Why ‘IMAGINING OTHER’?
These notes may help to explain my web pages!!!
1: what is ‘imagining other’?
Back to index page for this website: Imagining Other Index Page.
Other Links: Imagining Other 2: New Ways of Seeing.
A. Summary: 1. # Why 'imagining other'?
3. # Society
4. # 'Other' (4.1 language 4.2 society. ‘Others’: 4.3 women; 4.4 race; 4.5 Jews; 4.6 stories/fairy tales/myths; 4.7 refugees)
6. # Conclusion.
Other topics bookmarked:
I use the word ‘imagine’ deliberately (see below). Imagining is not ‘thinking’ but using a non-verbal skill we have to ‘picture’ new things.
As Tom Paine [Political Philosophy notes on Paine] said, (of politics, but I believe this applies to all the ‘social sciences’): the science of government is “of all
things the least mysterious and the most easy to understand”, but it has been “enveloped... [with] mystery, for the purpose of enslaving, plundering and
imposing upon mankind”.
Note (i) For example, ‘corporate social responsibility – as I treat it – involves an awareness of: the history of the development of business, an understanding
of different perspectives on economics, the phenomenon of power (a ‘political’ concept), the sociology of inequality, ethical notions of responsibility etc.
The study of the history of political thought should be – in its essence – ‘critical’ as it should raise questions about current regimes and ideologies, as
well as examining notions of ‘justice’ ‘law’ ‘power’ and ‘the good’...
The study of social movements clearly involves a number of ‘disciplines’ – sociology and politics especially; whilst each social movement raises a
specific set of issues that need to be dealt with in their own terms.
2. We live in an age that is dominated by a belief in science, and although the best scientists acknowledge that their ‘knowledge’ is always provisional (until disproved) too many people have a simplistic, unquestioning view of scientific knowledge. For this kind of ‘believer’ science has found, or will find, the answer to everything. So long as they can quote a ‘scientist’ they believe there is no need for further discussion [note (ii) below].
This naivety only serves to reinforce the power of the already most influential – who usually are the most wealthy.
I would also argue that most people have a very narrow view of what is meant by ‘reason’. This has been the case since the so-called Enlightenment, but it has been exacerbated recently by the neo-liberal agenda supported by the Thatcher/Reagan axis, and continued in this country by Tony Blair. This agenda is based on a particular view of human nature - the idea that we are all self-interested individuals trying to make rational calculations over what is best for us. However, this only serves to reinforce the self-centred pursuit of wealth and power by those who already have more of both than the rest of us!! It also makes those who do not succeed blame themselves for not trying hard enough, rather than seeing the inbuilt limitations imposed by the economic system.
For more thoughts on science & reason see How enlightened was the 'Enlightenment'? Part 3 - science.
Note (ii) Some scientists, we are told, deny climate change [notes here] – some deny we ever put a man on the moon!
= imagining “other” ideas, than the accepted “norm”…
= imagining “other” ways of life than our individualistic, consumer-oriented society …
= imagining “other” ways of thinking than cynicism and selfishness, and the passivity that follows from these…
I want to use the word imagine in a particular way - perhaps not the everyday usage.
I hope that these notes will go some way to explaining what I mean:
To imagine, in its most commonly used sense is: to form a picture or image of something; this is an act of creation.
We can imagine things that do not exist (unicorns) or have not happened (the end of the world).
We can conjure up in our presence things (or people!) that are not really there.
We can create images (symbols) that convey meanings beyond what they immediately represent (icons, flags, works of art, logos; but also words themselves: see below).
To imagine, in this sense, is to create, and imaginative creation is an essentially collective or social ability. Is it possible for me to imagine something that has meaning only to me? This is very unlikely, because the picture, words, symbol or whatever that I use has a meaning that society has given it – or if I am genuinely creating a new meaning, this will disappear with me unless I communicate it or share it with others.
I nearly said to create is an “essentially human” ability, but we do not know whether animals imagine in the way we do… and we have often found that what we thought was an exclusively human ability is also shared by animals! But we can be fairly sure that animals do not share their imaginary creations - nor act on them - in the way, or to the extent, that humans do.
