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Thinking Dangerously in an Age of Political Betrayal

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Posted on Jul 18, 2014

Photo by Tommaso Meli (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

This piece originally appeared on Truthout.

Thinking is not the intellectual reproduction of what already exists anyway. As long as it doesn’t break off, thinking has a secure hold on possibility….Open thinking points beyond itself.
—Theodor Adorno

That is, there are no dangerous thoughts for the simple reason that thinking itself is such a dangerous enterprise. ... nonthinking is even more dangerous.
—Hannah Arendt

Thinking has become dangerous in the United States. The symptoms are everywhere, but one symptomatic display of anti-enlightenment, religious fundamentalism can be observed in the Texas GOP Party platform which states, among other things, that “We oppose teaching of Higher order Thinking Skills [because they] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental control” to a Tennessee bill that “allows the teaching of creationism in state’s classrooms.” Couple this with the call on the part of the Texas Republican party to ban the income tax, eliminate corporate taxes, sack the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and the Department of energy, along with policies designed to force teachers to teach creationism and climate change denial in the schools. What is often ignored in the reporting of such overt displays of ignorance is that religious and ideological fundamentalism are at the root of a right-wing political movement to miseducate young people, keep the American public ignorant, and hasten a return to the Gilded Age.  Just in case, students disagree with this retreat into ignorance, one freshman Tea Party representative in Arizona is pushing a Loyalty Oath bill in which “public high school students in Arizona will have to ‘recite an oath supporting the U.S. Constitution’ to receive a graduation diploma.” But, ignorance is not simply a matter of pedagogy, it also drives a great deal of state and federal policy. For example, the Koch brothers financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) “hit the ground running in 2013, pushing “models bills” mandating the teaching of climate change denial in public school systems.” At the same time, policy makers at the state level define a return to the Dark Ages as progress. As John Atcheson observes,

For example, North Carolina law-makers recently passed legislation against sea level rise. A day later, the Virginia legislature required that references to global warming, climate change and sea level rise be excised from a proposed study on sea level rise. Last year, the Texas Department of Environmental Quality, which had commissioned a study on Galveston Bay, cut all references to sea level rise – the main point of the study. We are, indeed, at an epochal threshold.As Stephen Colbert so aptly put it: if your science gives you results you don’t like, pass a law saying that the result is illegal. Problem solved. Except it isn’t. Wishing reality away, doesn’t make it go away. Pretending that the unreal is real doesn’t make it real.

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At a time when anti-intellectualism runs rampart throughout popular culture and the political landscape, it seems imperative to once again remind ourselves of how important critical thought as a crucible for thinking analytically can be both a resource and an indispensable tool. If critical thought, sometimes disparaged as theory, gets a bad name, it is not because it is inherently dogmatic, jargonistic, or rigidly specialized, but because it is often abused or because it becomes a tool of irrelevancy—a form of theoreticism in which theory becomes an end in itself.  This abuse of critical thought appears to have a particularly strong hold in the humanities, especially among many graduate students in English departments who often succumb to surrendering their own voices to class projects and dissertations filled with obtuse jargon associated with the most fashionable theorists of the moment. Such work is largely rewarded less for its originality than the fact that it threatens no one.

At the same time there are many students who find the esoteric language associated with dangerous thinking and critical thought to be too difficult to master or engage. The latter points to the fact that some theories may be useless because they are too impenetrable to decipher or that there are theories which support bad practices such as high-stakes testing, creationism, faith-based evidence, the spanking of children, incarcerating children as adults, and other assumptions and policies that are equally poisonous.  Theory is not inherently good or bad. Its meaning and efficacy are rooted in a politics of usefulness, accessibility, and whether it can be used resourcefully to articulate frameworks and tools that deepen the possibility of self-reflection, critical thought, and a sense of social responsibility.  For instance, a theory is bad if it inadequately grasps the forces at work in the world and simply reproduces it as it is. Theory is also injurious when it is used to legitimate modes of inquiry and research that are bought by corporations, the military, and other state and private institutions to legitimate dangerous products, policies, and social practices.

Theory has no guarantees and like any other mode of thought it has to be problematized, critically engaged, and judged in terms of its interests, effects, and value as part of a broader enhancement of human agency and democratization. At its best, theory, thinking dangerously, and critical thought have the power to shift the questions, provide the tools for offering historical and relational contexts, and “push at the frontiers…of the human imagination.” Moreover, theory functions as a critical resource when it can intervene in the “continuity of commonsense, unsettle strategies of domination,” and work to promote strategies of transformation. As Adorno observes, “Theory speaks for what is not narrow-minded—and commonsense most certainly is.” As such, theory is not only analytical in its search for understanding and truth, it is also critical and subversive, always employing modes of self and social critique necessary to examine its own grounds and those poisonous fundamentalisms in the larger society haunting the body politic. As Michael Payne observes, theory should be cast in the language of hints, dialogue, and an openness to other positions, rather than be “cast in the language or orders.”

It is important to note that defending critical thought, thinking dangerously, and theory is not the same as solely mounting a defense of academics as public intellectuals or the university as the only site of critical thought, though both are important. When defined this way, theory is easily dismissed as an academic exercise and practice mediated through an impenetrable and often incomprehensible vocabulary.  Theory and the frameworks it supports are just one important political register that keeps alive the notion that critical reflection and thought are necessary not only to address the diverse symbolic and material realities of power, but also for engaging in informed action willing to address important social issues. In this respect, as Lawrence Grossberg has brilliantly argued, theory is a crucial tool that enables one to respond to and provide a better understanding of problems as they emerge in a variety of historical and distinctive contexts. Hence, theory becomes a toolbox that guides the work of many artists, journalists, and other cultural workers in a variety of public spheres who are well aware that their work has consequences when translated into daily life and must be the object of self-reflection. Paraphrasing Grossberg, theory is not simply about the production of meaning but also the making of effects. At the same time, critical thought functions to “lift…human beings above the evidence of our senses and sets appearances apart from the truth.” Salmon Rushdie gestures towards the political necessity of critical thought, informed action, and its effects by insisting that “It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world.”


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