Just Imagine: No Longer Reducing Others to Labels


Imagination can be a positive practice of counter imaging. It invites a richer and multifaceted description of the other, Blythe says. (Image courtesy of sixninepixels/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

An ethical response to the Earth requires the use of imagination for proper "knowing," says Norman Wirzba in his book, "From Nature to Creation: A Christian Vision for Understanding and Loving Our World."

In advancing this argument, he refers to a quotation from Wendell Berry's "Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition," where knowing imaginatively involves knowing with the "heart."

"To know imaginatively is to know intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently and with affection," Berry asserts.

This 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 dehumanization 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 dehumanized hatred, the other person or group is imaged as less than human through the use of labels loaded in the mind of the one using them in derogatory terms.

Personal is political in this approach 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 is evidenced in the present example of the now established association between refugee, migrant and terrorist.

This process of dehumanization operates, of course, 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 labeling.

To label someone as an "illegal" immigrant, as it were, settles the case, there is nothing else to be said or asked about them.

This can include failing to question the "legality" of the laws they are supposed to have broken, a perspective we would normally allow ourselves.

Victoria M. Esses, Stelian Medianu and Andrea S. Lawson offer some interesting research on this in their article, "Uncertainty, Threat and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees."

In such a context, imagination can be a positive practice of counter imaging. It invites a richer and multifaceted 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.

Imagining "what if that were me?" transforms from criminal to parent the picture of an "illegal" immigrant crossing the border carrying their child.

It transforms 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 in Luke 10:25-37. 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 neighbor - rather, he is offered as an example of one who loved his neighbor as himself (Luke 10:27).

Stuart Blythe is rector of International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam, Netherlands. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.

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Tags: Hatred, Imagination, Immigration, Refugees, Stuart Blythe


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