Update (October 2016): in a book – ‘Are we Smart Enough to Know Hoe Smart Animals Are? – Frans de Waal argues that some animals (e.g. capuchin monkeys) are ‘inequality averse’: if two are not rewarded in the same way for something they have done, then the one with the least good reward gets angry. ‘All human societies have the same moral basis’. (Matthew Cobb, reviewing this book Guardian Sat ct 8th 2016) Children are acutely averse to inequality – not just when it affects them negatively, but also displaying generosity toward the have-nots’. De Waal takes this insight back to German biologist Jacob von Uexcull, who argued that before we can understand an animal’s behaviour we have to understand its ‘Umwelt’ or ‘surrounding world’ – i.e. its ecology... An approach that is ‘holistic and empathetic’ contrasting strongly with the ‘arid dead end of BF Skinner’s behaviourism’. Has other interesting points e.g. about teaching – which humans do, but not (yet?!) animals (who watch and learn but do not actively teach each other).And touches on consciousness/self-consciousness (recognising oneself in a mirror).
Susan Greenfield, a scientist specialising in the brain, argues that what makes us human is not simply a desire for status, but the ‘expression of that status through symbols dependent on a cultural context, which is in turn dependent on a personalised, individual brain’ (New Statesman, 28th June – 4th July 2013). It seems to me that there are many other human traits or behaviours – fighting and loving for example! – that we carry out using symbols (flags – and flowers).
There are many ways in which we share and act on our imaginary constructs,
of which two are most basic, or fundamental:
- meaning, or language, and
- society, that is through social institutions – anything that is socially instituted (as Castoriadis would put it). An important aspect of this side of imagining is how we are encouraged by society to imagine others (see below)…
And, of course, these two - language and society - are inseparable.
The above argument might seem controversial, since it is more common to associate the imagination with the arts, or culture.
Of course these are manifestations of a particular kind of imagination, but I am arguing that there is a deeper level of imagination that underpins even art, literature, culture etc.
At the same time I believe that the experience of art, literature etc, is valuable, and does “exercise” our imagination. In particular, through the arts we get insights into other peoples’ ways of thinking and living. This, of course, means approaching the arts with a sense of seriousness and not simply as a form of entertainment!! As Jeanette Winterson said: “art asks people to be more than they are, better than they are; it asks for intensity, concentration and effort….”
I also like Daniel Barenboim’s account (Guardian 13.12.08) of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, whose role is like that stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, endowed with reason and conscience, and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood…
“Music, unlike any other art or discipline, requires the ability to express oneself with absolute commitment and passion while listening carefully and sensitively to another voice which may even contradict one’s own statement. This is the essence of musical counterpoint… Without equality one cannot speak of dialogue but only of soliloquy… “
Barenboim is a United Nations Messenger of Peace…
“The human being does not want to be dependent, but knows that complete independence is unattainable; therefore the only constructive way of life is one of interdependence.”
When we give something (an object, a feeling, a person, a concept) a name, we use our collective imagination in choosing to identify that thing with a collection of sounds and/or visual symbols that become its name. “A rose is a rose is a rose…” and, as Paul Ricoeur said: “The symbol sets us thinking.”
This is an act of the imagination, since in naming we are making a connection that is not “really” there - between the object and the name, between the object and the image (iii). I am largely following the ideas of Cornelius Castoriadis here. (** See the references and links below, on the work of Castoriadis)...
More recently, anthropologists have noted that there was a crucial stage in human evolution when the ability to symbolise arose – thus Lauren Laverne (in an article on the increasing power of Google to store and shape our collective memories) refers to refers to ‘symbolic capacity’ of humans which sounds to me very much like Castoriadis’s contention:
- in the text there is a reference to the radical anthropology group (Chris Knight, Nina Power – alongside whom I used to work at UEL!!): http://radicalanthropologygroup.org/pub_knight_power_watts_big.pdf
And in another article, a review of a book by an Israeli writer:
Harari organises humankind around four different milestones. About 70,000 years ago, the cognitive revolution kickstarted our history, and about 12,000 years ago the agricultural revolution speeded it up. Then came a long process of unifying mankind and colonising the Earth until, finally, the scientific revolution began about 500 years ago. It is still in progress and may yet finish us all off.
