Imagination as an Ethical Practice

I am presently reviewing From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World by Norman Wirzba.[1] Early in this book Wirzba argues that an ethical response to the earth requires the use of imagination for proper ‘knowing’. [2] In advancing this argument he refers to a quotation from Wendell Berry where knowing imaginatively involves knowing with the ‘heart’ for ‘To know imaginatively is to know intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently, and with affection’. [3] I save the review for another occasion. This, however, got me to thinking about the practice of imagination as an ethical counter strategy to the performance of hate.

In an earlier post I reflected upon the idea that the dehumanisation of another is part of the anatomy of hate: hate understood as extreme dislike which incites or enacts harm or violence against another. This I will name as the ‘performance of hate’. In such dehumanised hatred the other person or persons is imaged as less than human through the use of labels loaded in the mind of the one using them in derogatory terms. In this labelling, the personal is political because these labels are often given their derogatory meaning in the speech of a wider grouping. This can be encouraged and fed by events and media reporting both institutional and social. The shift and slippage in language and thus in personal imaging from refugee to migrant to terrorist is a very present example. A process of course that operates in both directions in any situation of conflict where hatred is performed.

In what I have described the practice is one where implicitly and explicitly we are encouraged to imagine others as something other, different, and less human than we ourselves. We do not thus see them as mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons, lovers, eating, laughing, and crying. Rather we deny them the complexity of humanity which we admit for ourselves through often single dimensional and often derogatory labelling. To label someone as an ‘illegal’ immigrant as it were settles the case, there is nothing else to be said or asked about them.[4] This can include failing to question the ‘legality’ of the laws they are supposed to have broken, a perspective we would normally allow ourselves.

In such a context imagination can be a positive practice of counter imaging. It invites a richer and multi-faceted description of the other. It allows for us to imagine them beyond the label, to see them as human beings like us and to allow our responses to be encouraged and shaped by that appreciation. In such an imagining we need little other than our own lives and experiences as humans in order to begin to paint a richer picture of the other as human.  In such a practice imagining ‘what if that was me?’ transforms from criminal to parent the picture of an ‘illegal’ immigrant crossing the border carrying their child. It transforms it not to fantasy but to the reality of humanity at least as we normally allow it for ourselves.

Perhaps such imagination is to be found in the actions of the Samaritan. He imagined the other as himself and acted accordingly. He is the most developed and rounded character in the narrative and turns the one robbed and beaten into such a character through his actions. He puts the wounded man ‘on his own donkey’. Such need not be a fanciful reading. For the Samaritan is not offered as one who loved his neighbour – rather he is offered as an example of one who loved his neighbour as himself (Luke 10:27).

[1] Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015).

[2] Wirzba, Nature, p. 3.

[3] Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Washington DC: Counterpoint, 2000), pp. 137-138, cited Wirzba, Nature, p. 4.

[4] Victoria M. Esses, Stelian Medianu, and Andrea S. Lawson offer some interesting research on this in  ‘Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees’, Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 69, No. 3, 2013, pp. 518—536.

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