Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world…
John Lennon, Imagine, lyrics © Downtown Music Publishing
The tragedy of the world is that those who are imaginative have but slight experience, and those who are experienced have feeble imaginations.
A.N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education
Few will forget seeing the memorial to John Lennon just inside Central Park, near the Dakota building where he was gunned down on December 8th, 1980 by Mark Chapman. The message of hope inscribed within a circle memorializing a violent death is almost unbearably moving.
How disillusioning Lennon would have found our own era. In place of a “brotherhood of man…sharing all the world,” we have the greed of an ever self-enriching one percent, widespread global hunger, and a president of the most powerful country in the world whose slogan is “America First.” Thirty-seven years after Lennon died, we have made little progress towards the vision he so movingly articulated.
However idealistic Lennon’s thought, he grasped one fundamental truth that remains inviolable: if we are to make real political and social progress, we must use our imaginations. As J.K. Rowling put it, “We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: We have the power to imagine better.”
Many of us are deeply weary of the fire-hose of facts (purported, fake, and otherwise), analyses, and arguments that daily stream toward us via the media and online. Part of this weariness arises from the fetishizing of the objective and the rational, the insistent belief that evidence-based reason is the gold standard of political thought and ideas. This is something we find on both the left and the right.
Rational argument and empirical evidence are of course useful. But we are becoming blind as a society to their limitations. No amount of evidence or rational theorizing are by themselves going to solve world hunger, for example. It’s our deep compassion for unnecessary suffering and our commitment to do something about it that both motivates and guides our activism. The inspiration for such feelings is the imagination, which creates the visual and mental world-space in which reason and evidence can begin to work.
Recall that hundreds of news articles about the plight of Middle Eastern and African refugees in Europe did little to change the situation, until a single picture of a drowned three-year old Syrian boy face down on a beach electrified the world.
Such images play directly to our imagination, setting off in turn a whole train of further mental images, feelings, and thoughts (we imagine the little boy’s suffering, for example), while bypassing reason altogether. A short while after the photograph appeared, Angela Merkel put her whole political future at risk by announcing that Germany would accept a million refugees in the coming months. This is the power of images and the imagination to produce real change.
To grasp how the imagination can be a potent a force for good through uniting word and image, think for a moment about the transformative power of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech:
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream….
I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Notice how rich in imagery King’s speech is. He continually uses words and phrases that are concrete and easy to visualize: “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” “dream,” “deeply rooted,” “rise up,” “sit down together at the table of brotherhood,” “sweltering with the heat of injustice,” “oasis of freedom and justice.” The magnificent peroration contains two strikingly vivid metaphors:
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
Over half a century later King’s oration remains a profoundly inspiring act of imagination. Using a whole series of stirring images, King brilliantly evokes an unacceptable past and present (“our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating ‘for whites only’”) in order to open a pathway to a hoped-for future (“Free at last! Free at last!”). There isn’t a single rational inference or dry statistic in the entire speech.
Following King’s example, if only for our children’s sake, we need to lead with our imaginations. Only this will enable us to envisage a new and better world, and to free ourselves from numbing burden of endlessly debated fact and reason that, far from liberating us, hems us in.
In talking about the imagination, we don’t mean fantasy, which as the bard put it, trades in “airy nothing.” Rather, we are here invoking the so-called constructive imagination. This employs the visualizing powers of the mind’s eye, together with the mind’s other creative capacities, to bring into being a picture (verbal and/or visual) of something that is otherwise not present to us, but that possesses significant meaning and structure.
For example, when the women’s movement launched in the early 1970s, it envisaged a time when women would no longer be, in Simone de Beauvoir’s indelible phrase, “the second sex.” Its many declarations and proposals were not made in a vacuum, however, but rather were rooted within an emerging cultural, social, and historical space structured in terms of passionately espoused principles, values, and ways of being. It was necessary to first imagine a world in which women were given equal pay, had equal access to the top echelons of institutional power, could work alongside men in the armed forces and police, and were safe from verbal and physical abuse, before the practical work of bringing such a world into being could begin.
Such an imagined world was a fertile space for envisaging policies, laws, beliefs, practices, and standards that came to form the very lifeblood of feminist political discourse. Only at this juncture, after the constructive imagination had done its initial work, could reason and evidence, questioning and debate, be effectively applied. Without this initial exercise of imaginative world-building, we are liable to be left with a series of dry rational arguments that in their inevitable partisan conflict, leave us feeling confused and unmoved.
Imagination possesses three great strengths, as we’ve seen: its capacity to invoke (and be invoked by) images and visual language, to stir up passion, and to give rise to creative insight. Yet in many domains, including politics, this most powerful of mental faculties, capable of yoking together emotion and reason, word and image, the real and the as yet unrealized, is sadly neglected. One possible reason for this is that we privilege scientific methodology, which appears to eschew the imagination, progressing instead through the careful integration of reason and objective fact. This is an error, however. Einstein famously valued imagination over reason. Francis Crick, who shared a Nobel prize for discovering the structure of the DNA molecule, insisted that “The most important requirements in theoretical work are a combination of accurate thinking and imaginative ideas.” Similar affirmations of the power of the imagination by highly creative scientists are not hard to find.
In reality, imagination creates the world-space in which reason can fruitfully be brought to bear. As the German philosopher Martin Heidegger might have said, reason always arrives late. There is nothing more irrational than the belief that reason is our sole effective means of gaining insight or making progress. Yet it’s a rare politician indeed—Bernie Sanders is an inspiring exception—who is willing to ground the formulation of policy on imagined scenarios of how the world might be made better.
In The Aims of Education, a work which extols the role of the imagination, A.N. Whitehead reminds us that the Greeks symbolized learning by a torch passing from generations to generation. “That lighted torch is the imagination of which I speak,” he wrote. There is a strong echo of this torch in President Kennedy’s inaugural address:
Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans… unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
This is an almost perfect articulation of a bold act of the imagination that is itself about using our imaginations in the service of our ideals. Kennedy employs a series of brilliant metaphors to urge his audience to actively commit themselves to achieving a confidently envisaged new world.
Today, such daringly imaginative acts are all too rare in politics. While the current regime has certainly provoked a strong backlash, on the whole this seems more focused on resistance aimed at bringing about liberal reform than on revolt directed at achieving radical change.
We seem no longer to believe that revolutionary change is possible. If so, then our best hope is to call forth once more the creative powers of the imagination to construct a new world—a world in which we and our children can live in prosperity and peace. Honoring the memory of John Lennon’s visionary encomium to the imagination demands nothing less.