Thursday, July 06, 2017

A vivid imagination

There's a Twitter formulation that involves summoning one's followers' imagination: Imagine being so stupid/evil that you'd think this thing that I disagree with. This is not an Against "Imagine" Tweets post, so much as an attempt to figure them out.

Like any rhetorical strategy, "imagine" can be more or less helpful, depending the context. Some viewpoints really are incomprehensible, or so craptastic that calling them incomprehensible is basically a way of calling them evil and nonsensical at the same time. A recent clickbait trolling piece about how tough it is for white men - and about how white men specifically deserve credit for preventing Nazism from taking over the world (!) - got "imagine" responses on and off Twitter, which seems... more than fair. Bonkers plus hateful gets an "imagine." That seems right.

Still, "imagine" is not, in most other cases, a formulation I can get all that enthusiastic about. As a rule, why present regular-level wrongheaded opinions as inconceivable? They're just... wrong. Wrong, but not inexplicable. "Imagine" cuts off the possibility of an explain-but-not-excuse. Of a type of understanding that doesn't necessarily imply empathy. It puts up a wall, not simply against generous interpretations of dissenting viewpoints (which... not all viewpoints deserve generosity), but against the type of comprehension that can be helpful in arguing against an idea, or, say, useful for creating a fictional character.

Take the following "imagine" tweet:

"Imagine being so fragile that you're triggered by gender neutral bathrooms"

This is, on the one hand, an implied argument (one I agree with) that gender neutral bathrooms are necessary for many trans and gender non-conforming people, so cis people wary of them need to get over it. On the other, there's the "imagine" angle, which prompts the reader to... well, to do what, exactly? To divide the world into the good people, who can't even imagine how someone could think otherwise, and those other people, whose sentiment is not just wrong but unimaginable

Taken literally, if not as plausibly intended, the "imagine" formulation prompts... imagination. And yes, I could imagine a woman (cis or trans) not wanting to share public restroom facilities with cis men. I can even imagine - not support, not agree with, just imagine - a cis woman existing who did not want to share a bathroom with trans women, "imagine," again, being key here. To "imagine" not the same as 'I can sort of see their point.' It's not devil's-advocate. It's just... X is a view that's out there, I'm familiar with it, I can wrap my head around its existence. To imagine a view in no way precludes finding it misguided or even abhorrent. It's not neutrality. 

Let me put it like this: I can imagine that some people are anti-Semitic misogynists. I'm a Jewish woman. I'd obviously prefer it if anti-Semitism and misogyny didn't exist, but I've encountered both, including in the linked-up variety. I'd rather, frankly, if I could find the existence of people with those views unimaginable. Point being, I'm not trying to virtue-signal my own superior imagination (which I don't even think I have). I'm saying that I think it's a pretense that any of us can't imagine views we disagree with, or even despise. 

Imagines, to be clear, aren't necessarily progressive. They cover a wide range of topics and points on the political spectrum. A sampling:

"Imagine being religious unironically"

"Imagine fleeing to a country as a refugee, being taken in, set up and sent to college only to whine about how awful the country is online."

"Imagine giving a fuck about the founding fathers."

"Imagine being so USA-centric that the only form of slavery you accept the existence of is the kind that was made illegal in 1865."

Oh, and there's even an overtly racist variant:

"Imagine being such a brainlet that u believe 'Diversity is our strength' when literally all statistics, from social-economic prove otherwise"

"Imagine," then, is a way of implicitly faulting others, not for thinking something you don't think, but for being able to wrap their head around the existence of those who do. And... I'm not sure what to do with this.

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