Paradigm paralysis and civic imagination

In preparation for my doctoral studies this fall (location tbd), I’ve been reading the work of Stanley Aronowitz and Henry Giroux, two public intellectuals whose work on social class, education, labor and employment, neoliberalism and other topics has commented on the hypocrisy and violence upon which much of our country’s preeminence in the world depends. Both writers’ work, along with “Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture” by Angela Davis, evoke a concept I just discovered recently, called paradigm paralysis, and its relationship to civic imagination in modern America.

Paradigm paralysis refers to one’s inability to perceive alternatives to the dominant paradigm, its dictates, beliefs and attendant behaviors. As a psychological concept, paradigm paralysis appears to be involuntary, a simple response to the overwhelming incongruity of present reality with other possibilities that would alter our given set of assumptions beyond the bounds of what is “acceptable”; the classic example is the rejection of Copernicus’ heliocentric model in the 16th century, a notion so radical that he was accused of impiety, along with Galileo and other “heretical” thinkers whose scientific work was spurned as anathema to religious dictum. While later on such academic developments were found to replace earlier models of thinking, their initiators suffered social pariahdom or worse and often never lived to see their work received as it might have been.

The reason this concept fascinates me is that I think many of our public intellectuals – and those of us who hope one day to join their ranks – struggle with the immobility of the common person even in the face of widespread, flagrant abuse of human rights in the name of corporatism and laissez-faire capitalism in many spheres of modern society. We speak easily about the 99%, we accept that the protection of corporations as people is absurd, we believe that the bailout of the banks during the Great Recession of 2008 robbed all of us to pay the thieves who stole from us twice over, we see the huge profits by private prisons through government-sanctioned occupancy quotas…yet we offer little more than a flip grumble on Facebook and let it be done.

Have we become passive, even lazy to some degree when it comes to civic discourse? Is the torpor of obsessive eyeballing of our electronic devices setting in to the point that we can’t see past our little iPhone designer case edges? I believe that this may be true, but only to a point. It’s important to consider ideas expressed by Aronowitz such as what he calls the Great Fear, which he says self-proclaimed progressives buttress against with “comfortable berths in the professions, the unions and the universities” or by regressing into cozy nostalgia for better times. Aronowitz considers that in an atmosphere of political suppression and economic vulnerability, radical independent thinking and expression are often attenuated by the anxiety about consequences both undefined and highly publicized, as in the case of well-known whistleblowers all over the world, should one speak out against the powers that be.

Giroux adds to this important point by discussing how the notion of freedom, of democracy itself has changed as a result of the preeminence of market values over the importance of a social contract, which dictates that the common good and the individual good function as correlates in a healthy society. According to Giroux, “[F]reedom, which is essential to any notion of democracy, now becomes nothing more than a matter of pursuing your own self interests,” reflecting the movement of capital-is-king values from the 1980s increasingly into mainstream discourse. If we are being ushered into a space of rewarded individualism, in which excoriation lurks around the corner for those who do not play along with the system, we use our new playground – that of consumption and spectacle and me-me-me – to purge our built-up angst about what’s really going on.

Giroux moves on to discuss what he terms the problem of “dis-imagination” in schooling in an interview with Bill Moyers entitled, “Henry Giroux on Zombie Politics”, which especially for educators like myself becomes a profound warning. Giroux laments the loss of the arts, of opportunities for creative and critical thinking, of the exploration of tradition and older texts, which used to occur as schools focused on “educating the imagination” of children in supporting their development as future participants in civic reality. As administrations work to impose new standards and testing year after year, while making cuts to budgets and teacher support, it is clear that the need to compete, to fight to survive as funding for education dries up all over the country, reflects the same anxiety and prioritization of self over others that occurs on an individual level. As schools’ success is defined by ‘demonstrated measureable outcomes’ (read: metrics like standardized tests), what opportunity exists to explore unclaimed social, cultural, artistic, and theoretical territories, political and economic systems yet untested, or alternatives to the hegemonic values that describe and bizarrely validate our current situation?

So how does this tie in to Angela Davis? The book that I referenced above focuses on the Americans prison-industrial complex as a modern chapter in the oppression of citizens and foreign nationals in the U.S. and the continued impact this has on our democracy. The reference to “civic imagination” (12) was made in discussion of Davis’ reading of W. E. B. DuBois, a major critical thinker and political philosopher in the early 20th century who explored, among other topics, the convict leasing system that existed in the Reconstruction era to perpetuate the enslavement of black Americans. The phrase “civic imagination” struck me as I articulated what most concerns me as an educator, a presumptive academic and public intellectual: What potential do we see in ourselves to make change? How do we go about doing so? How do we see ourselves vis-a-vis the current paradigms of sociopolitical consciousness: as agents or objects? What risks of comfort, of uncertainly, of obscurity or punishment do we face if we commit beyond talk? Can we even imagine what is possible beyond a world where possibility itself and the freedom to speak it becomes an indication of enemy combatants? What changes occur within each of us on a psychological level, as well as a collective one, when we become comfortable with the abridgment of our consciousness and our imaginations?

A last thought from recent news: A collection of photographs of street art by activists in the women’s movement in Egypt since 2011 has been released, in spite of attempts by the government to paint over their power. The voices and visions of these women may inspire, may shame, may educate us…or they may wash over us like another Facebook post. Civic imagination, like all calls for creative acts, begins with consciousness, with the dawning of an idea in a mind dark with waiting; we have to find this idea again, and begin to wake up.


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