“Magic Glasses:” The Marginalized Know Better (Pt. 3 in a series on critical thinking)

magic glasses March

These past two weeks (see here and here), I’ve been addressing the question of critical thinking in a post-fact age of “fake news.”

So far, my argument has invited readers to recognize a hierarchy of truths, viz. that ethnocentrism is superior to egocentrism, world-centrism is superior to ethnocentrism, and cosmic-centrism ranks above world-centrism. Most academics are reluctant to recognize that hierarchy. As thorough post-moderns, they advocate what Ken Wilber calls “aperspectival madness.” It holds that every perspective is as good as any other.

By rejecting such insanity, the task of critical education becomes helping people move from one stage of awareness to a higher one – specifically from ethnocentrism and its invalid dominator hierarchies to world-centrism with its more valid growth hierarchy, and to (at least) acquaintance with the notion of cosmic-centrism.

And it’s here that I find the concept of “magic glasses” (which will figure in the title of my book) relevant to the task at hand. Baba Dick Gregory uses the phrase to refer to the perspective conferred by movement from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. According to Gregory, such advance is like donning special eyewear that enables one to perceive what is invisible or absurd to those without them.

Magic glasses, the Baba warns, are both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that eyesight through magic glasses is fuller, and more evolved – more worthy of human beings. The curse is that those without the glasses will consider their wearers insane or worse. The hell of it is that glassless folk cannot be persuaded unless their independent growth cycle enables them to do so.

So, Gregory points out, the magic glasses come with three inviolable rules: (1) once you put them on, you may never take them off, (2) afterwards, you can never see things as your tribe says they’re supposed to be, but only as they truly are, and (3) you can never force anyone else to wear them.

My own experience confirms Gregory’s insight. It suggests that our lives’ journeys, our lived experiences, achieving critical distance from families and cultures, along with our encounters with great teachers, can all help us gain higher levels of consciousness better able to grasp more evolved levels of critical thinking.

In my own case, exposure to critical thought as explained, practiced and stimulated outside the U.S. during my graduate studies in Rome and across Europe helped me gain distance from U.S.-fostered ethnocentrism.

But so did what I learned in former European colonies like Brazil, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, and India. Thinkers and activists there gradually raised my critical awareness that the Global South’s “alternative facts” about economics and history underpin any critical thought worthy of the name. I was actually privileged to meet directly with people like  Paulo Freire, Desmond Tutu, Maria Lopez Vigil, Dom Helder Camara, Miguel D’Escoto, bell hooks, Franz Hinkelammert, Helio Gallardo, and Enrique Dussel, and Rubem Alvez.

All of them taught me that the Global South and impoverished perspective tends to be fuller than its developed world counterpart.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us who are rich and/or comfortable actually have very limited experience and awareness.  Our communities are pretty much siloed and gated. As a result, we can live without consciousness of the poor at all. Wall Street executives rarely really see them. The poor are located in other parts of town. Most even in the middle class never enter their homes or schools. The comfortable have no immediate experience of hunger, coping with rats, imminent street crime, living on minimum wage, or cashing in Food Stamps. Even if they notice the poor occasionally, the comfortable can quickly dismiss them from their minds. If they never considered the poor again, the rich and middle class would continue their lives without much change. In sum, they have very little idea of the lived experience of the world’s majority.

That becomes more evident still by thinking of the poor outside the confines of the developed world who live on two dollars a day or less. Most in the industrialized West know nothing of such people’s languages, cultures, history, or living conditions, whose numbers include designated “enemies” living in Syria, Iraq, Somalia or Yemen.  Even though our governments drop bombs on the latter every day, they can remain mere abstractions. None of us knows what it really means to live under threat of Hellfire missiles, phosphorous bombs or drones. Similarly, we know little of the actual motives for “their terrorism.” Syria could drop off the map tomorrow and nothing for most of us would change.

None of this can be said for the poor and the victims of bombing. They have to be aware not only of their own life’s circumstances, but of the mostly white people who employ them, shape their lives, or drop bombs on their homes. The poor serve the rich in restaurants. They clean their homes. They cut their lawns. They beg from them on the streets. The police arrest, beat, torture and murder their children.

