Thinking Dangerously in the Age of Normalized Ignorance
By Henry A. Giroux / CounterPunch
What happens to a society when thinking is eviscerated and is disdained in favor of raw emotion? What happens when political discourse functions as a bunker rather than a bridge? What happens when the spheres of morality and spirituality give way to the naked instrumentalism of a savage market rationality? What happens when time becomes a burden for most people and surviving becomes more crucial than trying to lead a life with dignity? What happens when domestic terrorism, disposability, and social death become the new signposts and defining features of a society? What happens to a social order ruled by an “economics of contempt” that blames the poor for their condition and wallows in a culture of shaming? What happens when loneliness and isolation become the preferred modes of sociality? What happens to a polity when it retreats into private silos and is no longer able to connect personal suffering with larger social issues? What happens to thinking when a society is addicted to speed and over-stimulation? What happens to a country when the presiding principles of a society are violence and ignorance? What happens is that democracy withers not just as an ideal but also as a reality, and individual and social agency become weaponized as part of the larger spectacle and matrix of violence.
The forces normalizing and contributing to such violence are too expansive to cite, but surely they would include: the absurdity of celebrity culture; the blight of rampant consumerism; state-legitimated pedagogies of repression that kill the imagination of students; a culture of immediacy in which accelerated time leaves no room for reflection; the reduction of education to training; the transformation of mainstream media into a mix of advertisements, propaganda, and entertainment; the emergence of an economic system which argues that only the market can provide remedies for the endless problems it produces, extending from massive poverty and unemployment to decaying schools and a war on poor minority youth; the expanding use of state secrecy and the fear-producing surveillance state; and a Hollywood fluff machine that rarely relies on anything but an endless spectacle of mind-numbing violence. Historical memory has been reduced to the likes of a Disney theme park and a culture of instant gratification has a lock on producing new levels of social amnesia.
As we learned in the recent debate between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton (a billionaire and millionaire), ignorance is the DNA of authoritarianism, serving to subvert the truth and obscure the workings of power. Willful ignorance has become a normalized political tool and form of public pedagogy that both provides the foundation for what Noam Chomsky labels as the rise of the “stupid party” and which works incessantly to create a “stupid nation.” Trump, of course, proves that stupidity is in fashion and deeply entrenched within the larger culture while Hilary capitalizes on her penchant for disingenuousness by claiming support for policies she really disdains, i.e., stating she will raise taxes on her buddies from Goldman Sachs and other members of the financial elite. Hardly believable from a woman who “has earned millions of dollars from speeches to Wall Street banks and investment firms (and) was paid $675,000 for a series of speeches to Goldman Sachs.” No hints of the radical imagination here, or the truth for that matter. Only the politics of stupidity and evasion and a media spectacle supporting the celebration of corrupted and limited and pathologized political horizons.
Manufactured ignorance also makes invisible the corruption of the financial elite, allowing them to plunder resources and define the accumulation of capital as a divine blessing. It gets worse. Manufactured ignorance aided by the voracious seductions of commodified corporate-driven disimagination machine that promotes a culture of empty pleasures through and endless regime of consuming and discarding. American society is now dominated by a pervasive commodified landscape of disimagination machines that extends from Hollywood movies and video games to mainstream television, magazines, news, and the social media. These mind-numbing desiring machines which thrive on speed and sensation function mostly as workstations of ignorance to create a fog of distractions that promote forms of social amnesia that erase from memory and public discourse the structural, systemic and social forces that reinforce what can be called organized powerlessness and massive human suffering. This is the stuff of a politics of disappearance that erases the presence of the poor, unemployed, the “approximately 11 million Americans cycle[d] through jails and prisons each year,” black youth, immigrants, ecological disasters, class warfare, acts of state sponsored terrorism, the rise of the police state, and the rise of the warfare state. As the machinery of social death accelerates, America’s most precious investment, youth, also disappear. As neoliberal disimagination machines such as Fox News make clear youth as a social investment no longer count in a society that disdains long term investments and their messy calls for being included in the script of democracy. As such, the current war on youth is about erasing the future, at least any alternative future and any notion of imagination that might summon one into view.
