Thursday 23 June 2016

Radical Imagination

When I share my interest in imagination and its role in creating change, I sometimes get the response that imagination is unhelpful.  Not only that, but working with imagination is unhelpful too.  In a world where there is a terrible sense of social injustice, it can sometimes seem as though a focus on imagination means denying that problems exist.  If we can wish our troubles away, after all, why would anybody want to work towards a more just society?

However, imagination can help us see that the world around us doesn't exist as the only possibility.  Instead, it was once imagined (and then set into place) by those who have gone before us.  What we have inherited is a material reality which impacts upon the lives of many.  But these realities are not the only possibilities.  Instead, some theorists (such as poststructuralist or social constructionist theory) argue that if we come together and recognise the difficulties 'we' (as a non-hierarchal humanity) face, and work towards exploring possibilities for a better world, then perhaps we can work towards increased social and environmental justice.

Alex Khasnabish and Max Haiven have a book called The Radical Imagination:  Social Movement Research in the Age of Austerity, which focuses on how to harness the imagination in order to work towards a more just society.  They explain that:

  • Imagination means visioning a different future, and then bringing these ideas back into the present so that we can inspire both solidarity and new plans of action.
  • Drawing on the past (and the complexities of the present) in order to understand the struggles we face.
  • Imagining the struggles of others allows us to work towards a more compassionate world.
  • Understanding the way that power works, and the systems and beliefs which uphold this enables us to work towards a stronger civil society.
  • Sharing experiences, stories and what it means to be a person in the world helps to add to a wider and deeper definition of being human.
  • New ideas help towards building new future stories or ways of understanding.  
  • Imagination is constantly in flux, transforming or changing constantly.  This enables to see that reality is in flux, and our own contributions can add to a greater whole.
  • Radical imagination means looking at the roots of power imbalance which have lead to social and environmental injustices.  This can include racism, neo-colonialism, sexism, and oppression based on religion, sexuality health or (dis)ability.
  • These beliefs are reproduced over and over again via actions or words which exist between us. By increasing our awareness of these actions or beliefs, we are able to work towards change.
  • Social movements are sometimes able to work towards a different society (although they do not create utopias).
  • Members of a social movement do not share set perspectives or identical ideas.  The multiple perspectives or contested ideas provide insight or new ways of seeing the world.

Working with dialogue very often means that those people who have the most insight into social struggles, the people who have faced oppression or difficult circumstances, are the people who get to talk.  Marginalised perspectives offer a great deal of insight into how to work towards transformation.  Tim Brown in Change by Design, gives examples of the hospital patient who understands the loneliness and isolation of staring at the ceiling or being pushed through corridors while in a vulnerable state.  Likewise, it is the person who cannot read who is most able to assist with signage, or a woman who walks through a deserted park after a long day who is most aware of safety or security.  People who have been forced outside of the system often understand best those areas of injustice, oppression or struggle, and how best to work towards change.

Radical imagination, which works towards acknowledging injustices, often offers insight into areas where change is most needed.  In a world where knowledge places us on a hierarchy, and often means talking about, for but never with 'others', imagination and dialogue is empowering.  It means acknowledging the agency or insight of the 'other' and using this to build a better world.

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Wednesday 15 June 2016

Writing with care

I woke up this morning to a song by Sade, with the lyrics "It hurts like brand new shoes..."

The song is called pearls:

There is a woman in Somalia
Scraping for pearls on the roadside
There's a force stronger than nature
Keeps her will alive
That's how she's dying
She's dying to survive
Don't know what she's made of
I would like to be that brave
She cries to the heaven above
There is a stone in my heart
She lives a life she didn't choose
And it hurts like brand-new shoes

Hurts like brand-new shoes

The song stayed with me until I started reading.  I started with  some of Susan Griffin's work.  Our Secret looks at the ways in which our lives interconnect with the world around us, a world we both inherit and create via our own contributions.  Susan Griffin is an Eco-feminist, but one of her passages focused on art, poverty, and the terrible fear of having a baby whose health is fading.  Griffin explained how poverty seems to expose the rawness and vulnerability of what it means to be a person in this world.  She also explained that art may sometimes be used to challenge the social norms of the time.  Explaining that poor people were (are) sometimes seen to be both less valuable, and less threatened by the loss of a child, Griffin explained that this artwork shows something different:  the fear of a mother for her baby, and the anxiety of the baby's father and sibling, who linger in the background.

Some of Griffin's work focuses on war, and while I was reading, I thought about Rollo May's work on care, and the story he shared of images returning from the Vietnam war.  These images no longer showed the heroics of soldiers.  Instead, May explained that they were images of care.  In a very beautiful paragraph, May explains a scene he had observed on the television of a camera man at a scene where a child comes out of a tunnel which has been gassed by marines.

