Arts, Books, Culture, Faith, Sexuality, Theology — April 10, 2012 8:41 am

Imagination & Action

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(This is part 2 of Stephen’s series on Debt. Part 1 is here.)

One day when Nasruddin was left in charge of the local tea-house, the king and some retainers, who had been hunting nearby, stopped in for breakfast.
“Do you have quail eggs?”  asked the king.
“I’m sure I can find some,” answered Nasruddin.
The king ordered an omelet of a dozen quail eggs, and Nasruddin hurried out to look for them. After the king and his party had eaten, he charged them a hundred gold pieces.
The king was puzzled. “Are quail eggs really that rare in this part of the country?”
“It’s not so much qual eggs that are rare around here,” Nasruddin replied. “It’s more visits from kings” (102).

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is full of anecdotes like this that challenge us to recognize the complexity of relationships. The neat little supply and demand charts that were drilled into my head in Economics 101 just don’t cut it when it comes to the real world.

In this post, I want to focus on the question of imagination. Our imagination shapes the way that we interact with the world.If I imagine that I have power over you, I will treat you differently than if I imagine that you have the power. Imagination may be related to the “real world,” but it doesn’t have to be. An individual who is in an abusive relationship may have been manipulated into believing that she or he has no options and will remain in the relationship. Once that person begins to imagine that they can break free, their actions will likely follow. Do you want your actions to change? Change your imagination.

Occupy Wall Street is a natural example. The slogan “We are the 99%” has fundamentally changed the social imagination in this country. We have heard for years that the rich are the job creators, the only people that really matter. A simple change in imagination, from solidarity of the rich, to the solidarity of the 99%, has made substantial changes in how we view each other, in what we give priority, and in how we believe the social and economic relationships in our world should be constructed.

In a google chat conversation that I had with my friend Simon, we talked about how this concept is applicable in another urgent social discussion: LGBT acceptance. Often, those of us who advocate for LGBT rights think that a good intellectual argument, or a better exegesis of a Bible text is going to change someone’s mind. But the problem is deeper. It is extremely difficult for a person in a privileged position to imagine themselves in the disadvantaged position. Clearly, heteronormativity is a privileged social position. Until someone is forced to imagine themselves suffering, or place themselves in the shoes of someone else who is suffering, they will almost never renounce their position of privilege. Usually this occurs by encountering someone else who is suffering. When a parent, who previously only had theoretical discussions about Gay rights, discovers that their child is gay, they are suddenly (hopefuly) forced to imagine the world in new ways.

You want our economic system to change? Change the social imagination. You want people to love our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters? Help them to imagine themselves in another’s shoes. And charge the king more, he can afford it.

“Imagination as urgent tactical concern” – Malcolm Harris

(This post originally appeared on Stephen’s blog here.)

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