If the U.S., for example, dropped off the planet tomorrow, the lives of the poor would be drastically altered – mostly for the better. In other words, the poor and oppressed must have dual awareness. For survival’s sake, they must know what the rich minority values, how it thinks and operates. They must know more about the world than the rich and/or comfortable.

Even in practical spheres of daily living, the marginalized and poor know more. They typically can grow their own food, repair their machines, take care of animals, and just “make do” and survive in ways that would soon become apparent to all of us if the electricity stopped working for a few days.

That’s why when the poor develop “critical consciousness,” their analysis is typically more comprehensive, inclusive, credible, and full. They have vivid awareness not only of life circumstances that “make no difference” to their comfortable counterparts; they also have lived experience of life on the other side of the tracks.

For me, benefitting from the perspective of the world’s conscientized majority, and reading their philosophers, theologians, activists, and social analysts has turned my own perspective upside-down. It has changed my understanding of history, economics, politics – and especially of theology and God-talk.

Such upside-down vision will be the heart of my book on critical thinking. It has suggested the following truth criteria: (1) Reflect Systemically, (2) Expect Challenge, (3) Reject Neutrality, (4) Suspect Ideology, (5) Respect History, (6) Inspect Scientifically, (7) Quadra-sect Violence, (8) Connect with your deepest self, (9) Detect Silences, and (10) Collect Conclusions.

Over the next weeks, I’ll try and develop each of those “rules for critical thinking.” But before I get there, I want to tell you more about “fake news” and my own journey.

(Next week: Plato’s Fake World)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

5 thoughts on ““Magic Glasses:” The Marginalized Know Better (Pt. 3 in a series on critical thinking)”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I have two data points to contribute to your developing thesis.

    The first supports the “you can’t take them off” point. After just 3 months exposed to critical thinking at college (where I went, when I went there, the first year was devoted to critical thinking more than content, across subjects) I went to visit a friend from high school, who had gone on to a prestigious engineering school. I found it impossible to engage in conversation. I was thinking in a different way than he was. His was obviously good for engineering (he was doing well), so one wasn’t superior to the other. They were just different.

    The second supports entering the way of thinking of those who are different, because we may (I did) get to experience a complexity and interest-value that would not otherwise be noticed. My neighbors love watching NASCAR. Ad Nauseum, or so I thought. I go over to visit and always stay awhile, so stayed last weekend to watch the end of the race. I got to understand, from their comments, what was going on, the strategies (and mistakes) being made. Their processing of information in real-time is quite different than the intellectual discourse I learned at college. But it is no less complex, no less demanding. It is just complex and demanding in different ways. If they had voted, they would have voted for the current occupant of the White House. They would have gotten that one wrong, in terms of their self-interest. But if it had been a NASCAR race…

    So what I might have done in the first instance above, some 54 years later I realize, would have been to enter my friend’s world of engineering. I’m pretty sure I would have enjoyed it.

    So, you can’t take them off. You can, however, focus them in a different direction.

    Onward,

    Hank

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    1. Hank, aren’t you referencing what Wilber calls “lines” of development? We’re all at different levels of development in those lines. A person can be a highly evolved musician and still be underdeveloped in his or her moral “line.” I’ve always marveled (while listening to sports call-in shows) at how subtle callers can be in their analysis. I find myself wishing such energy, intelligence, and sensitivity could be transferred to other lines of development.

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      1. Everybody has their own path to follow. Some paths or lines of development as consistent with what we call critical thinking. These lines feature (e.g.) the ability to reflect in complex ways, to tolerate ambiguity, to focus for lengthy periods. As I see it, it’s fair to conclude that not all lines of development are consistent with the prerequisites of critical thinking. That doesn’t mean we, civilization as a whole, don’t need specialists in critical thinking. It probably does mean that critical thinking isn’t a panacea for the divisions we find among people in every culture and society.

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    1. I don’t think we can trust such histories, Dona. Have you read Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States?” I also recommend Eduardo Galeano’s “Open Veins of Latin America,” and Walter Rodney’s “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” and Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States.”

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