The first of these – the cognitive revolution – was the real game-changer; a genetic mutation that altered the inner wiring of Homo sapiens, enabling them to think in unprecedented ways and to communicate in an altogether new type of language which could not only convey information but also create imagined worlds. It was this ability to forge common myths that enabled H sapiens to cooperate flexibly in large numbers, and thus to see off rivals such as the Neanderthals, wipe out hostile animals and cultivate crops. Similarly, says Harari, it was by building pyramids – in the mind as much as on the ground; imagined orders and hierarchies – that humanity advanced.
The philosophy that emerges, however, is not
what you’d necessarily expect from an Israeli with a background in medieval
military history. History, for Harari, is largely
made up of accidents; and his real theme is the price that the planet and its
other inhabitants have paid for humankind’s triumphant progress. There are
indicators of this in an elegiac passage on the destruction of the megafauna of
Another aspect of this phenomenon/ability (to symbolise) is that whilst there is a real thing there, (and a real name) the connection or association between the thing and its name is arbitrary (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”). This is a point made by linguists such as de Saussure and Leonard Bloomfield. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structural_linguistics
Once we have named things we can share our understanding of them. (If I have a name for something that no-one else knows or uses, how can I talk to anyone else about it?). We can then act together, or not, as we choose (“global warming”).
(iii) It is interesting that the concept of ‘metaphor’ is being used to
understand how the internet works and the effects it is having on society (see
John Naughton in the Observer Discover pages – e.g.
The importance of ‘conceptual metaphors’ is explored by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, in Metaphors We Live By (1980) – these are ‘pre-linguistic’ such as the idea that one ‘explodes’ with anger, or that whatever is ‘ up’ is good and whatever is ‘down’ is bad... Metaphors like these – and those used in speeches etc – affect how we do things (says Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live, a Life of Montaigne, in Guardian (7th Sep) p 54).
As we build up communities of shared meanings - using language - we create societies. Since we are so deeply involved in our society (*), and since we have no clear picture of how it came about, in all its complexity and richness, we tend to think of it as “natural” or “God-given” or the “product of history” – but it is none of these, it is our creation. In Castoriadis’s terminology we have ‘instituted’ it – society is an ‘institution’… This means, firstly, that we made it, and we can change it. We can change it all, or part of it.
Mark Earls, of the
Therefore we can create another society. Other people have (already) created other societies.
However, again, the basic problem, and what leads us away from this realisation of our own responsibility and power, is our tendency to see the ‘institution’ that we have created (religion, the law, the state, custom/tradition etc) as something ‘given’, something ‘natural’, and therefore something that ‘determines’ how we live (and think!).
Deterministic views and theories take many forms:
- much religious thinking (we cannot avoid ‘sin’),
- Marxism (in many of its incarnations... despite the fact that Marx argued that we are most human and most fulfilled, when we are free to create, and that we need to in control of the things we have created: this is ‘communism’),
- and surely there is something deterministic (or fatalistic) in neo-liberalism (the market cannot be regulated – a view which tends to go with the statement that it should not be regulated).
I reject determinism, since it works against our ability to free ourselves.
Moreover, contrary to Julian Baggini [see below, #note (v)], I would say that cynicism also is a kind of determinism (or fatalism) – if you expect nothing better, how will you ever get anything better?
Finally, it is important to stress that these institutions do not control us by themselves, but that some people (politicians, religious leaders, bureaucrats...) will use the fact that it is easy to convince us that these institutions are out of our control in order to hide the reality that they themselves are in control!!
(Or are they? Existentialists, drawing on Hegel, have argued that neither the master nor the servant is free...)
It is easy to come to feel that once a society, or an event, or history, is imagined in a certain way then it is very
difficult to change it... However, see Fintan
O’Toole’s piece in Guardian
4.1 Language as a social/shared phenomenon:
“No man is an island, sufficient unto himself”… The existence of language indicates shared understanding – when I speak or write in English, other English speakers will (hopefully!) understand. Of course, many societies use more than one language; but the point remains, as pointed out above, that language is a social phenomenon.
Societies, then, are formed on the basis of shared understanding and co-operation – though of course there may also be conflict! Each individual acknowledges the existence of “others” and, consciously or not, acts as part of a collective. The collective protects the individual, and we can go further: without conscious and deliberate co-operation with others we would not have survived as a species. (See my notes on Kropotkin).
4.2 The other as a threat:
Yet, for some people some of the time, “others” seem to be a threat or a danger. Many - perhaps all - of the conflicts between people (especially within and between societies and nations) necessitate some people seeing others as so different and distinct from themselves that they must control or exploit, remove or destroy these “others”.
