Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.


Imagining Peace

I have referred to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey and I do recommend it. Trilling writes well and has something important to say. That is unusual. Indeed. In the eighth chapter of that novel his central character is reflecting, as is his habit:

“. . . he thought how weak the human imagination is because it so dully represents peace and brotherhood. A careful, shabby Hindu student and a skinny Methodist student shake hands and agree that there are no real differences between people that cannot be overcome by mutual understanding and education and the cider and doughnuts they will presently be offered by the religious director. The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive. It allowed men their force and their selfhood as well as their evil. Yet in actual fact . . . the true emotion of reconciliation is an heroic one. Hamlet never appears in fuller virility than when he offers Laertes his hand, and nothing he says rings with a sweeter and graver note of masculinity than his ‘Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong.'”

There are so many things to delight in this brief passage, but I will start with the weak imagination that “so dully represents peace and brotherhood.” It raises the deep question why we seem to relish the violent and hateful and hear so little about the true heroism that goes on all around us every day. The news media, which ought to be called the “entertainment” industry to be accurate, glories in all the mayhem and animosity in the world and says little, if anything, about the beauty and goodness that is easily as common. So many of our fellow bloggers — including myself, though with the exception of our good friend Jill Dennison — tend to dwell on the bad and nasty and ignore the good and the magnificent. But our weekly posts from “Filosofa” remind us that there are good people doing good things each and every day. It just takes more of an effort of imagination to represent the good than it does to represent the evil in the world.

It has been said that when Dante wrote his Comedy he sailed through the Inferno, slowed down when writing about Purgatory and swam upstream slowly when writing about Paradise. Even Dante, he of the most extraordinary imagination, working with an impossible rhyme-scheme and burdened down with the immensely complex theological/cosmological baggage of the Middle Ages he had to carry with him as the made his way, even Dante struggled to describe peace and brotherhood. They are hard to imagine, much less write about.

But Trilling also speaks of true heroism, which consists in humbling oneself to the realities of a harsh world and swallowing one’s pride to admit that he or she was wrong. We see the antithesis of this every day in the media which cannot look away from the absurdities of a president who is unwilling or unable to admit he is ever wrong and who shows a singular lack of heroism with each and every tweet he compulsively sends forth into the world, unable to exhibit the “true emotion of reconciliation.” True heroism is simply less spectacular, and less easy to imagine. Perhaps also less common. So we don’t hear about it and confuse it with athletics or military endeavors that are sensational and take no imagination whatever to relish. But we need to remind ourselves that it is out there, the real thing and not the cheap imitation.

Trilling wrote his novel in 1945, soon after the Second World War. He would despair to see how much more diminished the human imagination has become in the meantime with the rise of the entertainment industry, the electronic toys, and the sensationalism of the cinema that glory in violence and mayhem and shy away from, or are in fact unaware of, the true heroism of those who suffer quietly, admit their mistakes, and forge ahead with their difficult lives.

“The world’s imagination of strife was surely much more attractive.” Indeed.


One of the sobering consequences of the revolution that has placed electronic toys in the hands of everyone who can hold one is what I would call “D.I.C.”  — diminished imaginative capacity. By coining this term I join with others who seem to love to make up names, and especially acronyms, for common events and phenomena in order to seem more learned. (We need not dwell on the acronym in this case!) The electronic toys the kids play with today and the movies they see do not require that they use their imaginations at all: they are loud, graphic, vivid, and present themselves to a largely passive audience. All the person has to do is sit and watch, or play with a joy stick, and their world is at their finger-tips with all its violence and noise. And because they read far less than their parents and grandparents and visit fewer art galleries, dance recitals, or symphony performances, this is of considerable concern: it is symptomatic.

To begin with, the appreciation of all great art and literature requires an effort of imagination. Take Joseph Conrad, for example. Despite working in a second language, his vocabulary is very rich. Further, He is what many have called an “impressionistic” writer and this causes problems for many readers for two reasons. Thus, Conrad’s rich vocabulary requires an extensive knowledge of words on the part of a reader. But more to the point, Conrad leaves gaps and spaces in his writing that require an imaginative effort on the part of the reader in order to engage his writing fully. And the effort is one that a great many people are unwilling or unable to make, especially given their shrunken vocabularies of late. The same might be said of the highly imaginative Shakespeare whose language is rapidly becoming foreign to growing numbers of young people. But the list of writers who demand an effort on the part of their readers could be added to endlessly. And the same could be said for art and music: they require an effort of imagination to engage the works fully. So, the question before us is: Why should anyone make the effort when they can pick up an electronic device, push buttons, sit back, and let the thrills begin? The answer is that very few are, in fact, willing to make the effort.

The results of all this have been analyzed and cataloged by a number of psychologists who have shown that the young, especially, are going forth into a complicated world with short attention spans and what amounts to a form of brain damage. They cannot attend to any subject, especially one that doesn’t interest them, for any significant length of time; further, portions of their brains are simply not developed. There is, indeed, quite a controversy among so-called experts about whether these people will or will not be able to cope in the future. I have written about it in previous blogs and choose not to repeat myself here. But the evidence suggests that it will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for these people to think their way through complex issues or use their imaginations to consider alternative consequences of future actions. And this is serious, indeed.

Moreover, I worry about the loss of capacity to imagine when it comes to great literature and great art because it means that these things will simply slide into oblivion, pushed aside by a growing number of people whose interest is focused on the immediate present and the graphic nature of the images and sounds that issue forth from their electronic toys that require no effort whatever. It may not be a problem on the scale of global warming, but coupled with that problem — and others of major proportions — it does not bode well for the future. Those who solve the problems we face now and in the future will have to use their analytic powers and, above all else, their imaginations. So, on the growing list of things that ought to have our undivided attention, we most assuredly should add D.I.C. and insist that the schools continue to require literature and art and that teachers discourage the use of toys as a substitute for those activities that will fully engage their minds and hearts. If only the teachers would….