The Dangerous Imagination

And now for something completely different.

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me...!

I will use this picture over, and over, and over again, so help me…!

I don’t think we often discuss imagination critically. In fact, most discussion of imagination falls into one of the following categories:

1.) “Hey, kids!I’m a popular TV character! Use your imagination and SOAR –on my show, at weekdays at 10!”

2.) “It’s great that the kids have such imaginations.”

3.) “Woa. That fantasy novel had duck-bear-werecats! Such imagination!”

4.) “Little Bobby spent 72 hours on the internet without eating, drinking, or peeing. I fear his imagination is dead. As well as his frontal lobe.”

Generally, imagination is seen as this nebulous thing, like refracted light, something we all just think is pretty and can’t quite define or grasp. It’s like love in a cheesy movie. We don’t really know what it is or what it does, but it’s really, really awesome and good people want it and have it, and baaaad people just don’t get it. Imagination is what the quirky underdog character in the movie has. The big, meany bully characters don’t have it because they don’t get underdog’s amazing ability to be whimsical and quirky. And it’s really awesome that underdog is so whimsical and quirky and imaginative and why can’t we all be like that?

The trouble with wanting and idolizing something that we don’t really define or explain is that you can’t really preserve the good that is there when you don’t know what it is or how to preserve it. It’s like true love. The reason people are starting to get a little tired of Disney’s insta-love, as parodied in Enchanted, isn’t just because we’re a bunch of progressive cynics or evil feminists who hate romance. The trouble is that we have had romances and they aren’t instant, just-add-water love between two perfectly good-looking people who just so happen to be royalty. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that true love is a beautiful, great thing and can save the day. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with stories that teach kids that imagination is cool and better than beating the crap out of people. That’s excellent. But, we already have our Snow Whites and Cinderellas and Sleeping Beauties, and we already have our Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia and countless TV specials about imagination. We don’t need any more. Those simple lessons are there, and the good ones (like classic Disney) will be timeless. But, people need more than Moulin Rouge-style love is awesome in order to understand love, and people need more than a PBS kids special about how awesome imagination is to understand imagination. When Disney parodies itself in Enchanted, it’s not spitting on Snow White or its other darlings. But, it is recognizing that we as a society do know that love is more complicated than singing a song and going straight to the wedding. This is less of a gender issues/liberation discussion and more of cultural growth. We learned our original Disney lessons, and some of them were valuable and cultural icons. But, after learning that we move on. That’s what learning is. And, in terms of imagination, I don’t see this happening very often.

The first and most obvious problem, in my opinion, is that we don’t really explain what imagination just –only that it’s awesome and good people have it and bad people don’t. It you don’t have it, then maybe a wide-eyed child will teach you, or a manic pixie dream girl, or an unlikely hero underdog who just sees the world so beautifully and…

Oscar! Oscar! Give them all Oscars!

Actually, imagination is more than having a streak of purple hair, or closing your eyes and picturing a really cool special effects sequence for the next heartwarming blockbuster, or just being a tortured poet from a Stephen King novel. The idea of the sensitive, quirky, nutty aesthete has been popularized by the media to create this weird, whimsical image of the imaginative. It’s the big kids learning to let go and be like the little kids again. It’s Robbin Williams’ Patch Adams portrayal. It’s the outsider who dares to be different! That’s ART!

And, unfortunately, that is not art. In fact, for every wacky, quirky artist, from G.K. Chesterton sitting for hours in front of cobwebs, to Hunter S. Thompson’s constant performance of Dr. Gonzo, to Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven and her birdcage hat, there are some pretty serious, even stuffy artists and writers who created masterful works without ever getting so much as a lip ring and an anti-establishment T-shirt.

So, why am I bringing up these cliches about artists and imaginative types? Well, I’m bringing them up because often times these are what we think of when we’re given a subject. We think of cliches, types, common images, even if they’re misconceptions or just outright lies, or partial truths formed by a cultural bias. And all of these cliches, biases, misconceptions, and images that form what we think about are all a part of the imagination.


