On Imagination

I don't know if he really said this. Pintrest might be lying.
I don’t know if he really said this. Pintrest might be lying.

Imagination is one of my core values in life. It comes from being a book nerd, and dreaming about being different characters, or pretending I had super-powers, or my years of conversing with invisible friends (and a menagerie of invisible pets). And while giving your best friend an imaginary kitten for her birthday is not a great idea (trust me on this one), having a powerful imagination and cultivating imagination is central to being human. So read books, imagine things, write stories, delve into other worlds! Create art! It’s part of being human! Make Beauty! Which is good and worthy and enough. But there’s more.

It’s also part of being humane. 

To be humane means to treat others with compassion. To see other people as human, to imagine what it is like to be them, and to empathize with their suffering and act to end it. This is also a basic part of being human, and ever since Jesus, our Western moral code has run on that principle of empathy- doing to other people what we wish they would do for us. (Previously, the basis for Western moral codes was honor/shame. Turns out the empathy thing is a powerful motivator).

And this is where conversations on race in academia get a little weird. We’ve seen that the social world shapes us in ways that we are unaware of, ways that limit our ability to truly see things from another’s perspective. Along with that, in an intention to honor those whose voices have not been heard, there is a big push towards letting previously silenced voices have preference. I think those are really good things. We should do them more.

But I think some people take this a step too far. They claim that because of someone’s social situation (being a man) they cannot ever understand what it is like to be a woman and therefore their research/writing is called into question (it doesn’t matter what conclusions the author comes to, it doesn’t matter how they analyzed their data, how they put bias checks and balances in place, they are 100% trapped in this male-centred worldview, so you can’t really accept anything they say). Or in is a conversation on what it’s like to be a single person working in social justice issues, so a married person’s insight must automatically be excluded as irrelevant. Or a white writer can never tell the story of African Americans in the 1930’s.

On the one hand- I completely understand that sometimes we need spaces where our particular experiences and issues are focused on by other people who share them. Sometimes we need safe spaces where we don’t have to explain ourselves. I’m a TCK, I get this. But sometimes gathering around these social identities becomes exclusionary to the point of ridiculousness. Maxey, in his article on reflexivity in research points out that our critiques should be on content (is the research good research?) and not on the social identity of the researcher.

 [this argument ]is that we cannot understand people unless we have experienced what they have. That is, we cannot know people unless we are like them. This is an odd argument for a cultural anthropologist, but it is an old and well-worn, and disreputable, argument (Merton 1972): Christians and Jews, blacks and whites, men and women, French and Germans can never understand one another; white women and black women cannot understand one another; black working-class women and black middle-class women can never understand one another; young black working-class women can never understand old black working-class women; young rural black working-class women can never understand young urban black working-class women; and so on to logical absurdity,until no one can understand oneself from moment to moment…

I have to believe that we have the ability to imagine. I can’t know exactly what it’s like to be you, but I can imagine. And it takes work. We won’t imagine very well at all at first, but we’ve got to keep at it. We can only exist by imagining other people, and by letting people imagine us, and by communicating with them how they get things wrong, and what parts they got right, and listening. Really, really listening. Having good imaginations means we don’t have to ignore or wash away differences between people. Differences are no longer scary insurmountable barriers to human connection, because I don’t have to be you to connect with you, I just have to imagine what it might be like to be you. 

Many of the participants in my study expressed a discomfort with a focus on difference, and people who accentuate differences (whether it’s racial, or cultural). Most participants preferred to focus on what they had in common with others. This is true, people are people, not matter what color their skin or what they eat for breakfast.  But I think we have huge problems when people assume sameness, assume that there are no differences, or assume that difference is bad. Because that makes it possible for certain injustices (like white privilege, for example) to keep going unchecked. And I think a lot of this “assumed sameness” is because of a fear of difference. A fear that if we start looking at differences we’ll become so alien to each other that we won’t be able to exist.

One of my participants had a different view on diversity. This participant said when people move away from racism:

We see more individual diversity more clearly. I think it is the nature of humans to be very, very diverse. Extremely diverse. So it’s not as if we’d all have the same identity if we got rid of all the racism, we’d actually be more diverse, and, and people would feel much freer about being very different. Um, I think what these, the rigidity of social identity does, is to make–is to  narrow human expression. So there’s just very, very much more diversity that becomes possible once we get rid of these, these hang ups…my interest in human diversity is related to my interest in biodiversity.  This nature reserve [in South Africa] here has about 110 locally indigenous tree species. If you were, if you look at Europe. The British Isles has thirty-three indigenous tree species. Thirty-three. We have 110 in this tiny area and two of them are very rare. Very rare. And this is in a city…[an American paleoanthropologist] says, that it is it’s under conditions of extreme diversity that humans  originated.

Interesting, huh?? Not less diversity, but more diversity. And more diversity doesn’t lead to us all killing each other– in this view it’s what lead to be beginning of human life in the first place. So then what is keeping us all from killing each other?

Imagination, people.

So go read a book.b0045195ab22290fafd0df3fc9eb7d7d


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