A recent book that warns of the danger of this, when politicians indulge
in ‘populism’ is: Twenty-First Century Populism, edited by
Daniele Albertazzi and
Duncan McDonell – populism, they say, appeals to
voters because it ‘pits a virtuous and homogenous
people against ... ‘dangerous others’ who together are depicted as depriving
the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.’
The Observer cited this in its editorial (
Sub-groups who become the ‘other’: Charles Shaar
Murray (former NME journalist) also writes about this (Guardian 05.04.13) and
‘hate crime’ – quoting Frank Zappa’s late 1960s song: “We are the other
people”... at the time, supporters of the Vietnam war “routinely repressed and
intimidated [...] war protesters, radicals and the visibly identifiable
cultural dissidents then classified as ‘freaks’ or ‘hippies.’” In
There are many examples of groups becoming ‘other’ – and much that could be said about each... Here is just a sample, with little further comment:
As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out: to most men, “women” are the “other” – with the consequence that they are not accorded the same status or respect.
For the Nazis, Jews - as a category - were “the other.” And this enabled the Nazis to cease to regard them as even human… (See notes on David Grossman at Imagining Other 2: New Ways of Seeing).
4.6 Stories (fairy tales, myths) and ‘othering’:
A theatre piece at the Edinburgh Festival 2016
deals with the Cechen attack on a school in Beslan in 2004. By
presenting two children’s views of what happened, the play (Lyn Gardner says in
I like the comment by Laura Jane Grace,
transgender member of punk band Against
Mel – when she realised Donald Trump had become President of the US – ‘’I wrote
about the election mainly. Writing is the radical act of not losing hope.’
There was also a piece in Saturday Dec 3rd Guardian on writing: Amanda Michalopoulou says that ‘In an era of fear and division, fiction plays a vital role in dramatising difference and encouraging empathy.’ ‘Nothing that is human is foreign to literature’. ‘Fiction teaches us to think creatively about difference’ and ‘...the more education falls into decline because of a lack of imagination (not to mention funds) the more literature is called upon to serve as another form of education.’ ‘When we read the emblematic works of the European tradition we begin to trace the outlines of a coded, radical understanding of the other. Unconsciously we begin to accept that the other is always a mystery and that easy characterisations lead nowhere.’
In the last few years (writing in 2016), the
world has seen the worst refugee crisis since the second
5.1 At the first level: empathy, altruism...
5.1.1 Imagining again.
At this point I do not want to try to go further into all this question of “the other”. I simply want to argue that we can only break down the barriers between people and their “others” if we can encourage the use of the imagination.
What would it be like to be that other person?
The modern materially-driven, consumerist, and individualistic world stops most people from actually asking themselves to use their imagination at all (as Grossman points out in his writing).
Richard Hoggart pointed out half a century ago, in Uses of Literacy, how the old working-class culture with its sense of “decency” (which implies an imaginative sensitivity to the effect of one’s behaviour on others, as well as “standards” or shared values) has been eroded and replaced with a “mass” culture. Hoggart’s basic argument, in The Uses of Literacy was that ‘thraldom at the hands of the Means Test and the Public Assistance Committee was about to give way to thraldom at the hands of mass entertainment’ – as DJ Taylor puts it. It seems to me that nearly all “culture” has in fact now been replaced with “mass entertainment”! (See Saturday Guardian, 24.02.07, DJ Taylor on Hoggart as “Working class hero”). See:
Despite the abundance of communications media, bringing us so many images and sounds, it has all become a “spectacle”, for our passive entertainment.
“Choice” (once a key issue for existentialists) is reduced to a question of consumption and “life-style” and not of values.
We are urged to ask what we would do with our Lottery winnings, not:
How would I live on $1 each day, as millions do?
We are encouraged to be “trendy”, “Fashionable” etc, not to ask:
Can I [a white male in an advanced society] imagine what it would be like to be someone else, somewhere else [a woman, or black, or a refugee….]?
We spend (collectively!) millions of hours watching listening to and thinking about “celebrities” – I guess we are supposed to envy these people? After all, although the aim of a consumer society is to make us all feel satisfied by buying things, at the same time we have to be convinced that we could have more. We must be dissatisfied – and temporarily satisfied at the same time. (See my notes on John Berger, in: The Consumer).