That illusive, so awesome, totally hip imagination is also responsible for people coming up with cliched group-think.

Imagination is exactly what it sounds like. It’s what we imagine, how we picture reality. It’s literally creating images of what reality is like. This can be a fantastic tool if you are Mozart and your image of reality comes in the form of some of the greatest music ever written, and you can just BE a fantastic tool if your imagination leads you to brand people with negative stereotypes. It’s a double-edged sword.

See that? “Double-edged sword” is a cliche, but it’s a part of the common lexicon and a subject we can all understand based on our ability to use imaginations. If we didn’t have imaginations, if we were entirely made of fact and unable to process metaphor, we’d be like Vulcans and very confused.

Imagination is usually meant to mean that child-like ability to look at the clouds and see fairy castles. In actuality, that image of imagination IS imagining. We imagine imagination to be a certain way, and when we do it is almost impossible to stop. It’s very hard to separate the valued, desire, awesome imagination that Anne of Greengables loved so much with the fact that a collective imagination also produced those annoying TV ads about what guys and gals are *supposed* to like.

Imagination is often how we see the world, particularly in terms of things we can’t actually see. That’s why it’s so useful. We cannot really grasp infinite, the age of the universe, complex emotions, people we never met, but we can imagine and that can be a great learning tool. We can take this imagining and create stories, art, film, music, dance, architecture, and it can inspire questions that will influence science, technology, even cooking. In that sense, it’s great.

Imagination also influences wonder, which is basically the only aspect of imagination that people imagine about imagination. This is the wide-eyed, childlike sense of awe that I was just mocking, but is actually pretty important. Awe can be healthy, can make people appreciate their lives, can make people feel good about the world, and can inspire great art which in turn inspires awe. Wonder is a good thing, and becoming jaded and cynical is an actual problem in society. I don’t want to downplay that.

But, just focusing on all the wonder does mean that we might forget what imagination can do. Remember, just trying to dispel the notion that imagination is something more than what we imagine it to be is itself kind of a task. But, imagination really can have a dark side, which itself is a cliche that we all understand and is mired in tons of ideological and social issues which form our imaginations.

One of the most obvious examples of the dangerous imagination crops up in art and media from the past quite frequently. This being the normative perspective, the perspective of a majority or ruling class which is then taken as the mainstream understanding of society and which influences the collective imagination. I am, of course, talking about racism. Think about the old-timey, embarrassingly racist images of people from other cultures: the evil, treacherous Jews of Hitlerian propaganda, who also show up in everything from The Sun Also Rises to Oliver Twist; the thick-lipped and slow-witted Stepin Fetchit caricature of Africans that we see in so many cartoons, and the lecherous counterpart who is always after “white women”, as seen in Birth of a Nation. The US used negative stereotypes of monstrous, yellow-skinned Japanese during World War II. European settlers of America used images of savages to depict the Native peoples. Today we have images of terrorist Middle Easterners, and every woman in a headscarf is either oppressed or suspect.

The imagination is something which can be formed, and it’s often formed by the master narrative, and us vs. them complexes. Most people aren’t going to look at a block of marble and imagine taking out everything except Michelangelo’s David. Unfortunately, most people use their imaginations to perpetuate preconceived notions and never question what those may mean. When you think a certain political movement is all rednecks or all yuppies, you’re imagining something, and it may not be true.

Furthermore, blindly trusting imagination allows people to form your imagination in whatever way they see fit. Can you just not imagine making changes to your lifestyle, even if you know products you use are made by slave labor and the food you eat is damning the planet? Then thank an advertiser! Advertisers make a living on molding your imagination. We didn’t always have surprise engagements with expensive rings, tons of Valentine’s gifts, Black Friday, or even the image of the suburban family in the house with the picket fence and the perfect, modern lifestyle. That’s advertising. Advertising is also why people get depressed when the Holidays aren’t as special as they thought they should be, or when visiting Paris is a major letdown. Advertising forms how you imagine success, sexiness, love, excitement, freedom, relaxation, family, food, holidays, education, and so on. And all just to sell deodorant, toothpaste, and genetically altered turkeys.

