To think it thinkable shortcuts no work and shields one from no responsibility. Quite the contrary, it may be a necessary prerequisite to assuming responsibility, and it invites the honorable work of radical imagination. — “On Being White,” by Marilyn Frye
This paper was originally presented as part of WAM! LA’s 2013 Conference.
30 years ago feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote about the importance of the imagination to feminism in The Politics of Reality. 20 years ago I read the book in a college Women’s Studies class, and to this day my feminism has been inspired by her explication of how to see oppression and imagine freedom. Oppression, she claims in her essay of that name, cannot be seen for what it is if you only look close up:
Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.
While stepping far enough back from a birdcage to observe it’s structure can be done in the space of a small room, stepping far enough back from our lived reality to see the patterns that indicate oppressive social structures can be only done in our minds. As if that’s not hard enough, we must step far enough back to be able to see not only the patterns that have affected us in our individual lives but also patterns that only affect those less privileged than ourselves. In so doing, we both gain clarity of vision and exercise what I like to call the empathetic imagination.
The empathetic imagination is able both to connect the dots between the individual instances of prejudice and limitation that make up oppression and to understand that even limitations that only apply to other people are still oppression. This is not a new kind of feminism, it is in many ways the oldest kind, but it is a kind increasingly at odds with today’s individualized, consumerized culture. From contemporary parenting practices to technology to for-profit online education, our culture encourages people (young people in particular) to place themselves at the center of their experience and of the world around them.
The question for me, as an academic, a writer, and a theater maker, is how can we engage young people in making the connections that allow them to see oppression as a “network of systematically related barriers?” And how do we help them empathize with people they don’t know, discrimination they haven’t experienced, and struggles that are greater than theirs?
First we have to learn to speak their language, by which I don’t mean the slang they use but rather the way that they use images to communicate rather than words. I got on tumblr recently after a few students told me, “It’s where the young people are.” I have heard millennials described as digital natives and boomers as digital immigrants; I consider myself a second-generation digital immigrant: My family was one of the first on the block to have a computer, but it started up in DOS, so that experience doesn’t really help me with today’s click, drag, and drop interfaces. So while it’s taking me a bit to crack tumblr, I can see that indeed it is where the young people are. And it is largely image driven.
In this virtual space, I can use images in ways that help viewers make connections between individual instances of discrimination and prejudice (what we in academia call critical thinking). The success of the post below, which has been reblogged/liked about 15,000 times and counting, shows that tumblr’s users are already asking questions about whose stories our culture values and about representations of oppression (or the lack thereof) within those stories:
My question is whether these same viewers are willing to engage in an even more radical act of the imagination: Using words to create their own images in their minds. My internet plays, written about social issues with as few descriptors as possible in the same space as a blog post, challenge readers to engage imaginatively with words by turning them into images, thereby engaging imaginatively in the creation of the stories, the characters, and the worlds. Whether we imagine stories that reflect the systemic oppression that is reality or stories that reveal the possibility of a new, more free reality, when we create our own images we engage in a radical, counter-cultural act.
The more life I live, the more I am forced to confront how little control we have over anything, how little power we have to align the myriad forces that have to align in order for us to achieve our goals and realize our dreams. I think we tell stories largely to organize what is actually chaos. Stories put events into a narrative in which we can identify cause and effect. They embody intangible forces in characters, put words to our deepest fears and desires, and paint pictures of what cannot be seen by the eye.
When we summon the imagination to tell stories that feature people who are other than us, we teach ourselves to empathize with them. I write plays like A Woman and Her Doctor in such a way that none of the characters have a defined race, challenging readers to imagine the play in their head with characters who may look quite unlike the characters that populate most Hollywood films, television, and theater. I hope the same tumblr users that respond so strongly to pure images will be interested in using words to create their own images as well. The experiment is in progress. Input is welcome.