When coupled with an age of precarity and endless uncertainty in which young people have few decent jobs, are strangulated by debt, face a future of career-less jobs, and isolation, young people have little room for politics because they are more concerned with trying to survive rather than engaging in political struggles, or imagining a different future. At the same time, armies of the unemployed or underemployed are caught in a spiral of receding wages, diminished social provisions, and increasingly find themselves paralyzed by anxiety and free-floating anger. In such situations, thinking and informed action become more difficult while a politics wedded to economic and social justice is eviscerated. Moreover, politics becomes toxic when dominated by unapologetic discourses of racism and hatred and is on full display in the Trump campaign. Tapping into such anger and redirecting away from the real problems that produce it has become the central script in the rise of the new authoritarians. This poisonous discourse gains momentum and accelerates as it moves between white supremacist incantations of Trump and his zealots and the deceptive vocabulary of Hillary Clinton and her financial elite backers who embrace a savage neoliberalism with its false claims to freedom, choice, and the virtues of militarization. Civic death is on full display as the ideals of democracy disappear in an election in which authoritarianism in its various forms rules without apology. As thinking dangerously and acting with civic courage wanes, state violence, disposability and voicelessness become the dominant registers of an authoritarian politics that has intensified in American life producing neo-fascist movements in American society that have moved from the fringes to the center of political life.
Tragedy looms large in American society as the forces that promote powerlessness and voicelessness intensify among those elements of the population struggling just to survive the symbolic violence of a culture of cruelty and the material violence of a punishing state. The issue of losing one’s voice either to the forces of imposed silencing or state repression weaken dissent and open the door to the seductions of a dogmatism that speaks in the language of decline, making America great again, while touting the coded vocabulary of white nationalism and racial purity. How else to explain Trump’s call for imposing racial profiling as a way to boost the notion of law and order.
Thinking undangerously is the first step in the triumph of formalism over substance, theater over politics, and the transformation of politics into a form of celebrity culture. The refusal to think works in the service of a form of voicelessness, which is another marker of what it means to be powerless. Within this moral and political vacuum, the codes, rhetoric, and language of white supremacy is on the rise wrapped in the spectacle of fear-mongering and implied threats of state repression. In this instance, emotion become more important than reason, ideas lose their grip on reality, and fashion becomes a rationale for discarding historical memory, informed arguments, and critical thought. Reflection no longer challenges the demands of commonsense. In the mainstream media, the endless and unapologetic proliferation of lies become fodder for higher ratings, informed by suffocating pastiche of talking heads, all of whom surrender to “the incontestable demands of quiet acceptance.” Within such an environment, the truth of an event is not open to public discussion or informed judgment at least in the official media apparatuses producing, distributing and circulating ideas that parade as commonsense. As a result, all that remains is the fog of ignorance and the haze of political and moral indifference.
Americans occupy a historical moment in which it is crucial to think dangerously, particularly since such thinking has the power to shift the questions, provide the tools for offering historical and relational contexts, and “push at the frontiers…of the human imagination.” Stuart Hall is right in insisting that thinking dangerously is crucial “to change the scale of magnification. … to break into the confusing fabric that ‘the real’ apparently presents, and find another way in. So it’s like a microscope and until you look at the evidence through the microscope, you can’t see the hidden relations.” In this instance, the critical capacity for thinking becomes dangerous when it can intervene in the “continuity of commonsense, unsettle strategies of domination,” and work to promote strategies of transformation.
As Adorno observes, such thinking “speaks for what is not narrow-minded—and commonsense most certainly is.” As such, dangerous thinking 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, thinking dangerously (or critical theory in this instance) should be cast in the language of hints, dialogue, and an openness to other positions, rather than be “cast in the language of orders.” Of course, this is not to suggest that thinking dangerously guarantees action, but at the same time, any action that distances itself from such thinking is bound to fail.
In an age when shouting, rage, and unchecked emotions shape public discourse, self-reflection becomes a liability and suppresses the axiom that critical thought should function to “lift…human beings above the evidence of our senses and sets appearances apart from the truth.” Salman Rushdie is right in viewing thinking dangerously as a type of political necessity whose purpose is to “push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world.” As Hannah Arendt noted, thoughtfulness, the ability to think reflectively and critically is fundamental to radical change and a necessity in a functioning democracy. Put differently, formative cultures that make such thinking possible along with the spaces in which dialogue, debate, and dissent can flourish are essential to producing critically literate and actively engaged citizens.
Unfortunately, thinking undangerously cuts across ideological and political divides. For instance, there is a new kind of historical and social amnesia overtaking some elements of resistance in the United States. Many progressives have forgotten the lessons of earlier movements for real change extending from the anti-Vietnam War and Black Freedom movements to the radical feminist and gay rights movements of the sixties. History as a repository of learning with vast resources to enable people to build on historical legacies, develop mass movements, and take seriously the pedagogical task of consciousness raising, is in decline. Too much of contemporary politics has become more personal, often reducing agency to the discourses and highly charged emotions of trauma. These historical legacies of resistance did not limit their politics to a call recognition and security within the confines of isolated political issues. Instead, they called for a radical transformation of capitalist and other authoritarian societies. Moroever, they understood that the truth of domination lie in understanding the totality of a society and how various issues were connected to each other. George Monbiot exemplifies this issue in arguing against responding to the varied crisis associated with neoliberalism as if they emerged in isolation—a response that contributes to neoliberalism’s anonymity. He writes:
Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007?8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?
