Imagination. It’s such a simple thing. Yet so easily misunderstood and forgotten about. We take it for granted because most of time it operates unconsciously.
I try to remind myself of it, so as to avoid falling into a rut of thinking. The society we live in does shape our imaginations, individual and collective. But we must not forget that our imaginations also shape the world around us. This is true for all societies and even more obvious for modern society. We directly shape the world around us. Maybe I have a clear sense of this because I live in the state that has the highest percentage of developed land in the country.
When we claim the power of our own imaginations, it can be empowering. History is full of examples of how imagination leads to great innovations and changes. At the same time, to have an active imagination can be frustrating because it allows for a larger perspective while also allowing for one to more easily switch perspectives.
We live in a time when imagination has become constrained to the most powerful paradigm in human existence, a paradigm that has come to rule minds around the world. It’s not any single ideology in the political sense. We could try to give it names and I have done so at times, but that might end up distracting from the thing itself.
This has been apparent this campaign season. The dominant paradigm remains immensely powerful, even as it is being challenged. More Americans are beginning to feel frustrated and imagination is awakening in response. The challenge for the American public is how to direct imagination toward something positive. It’s easy to tear down the dreams of others, especially for those who stand back refusing to offer anything themselves. Some attack the hopeful for challenging the status quo while others attack them simply out of, I don’t know what it is… fearful reaction? cynicism?
There are many forms of imagination. There is this standard expression of imagination as positive and active envisioning of possibility. I call this radical imagination. It is what fueled many of the revolutions of the past, including the American Revolution. Thomas Paine is my favorite advocate of this radical imagination.
Paine was also a practitioner of a second form of imagination—one might call it critical imagination. It’s the ability uncover what is hidden, to open one’s eyes to what is in front of one’s face. We typically think things are obvious, after we’ve perceived them and made them part of our conscious sense of reality. Yet what later on is considered obvious can go unnoticed and unacknowledged for generations and even centuries. With critical imagination, we step back and hold something at arms length. It allows us to investigate and scrutinize something. It creates space for curiosity and questioning. As a result, we are more able to reinterpet and reframe, to make the familiar unfamiliar.
Critical imagination is necessary, but it can become dysfunctional if that acts in isolation from other forms of imagination. In that case, imagination can become a slave to skepticism and doubt. It is hard to get from this to radical imagination. What is needed is something to draw the psyche back into the world, attract the individual into relationship with what is being confronted. It is to touch and feel, not just to see from a distance.
This is what has been referred to as sympathetic imagination. It’s the ability to imaginatively enter the experience and worldview of others. It isn’t just to understand the way people are but also how they could otherwise be. It means to take people seriously and, in the process, remember the common humanity that connects the individual to society.
This can be the most challenging of imaginative capacities. I’ve struggled with this immensely. It’s no small task to get past differences of culture, religion, political ideology, or whatever else. Instead, we most often fall into generalizations and stereotypes.
One example I came across recently was that of Kenan Malik arguing that Islamic terrorists in Europe had no reasons, that they were nihilists. He made this argument, despite the fact that some of these people had stated their reasons. It is hard for us to imagine that such people who turn to extreme actions are human just like us. To imagine that would mean, under certain circumstances, we too could be pushed to extremes. That is a scary thought, to imagine the dark potentials within our own human nature.
Another recent example is how the supporters of Sanders and Trump have been portrayed in the mainstream, not only by the media but also by the public. It is easier to dismiss people who point out the problems of our society and demand changes. It is easier to shoot the messenger than to listen to the message. To listen, though, would require an act of imagination by stepping outside of the dominant paradigm. Maybe these people who are speaking out in frustration aren’t mere dogmatic ideologues, political purists, impractical idealists, angry malcontents, and cultish followers. Just for a moment imagine they are normal humans who are dealing with difficult situations.
The data supports this. To focus on Sanders’ camp, they aren’t middle class activists complaining that the world doesn’t conform to radical ideologies. Quite the opposite. They are the lowest income group of any supporters among present candidates. And they are an ideologically diverse group that is motivated by a simple desire for reform and they feel inspired by the only major candidate imagining a positive compelling vision of the future.
Even though I’m critical of Donald Trump, I’ve come around to not wanting to criticize his supporters. There are those who falsely portray them as mere ignorant poor whites—actually, they aren’t particularly poor and uneducated compared to the general population. I don’t want to dismiss these people as bigots and proto-fascists. I’m tired of that kind of negative use of imagination. It ends up being a way of avoiding the very problems that frustrate these people, which inevitably makes the problems worse leading to ever greater frustration. It is the mainstream dismissal of such people that, if anything, will set the stage for fascism.
I see this in general with demographics, public opinion, and various labels. Most Americans are far to the left of the political and media elite, but of course the political and media elite present themselves as the social norm that defines any deviation as radical or dangerous. Many average Americans get taken in by this narrative that constrains the public imagination.
Even many people far outside the mainstream get taken in by this. They’ll conflate the so-called liberal class with all liberalism, despite the silenced majority being to the left of this liberal class and much more diverse as well. I hear left-wingers and right-wingers alike, often self-portrayed grim realists, make vague and overgeneralized accusations of ‘liberals’. Much petty nitpicking is involved. I don’t get the sense that many of them even know what liberalism is. It’s just a bogeyman to them, a useful scapegoat as much for the failures of their own ideological thinking. There is no great courage, no profound wisdom in merely attacking others and tearing them down.
This isn’t a failure of a single group. It’s not about a conflict between left vs right. Nor is it even exactly mainstream vs alternative. It’s a collective failure of imagination. We are all complicit.
I’m not sure what is the helpful response to all of this. I struggle with these challenges like anyone else. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve fallen into these traps of failed imagination. Yet I never give up on imagination. To envision something new is powerful beyond measure. I have this sense that the most destructive claim that can ever be made in a society aspiring to freedom is that something is ‘unrealistic’ and ‘impractical’. That is the death knell of imagination. This is not a time to sell ourselves short.
If we were to let loose the reigns of our minds, where might new possibilities lead us. Yes, have the vision to see clearly what’s wrong, but then take that same vision to see our common fate and our shared potential. It’s not only that we should dare to imagine. We must not forget that imagination is as necessary as the air we breathe. We are always imagining. The trick is to learn to dream while awake.