self-determination. He will also have to reclaim a sense of history, open the door to dangerous memories, and take risks that enable a new and more radical sense of his own identity and what it means to be in the world from a position of strength. He will certainly have to learn what it means to live with dignity, to embrace a compassion for others, to define his life through his willingness to be a moral witness and a willingness to fight for economic and social justice. I would also tell him that he can never forget that trust and dignity can only come with a respect for and embrace of solidarity with others. I would emphasize that he the greatest joys in life can be found in working with others to make the world more just, open, and democratic. I would make clear that he is not alone and cannot act as if major social problems are at heart a matter of individual choice and responsibility. He must be willing to connect knowledge to power and embrace a sense of civic courage, as James Baldwin said, “for the sake of the life and the health of the country.” I would end by telling him he must learn to love with courage, reject the power of fear, and embrace his life as a journey filled with dreams of a more just and equitable world.