This politics of the disconnect is exacerbated by the fact that mass social movements run the risk of undermining by a politics that has collapsed into the personal. For example, for too many progressives personal pain represents a retreat into an interiority that focuses on trauma. Robin Kelley provides a caveat here in pointing out that all too often “managing trauma does not require dismantling structural racism” and the larger issues of “oppression, repression, and subjugation” get replaced with “words such as PTSD, micro-aggressions, and triggers.” Kelley is not suggesting that the pain of personal suffering be ignored. Instead, he warns “against … the consequences of framing all grievances in the ‘language of personal trauma.’”
Personal trauma in this case can begin with legitimate calls for spaces free of racism, sexual harassment, and various other forms of hidden but morally and politically unacceptable assaults. And at its best, such a politics functions as an entry into political activism; but when it becomes less a justifiable starting point than an endpoint it begins to sabotage any viable notion of radical politics. Kelley is right in insisting that “trauma can easily slip into thinking of ourselves as victims and objects rather than agents.” Moreover, the language of safe spaces, personal trauma, and triggers can easily become a topsy-turvy discursive universe of trick mirrors and trapdoors that end up reproducing a politics of intimidation and conformity, while forgetting that pedagogical practices and a corresponding politics in the service of dramatic transformation are always unsettling and discomforting.
Progressives must avoid at all cost is the rebirth of a politics in which how we think and act is guaranteed by the discourses of origins, personal experience, and biology. When individuals become trapped within their own experiences, the political imagination weakens, and a politics emerges that runs the risk of inhabiting a culture of exclusion and hardness that shuts down dialogue, undermines compassion, kills empathy, makes it more difficult to listen to and learn from others. A politics that puts an emphasis on personal pain can become blind to its own limitations and can offer falsely a guaranteed access to the truth and a comforting embrace of a discourse of political certainty.
In such cases, the walls go up again as the discourses of biology and exclusion merge to guard the frontiers of moral righteousness and political absolutism. Put differently, the registers of militarization are on full display in such alleged sites of resistance such as higher education where a growing culture of political purity marks out a space in which the personal becomes the only politics there is housed within a discourse of “weaponized sensitivity” and “armed ignorance.” The first causality of armed ignorance is a kind of thoughtfulness that embraces empathy for the other, a willingness to enter into public discussion, and dialogue with those who exist outside of the bunkers of imagined communities of exclusion. Leon Wieseltier is right in arguing that “grievance is sometimes the author of blindness, or worse.”
Under such conditions, empathy wanes and only extends as far as recognizing those who mirror the self, one that endlessly narrates itself on the high ground of an unassailable moralism and stultifying orbits of self-interests. In addition, politics collapses into the privatized orbits of a crude essentialism that disdains forms of public discourse in which boundaries break down and the exercise of public deliberation is viewed as fundamental to a substantive democracy. Of course, there is more at work here than what might be called the atrophy of critical thought, self-reflection, and theory, there is also the degeneration of agency itself.
What does thinking look like when it is transformed into a pedagogical parasite on the body of democracy? At one level, it becomes toxic, blinding the ideological warriors to their own militant ignorance and anti-democratic rhetoric. At the same time, it shuts down any attempt to develop public spheres that connect rather than separate advocates of a politics walled in by suffocating notions of essentialism dressed up in the appeal to orthodoxy parading as revolutionary zeal. What must be remembered is that thinking undangerously mimics a pedagogy of repression that falsely assumes a revolutionary stance when in fact everything about it is counter-revolutionary. In the end this suggests a kind of theoretical helplessness, a replacing of the courage to think dangerously with the discourse of denunciation and a language overflowing with the comforting binary of good and evil.
There is more at risk here than legitimating the worse forms of thoughtlessness, there is also the intolerable potential for both the moral collapse of politics and the undermining of any vestige of democracy. Thinking dangerously as a critical enterprise is about both a search for the truth and a commitment to the recognition that no society is ever just enough and hence is fundamental to the always unfinished struggle, making the impossible all the more possible. Not one or the other but both. Such thinking should be used to both understand and engage the major upheavals people face and to connect such problems to larger political, structural, and economic issues.
Thinking dangerously can make the pedagogical more political by mapping the full range of how power is used and how it can be made accountable in all of its uses. Thinking dangerously is about more than doing a critical reading of screen culture and other texts, it is also about how knowledge, desire, and values become invaluable tools in the service of economic and political justice, how language provides the framework for dealing with power and what it means to develop a sense of compassion for others and the planet. Dangerous thinking is more than a mode of resistance, it is the basis for a formative and pedagogical culture of questioning and politics that takes seriously how the imagination can become central to the practice of freedom, justice, and democratic change.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.