But I am not pessimistic: interestingly, Adam Smith (economist who laid down the rules for a market economy!) argued (and I agree!) that we all have the ability to “sympathise” – to imagine how another feels (whether they are happy or sad, etc). Notes on Adam Smith are at: How enlightened was the 'Enlightenment'? part 6 - Adam Smith. Smith’s views on ‘human nature’ are compared with those of Rousseau and Kant at: How enlightened... part 6 - Smith, Rousseau, Kant.
Update October 2016: Rafael Behr in Guardian Weds 12th Oct describes an experiment: imagine a scene in which a man stands in front of two haystacks; an assailant appears (an ape or a man in an ape costume) and the first man hides behind one of the haystacks, in full view of the assailant. When the assailant goes off to get a stick, the man hides behind the other haystack. When the assailant returns, an adult observer knows that he thinks the man is behind the first haystack, but children up to age five impose their knowledge on the assailant (i.e. don’t realise he doesn’t know what they know). This ability to empathise is a result of our being social – needing to be able to know what another thinks. (Some hiher primates can also do this...)
Update, January 2013: The Observer ran an excellent article on ‘empathy’ by Mark Honigsbaum, citing Adam Smith but also exploring what some modern neuroscientists tell us:
This article raises a host of issues, and includes some fascinating information – for example, that rats will open a cage with another rat in it even if they gain no reward; that when Buddhists meditate their levels of empathy are increased... However, the main point I would draw from it is that ‘empathy’ (in the sense that Adam Smith used the idea of ‘moral sentiment’) has two components: an ability to imagine what another feels; and a sense of morality, fairness or ‘right and wrong’. This is borne out by the article’s discussion of psychopaths and people with autism: the former may identify what another feels, but not care about it; the latter may not understand at first what another feels, but can come to understand and then feel strongly (sympathise?).
It is also argued, in a recent book on autism (The reason I Jump, by Naoki Higashida, trans. K.A. Yoshida and David Mitchell (Sceptre 2013) is written by an autistic young man, and explores the apparent absence of empathy in autistic people.), that autistic people do have the same feelings as the rest of us, but they lack the ability, the language, to communicate what they feel.
I believe that the capacity for empathy – or moral sympathy – is a basic human trait (and it seems it is shared by some animals...). I would go so far as to say that it aids our survival as a species, since it leads to justice and co-operation.
This idea was explored by Kropotkin (see Kropotkin and Anarchism)… It forms the basis of an anarchist ethics.
Simon Baron-Cohen: Zero Degrees of Empathy (Penguin). Empathy is always a leap of the imagination (says psychologist Dorothy Rowe, reviewing Baron-Cohen’s book, Saturday Guardian 26.05.12) since we have no way of knowing precisely what other people think or feel – our guesses come from our experience, but no two people have the same experience... so we have to imagine what that might be. Baron-Cohen (expert on autism) believes that empathy can be taught, and it is ‘like a universal solvent’ the way to resolve all interpersonal problems.’ Rowe has spent decades trying to get those who are not sympathetic to people with mental health problems to be empathetic – we are always more than our miseries.
Our natural instinct for altruism: Graham Music (consultant child and adolescent psychotherapist at the Tavistock and Portman clinics in London) has written a book: The Good Life: Wellbeing and the New Science of Altruism, Selfishness and Immorality, in which he argues that our culture – and especially the rewarding of altruistic acts extrinsically (which undermines our natural intrinsic pleasure at doing things for others) – is making us more selfish cold-hearted and mean. ‘A very monetised western world is going to make us more and more lose touch with our social obligations.’ http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/may/04/how-babies-turn-into-selfish-monsters
Tanya Gold (Guardian 7th May) quotes more points: ‘The higher up the social class ranking people are, the less pro-social, charitable and empathetically they behaved... consistently those who were less rich showed more empathy and more of a wish to help others.’ And: ‘Those with more materialistic values consistently have worse relationships, with more conflict... This is significant if the perceived shift towards more materialistic values in the west is accurate.’
Tanya Gold also points out (based on work by Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College Illinois), that if you love material objects you are less likely to love people and the planet.
See also: new ways of seeing #babies (how babies become selfish).
5.2 At a higher (societal/global) level:
However, imagining what it feels like to be exploited or abused or discriminated against is one thing: imagining that things could be different, and that exploitation, abuse and discrimination could be removed, is another. This is where the very first point made above comes in: the societies we live in are our creation and we can change them.
