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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