Politicians also use imagination. Does wanting to buck the tyranny of Political Correctness make you want to say racial slurs for no reason? Thank politicians for forming your imagination! There’s a reason why people refer to their favorite presidential candidate as president, even before the election. They’re making people imagine that this person already is president. There’s a reason why Republicans want to say “job creators” instead of “rich people”. There’s a reason why Obama has a special photographer. There’s a reason why news commentators cry, why Fox hires only sexy women and has them all wear short dresses, why political memes on facebook are even a thing at all. It all forms an image in your head about what reality is. Every time you look at a political meme, or post such a meme, you’re accepting a reality that someone else created for you. Your imagination is being formed by someone else’s agenda.

And, once your imagination is formed, it’s really, really hard to change it. If you can’t imagine something, most people refuse to talk about it or even accept that it might exist. You hear creationists regularly speak of being unable to imagine a very old earth, or a time without humans. Time is difficult to imagine. The same goes for math. When a mathematician makes a discovery with numbers, it’s hard for non-mathematicians to imagine how this even works. You get people refusing to accept scientific data because it’s unimaginable. But, it’s only unimaginable because our imaginations haven’t caught up with science. It’s not as if a scientific discovery happens and POOF, everyone’s imagination is suddenly updated, like Adobe Flash. No. If you don’t have the information, you can’t imagine it, and sometimes that information requires serious scientific study and research. Because of this, some people simply imagine that scientific study is just brainwashing, because they cannot imagine that being able to understand reality might be complicated. They cannot imagine that they do not know everything. Most people cannot imagine being wrong.

This isn’t to discredit imagination when it is good. Imagination is a tool, like any other. You can use it to create amazing works of art, or you can use it to perpetuate horrible ideas about the Jews. It is a tool, and you need to be its master, not the other way around. We act as if a good person surrenders to imagination, and that’s how beauty just happens. This is also an image, and we imagine it mostly because children’s shows told us to. Imagination is actually a tool, like a wrench, and we are the masters. It is a very powerful tool, but we have to make sure that we are using it correctly, and that we fuel our imagination with facts and not the other way around. Imagination should not fuel our facts, because imagination is a perspective, how we image information, and an image of an image cannot be reality. We’re getting into some Plato’s Cave stuff with that.

Furthermore, we limit imagination by not recognizing what it is. Imagination isn’t “I created a new fantasy character for the magic world of magic I just made up”. It can be, but that’s not the whole of it. Imagination is how we see the world. Imagination is what language we use to communicate information. It’s what boundaries we impose upon ourselves by refusing to imagine certain scenarios. It’s how we collect images and ideas and organize them. Arguably, a realistic novel by Steinbeck is more imaginative than the werecamel of the magic world of magic, because he had to work within boundaries and face the challenges of processing real-world information. This isn’t to say that fantasy can’t be imaginative. It does take skill to create a fantastic world, but that, too, is built on the perspectives of the author, which come from living.

It also affects how we form society. If we imagine a certain time of the past was perfect, just wonderful, and we forget both the evils of that era and the contemporary problems which have outgrown that era’s solutions, we are muddling our ability to see reality clearly. When we cannot empathize with someone, when we cannot imagine a change in government or economics, when we see changes as Hitler or Stalin, when we are afraid of our neighbors, these are flaws in the imagination –flaws probably planted by political sources and advertisers.

So, to venture into a fantasy world, you wouldn’t let your magic wand be tampered with by corporate executives from Buy N Large, Lord Voldemort, or the news anchor from the song “Dirty Laundry”, would you? No. That would change how your wand words, change the magic, maybe even hurt you. You have to guard your magic wand and learn proper spellcasting. The same goes for the imagination.
I mean, seriously, guys, did Harry Potter teach us nothing?

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