5.3 There are many theories, and points of view, that discourage us from feeling able to change ourselves and the world:
This is where I take a stand against cynicism: too often nowadays people feel that there is no point in trying to change anything. Those who try to do something are often attacked – for example by being accused of “hypocrisy”. As Mark Lynas points out, (Guardian G2 01.03.07) Al Gore was picked on for taking a number of flights to promote the idea that we should fly less! Opponents can undermine your message this way, by making you look ridiculous. But “at a deeper level, the effects of this blame game can be even more damaging… [since] each time a potential “green hero” is shot down in flames, we all feel a little bit more cynical about politicians, leaders and society in general. Cynicism breeds selfishness and a de facto acceptance of the status quo – no cynic ever led a movement for positive social change.” (v)
I agree with Lynas that Gore was justified in flying round the world since he has shifted public opinion – and the potential savings in greenhouse gasses should easily outweigh his own contribution! I like Lynas’s further point, that if you as a campaigner are “totally pure and virtuous, then that is seen as just annoying.” We can’t win!
The philosopher Julian Baggini has come out in favour of cynicism... http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/10/in-praise-of-cynicism. However, I think his argument is weak and woolly!!
For a start, he takes what seems to me to be a very narrow definition of a cynic (from the Oxford Dictionary): ‘distrustful or incredulous of human goodness and sincerity’ – and then says ‘what’s not to love about that?’ After all, a certain amount of cynicism is needed for satire and critical, investigative journalism. And of course, if we all trusted all people all the time, those who want to manipulate us would be free to do so.
Now I may not be much of a philosopher, but there is surely a difference between being ‘distrustful or incredulous’ of all people all of the time and having ‘a certain amount of’ distrustfulness etc!? And it is absurd to suggest that anyone would never have any inkling of doubt about anyone else’s motives!
In response to the accusation that cynicism leads to pessimism he admits that there are ‘lazy’ forms of cynicism where this happens - so, again, we are not talking about cynicism per se, but about varieties and shades of mistrust etc. And of course, as he goes on, we need to be ‘realistic’ – and we find that his argument is in fact about excessive pessimism or optimism, not about (‘pure’?) cynicism. And cynics are realists... so why use the word cynic in the first place? Oh but cynics reject the idea that there are only two poles, optimism and pessimism (how clever they are!).
He then has a go at Elaine Fox, whose studies in neuroscience suggest
(he says) that our tendency to make optimistic or pessimistic judgements comes
Enough, already! Baggini concludes by – again – advocating realism and being critical. (There’s a whole school of philosophy called critical philosophy he might like to look at!) And he concludes in defence of ‘intelligent cynicism’. If he’d started the article this way he might have convinced me of something!!!
5.3.2 The Hidden Persuaders.
Of course, advertising, marketing and branding are powerful influences on our behaviour. What makes me angry about them all is their method of working on us at a sub-conscious level. My chapter The Consumer (in my corporate social responsibility notes) discusses this further, and has useful references.
5.4 On the other hand, some recently developed theories lend weight to the idea that we can change.
– and the experience of one individual can be passed on to their offspring... when acquired characteristics are inherited, this must be through genes being switched on or off, without altering the sequence – as I understand it and drawing on the Wikipedia link in this article.
Here is Oliver James, in an article entitled ‘Nature v nurture – what are the latest genetic findings?’
The professor of molecular biology Johnjoe McFadden as written a book and a number of articles on ‘system biology’ – the argument that our genes operate within a larger system (both the cell and the body), and there are hardly any genes with a single function:
June 2016: Steven Shapin reviews a new book: The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Guardian Saturday 28th May – Review p 7). Genes are not us – they respond to both the internal and the external environment. ‘The scientific jury is still out on the various versions of epigenesis.... [but] It would be as foolish to deny what our genes do as it would be to assert the sufficiency of our genes in making us who we are.’
Steve Jones also reviewed Mukherjee’s book (New Statesman 17 – 23 June 2016): ‘The term [epigenetics] was coined by one of my own teachers at Edinburgh, C.H. Waddington... He found that a sudden heat shock to the embryos [of fruit flies] led to the appearance of a few flies with abnormal wings among the adults. By breeding from these, he could obtain stocks that in time produced such flies with no need for a shock, proof that environmental stress could uncover hidden genetic variation (*). Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked and turned into a universal bridge between chemistry and biology. It is even used to revive the discredited idea that an organism can pass on characteristics acquired in its own lifetime.