May explains that the child emerges in a state which is beyond crying.  Instead, he is bewildered by a world which could contain such horrors.  And the 'black' marine, aware of the mistreatment and oppression which exists in his own homeland, possibly sees his own oppression and pain in the face of the child:

"While the announcer of the program rattled on about how the gas is harmful for only ten minutes and then leaves no deleterious effects, the cameraman kept his camera focused on the face of the marine...I think he sees there another human being with a common base of humanity on which they pause for a moment in the swamps of Vietnam.  His look is care.  And the cameraman happens to see him - happens almost always now to see them so - and keeps his camera trained on his face; a subconscious reaching-out only for human interest, rendering to us an unconscious expression of the guilt of us all.  And...keeps his camera pointed at the face of the large 'black' man starting down at the crying child, nameless in the whole sad quicksand of modern war..."  (May, 1969, p 289).

May explains that this image is a simple illustration of care, a state in which something does matter.
He lets us know that care is 'the dogged insistence on human dignity, though it be violated on every side..."

Last week, English journalist, Giles Coren, wrote with a great deal of tenderness and sensitivity about the need to break the cycle of violence or harsh treatment of children in a very moving article which related to a seven year old who was lost in a forest.  The article comes from the London Times, which is usually protected by a pay wall, but can be found here.

He explains how "Mr Tanooka told a Japanese television channel, "I said to Yamato, "Dad made you go through such a hard time.  I am sorry." And then my son said, "You are a good dad.  I forgive you"."

He then shares that "That is how it goes when fathers punish their children.  The violence happens in the heat of the moment and then the burden of forgiveness is placed, almost immediately, upon the child.  The power to make everything okay in the family again is placed in his tiny hands."

And that "The chain has to be broken.  it cannot go on.  The violence and punishment that begin in the home go on to ...cause all of the misery in the world.  And if this chain is to be broken it has to be broken by us.  Me.  You..."

These writers are teaching me about aesthetics or soul, about putting care into action so that it can resonate with others, breaking down the hierarchies which harm other people, and giving us images which embed themselves into the minds of others, offering an awakening or a deeper sense of consciousness.  This, I think, is what it means to work with warmth or soul.  It's what I would like to do too.

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Monday 13 June 2016

"You are also bright and special like that flower."

Agents of Change October 2014

As this year has gone by, I've been wondering what it is that motivates work towards change?  What is it which makes us see the need for a transformed society?

What is it which makes us 'see' the world as it exists, and want to work towards a different reality?  I've been reading James Hillman's work on Thinking with the Heart, where he looks at the ability to see the beauty and wonder of those who stand before us.  Hillman believes that aesthetics, or the ability to see with soul is what inspires us to work towards a more humane world.

His thoughts connect with those of Carl Anthony, who explained that if we could let go of fear and see the beauty and wonder of difference, then we could enter into new dialogue and work towards a multi-cultural understanding of what it means to be a person living in this world.

Although my masters thesis looked at diversity and what it meant to be a person living in a wider social world, I found that I truly began to understand the true value of what we'd learned after listening to some of the Agents of Change share stories and insights about being a person in present day South Africa.

Listening to children speak about their dreams and experiences has opened up a new way of looking at the world.  I grew up in a western, very individual culture, which placed people on a hierarchy.  Very often, this hierarchy was based on achievement, but it also on social divisions.  I was interested in liberation psychology and in critical social theory, but it was only when I really started listening to the stories of the people who shared experiences with me that I really began to understand the beauty of different voices, and the absolute value and wonder present within each person.

Far from being an expert, I began to see how little I knew.  There have been times when children have shared insights I'd written about in my previous research (and which had made me feel quite clever at the time).  But perhaps the greatest insight I've learned has been the value of truly listening.  The wonder, beauty, insight and compassion offered up by the people I have been able to share with and listen to has been astounding.  Coming into a project where I thought I had a clue about diversity has meant having to re-view the world around me.

I've been able to learn so much.  I've learned how many different perspectives exist in the world, the value earth or sustainability has for so many different people in Cape Town, and, perhaps most importantly, the way the value of life interconnects.  As one of the children in Cape Town shared in November 2014, "Look at that bright the are also bright and special like that flower..."

 The recognition of how inner and outer world intertwine, and how we live in soul inspired me to keep learning and exploring.  But it was the wonder within the children which taught me the importance of working towards both a safe future and a safe society so that those children can be given the value and respect they really and truly deserve.

There are so many beliefs we've learned or absorbed.  If we question them continually, exploring who they benefit, and how we can work towards a world where there is dignity and respect for all, perhaps we can allow a new world to shape, one where future children are able to emerge with the dignity, freedom and opportunity they deserve in a humane and sustainable world.

(These insights were shaped while participating in Agents of Change)

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