Knowledge and Social Change

Dr. Gerardo Leibner
Translated by: Margalit Rodgers

“Knowledge is power” is an oft-repeated mantra. I have yet to encounter anyone who challenges this aphorism. The story of the Tree of Knowledge in the biblical sources can be interpreted in many ways, but it is eminently clear that knowledge created the worldly man, the man familiar to us, with his creative power, his instincts, and the suffering that attends knowing. When lyricist Tami Levy refers to ‘hidden things we will never know nor understand’,[1] she does not deny the power of knowledge, but reminds us that we will not always be able to know, and that sometimes it is also better not to know everything. Yet even in these words there is no attempt to challenge the assertion that knowledge is power.

Indeed, knowledge is power. But what knowledge? Is all knowledge power? Or does all knowledge become power? And what turns knowledge into power? It is customary to tell people that ‘knowledge is power’ to encourage them to study, to develop, to accumulate knowledge in their personal life and for their personal advancement; or, for example, in public life – to encourage a community to develop or accumulate knowledge in order to conduct a social struggle more efficiently. In most cases the suggestion to go and study underscores what that person lacks, what needs to be completed, in other words, formal or non-formal training for the purpose of transforming from a person who doesn’t know enough, into a person possessing knowledge, and consequently a stronger person.

I admit that frequently I, too, urge people around me to study, enroll in courses, take knowledge acquisition paths of one kind or another, open up to content worlds and inquiry approaches, and develop. I myself endeavor to study all my life, and persuade others to do so. So what’s wrong with that? There’s nothing wrong with it, but rather a missed opportunity. When we encourage people to study we are perhaps addressing their potential for development, but we are also missing out on the knowledge inherent in them. The sin, in my view, is our failure to recognize the wealth of knowledge we and others already possess and which we do not define as knowledge. There is no person without knowledge. We all learn and know even if we aren’t aware of it, and even when we don’t call it knowledge. In our social life we accept the hierarchy of knowledge: the university graduate, the qualified professional, the doctor, the professor, the certified expert, the rabbi. They are all figures who possess knowledge and gain recognition because they have undergone formal training and qualification. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the problem becomes apparent in the continued disregard and disdain of popular knowledge, the wealth of accumulated knowledge every man and woman in our society possesses by their very existence. There is a lot of denied knowledge that comes from personal life experience, from word of mouth within families and circles of friends, from cumulative community experience. Non-recognition of this knowledge is nothing less than oppression, debilitation, and sometimes even resembles the amputation of a limb. There are a great many people who know a lot, and the dominant axiom in our society tells them that what they know is not considered knowledge. Even worse, it asks them to forget or conceal it, to repress it, and it tells them to go and study only authorized knowledge.

No disrespect to people with qualifications of one kind or another, but in many cases their qualification is primarily an expression of the social conditions that enabled them the time and money required for formal study. In contrast, many others who did not have that opportunity due to the social reality into which they were born, or grew into, live with the stigma of ostensible ignorance in spite of the fact that they know a great deal. On more than one occasion when listening to a smart, educated, twenty-something university student speaking in grammatically correct, high-register language, about some historical-social reality where people lived in poverty, I have asked myself, What is the knowledge this young student possesses on the subject she is speaking about? So she read the chapter I asked my students to read, and took two or three courses in which one aspect or another of social stratification was discussed. Does she know the experience of privation? Has she ever had an in-depth and personal conversation with someone experiencing privation? Has she ever observed people experiencing privation over several hours? Has she ever made a decision under pressure of extreme material privation? Has she ever refrained from purchasing medicines when ill? Has she ever sent a child to school in a torn shoe?

In contrast with my students at the university, I sometimes think about poor people I know, most of whom have only a high school education or even less. They may not know the theories studied in university about their life, and they may express themselves awkwardly, but they possess considerable knowledge about a great many things that my students only begin to understand toward the end of their studies. Their perspective, experience, and existential need to learn many things quickly, just for survival, make them people who possess a great deal of knowledge. That society does not recognize this is a great loss. Whenever I interview someone about their life as part of an oral history study, I discover vast knowledge. Every time I, the qualified, formally educated person give interviewees my acknowledgement of their knowledge, express my appreciation, a kind of change occurs in them, and then I understand that knowledge on its own is not necessarily social power, and that recognition of knowledge is the real source of power.

Anyone who wants real social change, anyone who is interested in revolutions that will extricate us from a predatory and oppressing society, would do well not to begin by disseminating social theories. Anyone who wants to undermine power relations and social classes would do well to begin by recognizing the knowledge and power inherent in those who are subjected to privation, exploitation, and oppression. This recognition has many implications. The first is that the most important action in advancing social change is listening to silenced and denied knowledge. This listening empowers, and is the first step in any struggle. Without listening and without turning the suffering people themselves into people who possess recognized knowledge, and consequently into leaders of the liberation and change processes, any struggle for social change will become one that results in the substitution of an existing elite for a new one composed of those who espouse revolutionary theories and authoritatively and hierarchically lead the suffering in order to become their new masters.

In Israel, recognition of popular knowledge also means challenging the dominant racist system and its cultural assumptions. This is a system that classifies everything European as positive, and condemns Arab culture and the Jewish-Eastern cultures to positions of inferiority. This is cultural oppression that has economic and social implications, as well as grave psychological ones. An entire authoritative cultural system that constantly conveys to millions of people that they are inferior, that their traditional knowledge is not worthy, that they have to adapt themselves to the culture of their whiter and more European neighbors. Here too, only by acknowledging the value of the culture and the knowledge inherent in it, by nurturing the free self-expression of the people themselves, will they be able to become free agents of their future and to allow all of us, members of the two nations and of all ethnic communities, to improve our connections as part of the Middle East in which we all live and the connections among us.

Dr. Gerardo Leibner is a history scholar and political-social activist in Tarabut – Hithabrut movement

  Al Nevakesh (Let Us Not Ask), lyrics: Tami Levy, music: Moshe Nagar, a song performed by Zohar Argov that gained great popularity.