That bridge goes too far. The idea that genes respond to external stresses can be traced to the first days of molecular genetics... Quite why there has been such a fuss about a concept invented 70 years ago is not clear and is made no clearer here [in Mukherjee’s book].’
(*) is this not different from saying the stress caused genes to vary/change? I am not much clearer myself!!!
But note that Ree is critical, saying: ‘the neuroplastic revolution is part of a contemporary stampede towards the moralization of medicine: patients are encouraged to blame themselves for their sufferings, and to think that their chances of recovery depend not on the luck or good judgement of their doctors, but on their own will power.’
Ree has a point about the excessive emphasis on the individual’s supposed ability to be ‘whatever they want’ – but I think this criticism of neuroplasticity is unfair, since the processes that have led – according to Doidge – to remarkable changes in peoples’ brains are not quick and simple, but require a lot of time, and, it seems, guidance...
So, by imagining other:
We can change the way we think:
Consider how beliefs and attitudes have changed (in a positive direction) over time (but note: I am not suggesting that all we have to do is to think differently! Obviously many - though not, as some Marxists would argue, all - changes in thought came about as a result of changes in circumstances):
* women, and children have, at least in theory, “rights” that at one time they never had. Much of political history and philosophy ignored women (see my notes: Political philosophy part 21 - feminism and subsequent parts on this topic) – but this has now changed, even if women are still not fully engaged in politics.
* language has changed: abusive terms such as nigger are no longer the accepted currency; and, despite the myths put about (by those who really want to stop political correctness), most people are sensitive nowadays to how the use of language can be hurtful
* there have always been “dreamers.” Many social experiments with greater democracy, the abolition of money, or of the family, may have been short-lived: and yet there are still dreamers, still experiments, and there is still hope – see for example: 'imagining other' part 2 - new ways of seeing.
And, things can be other!
*Despite their many shortcomings, democracies are a step forward compared to ancient tyrannies, and ongoing practical international co-operation in the shape of the United Nations would have been thought of as utopian a couple of hundred years ago
*the rules of war are often honoured in the breach, but there are such rules, and we are beginning to find ways of subjecting war criminals to legal process
*throughout the world there are countless radical and progressive social movements and groupings pressing for a better world
- see for example: 'imagining other' part 3 - alternatives.
But, what kind of “other”?
The final point to make is that if we accept the above, then only in a world in which people are free to use their imagination, and free to act collectively to construct the kind of world they want, would we be free of exploitation, abuse, discrimination, poverty and suffering.
So we can go on as now:
*we can continue to tolerate “fundamentalist” attitudes that say “my beliefs are the truth, yours are wrong and/or evil, and you must either change your views or be eradicated”…. And then, of course, many of us will continue to live in fear of persecution and death.
*we can continue to allow powerful minorities to impose their “realities” on us – spin-doctors, public relations experts, corporate marketing manipulators, authoritarian experts who do not give us the information we need to argue against their so-called knowledge… And we will go on doing just what benefits the powerful rather than what benefits us.
*we can be fatalistic, and opt out of it all, saying: “I can’t change anything…” And nothing will change: millions will continue to die of hunger, whole categories of people will be denied their rights as human beings, wars will continue to claim thousands of lives every day, the rich will get richer (since they don’t believe they can do nothing!) and the poor poorer, and quite possibly global warming will make the world uninhabitable in large parts – who knows, the human species may even disappear!
* we can remember Martin Luther King’s words about the civil rights movement: “We all have a task to do and let us do it with a sense of divine dissatisfaction. Let us be divinely dissatisfied as long as we have a wealth of creeds and a poverty of deeds.” And Clarence Page (American journalist on the Chicago Tribune), looking back on the civil rights movement, added: “We may never achieve a perfect world, [King] told us, but we must never stop trying.”
The choice is ours.
(**) Note: I owe a debt to the late Cornelius Castoriadis for “sparking off” some of the above ideas – see:
- my essay on Castoriadis: Recommencing Revolution
- and the informative website: www.agorainternational.org
Back to index page for this website: Imagining Other Index Page