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The politically incorrect imagination

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Occasionally, I stumble across a quote that sums up my thoughts exactly.  At such moments, I'm startled at the connection that I share with this other person, typically someone I've never met, maybe even a person from another age.  I had such an experience when I read this NYT review of two of Amos Oz's recent publications.  At the end of the article, Oz says, "I believe that imagining the other is a powerful antidote to fanaticism and hatred.  It is, in my view, also a major moral imperative."

I've written before about the importance of imagining the perspectives of "the other" as a basis for compassion, which is incompatible with fanatical hatred.  But the intense identification I felt with Oz's quote related not to these musings, but to my reaction to Adam Hochschild's book, King Leopold's Ghost.

In his thorough research and quoting from primary sources, Hochschild deserves much praise for King Leopold's Ghost.  Nonetheless, Hochschild's story-telling annoyed me.  In presenting his data, Hochschild chose to inhabit the mind of King Leopold, but refused to inhabit the minds of the Congolese living under his oppressive regime.  Hochschild repeatedly offers subjective opinions about Leopold's character, thoughts, morality and conduct, portraying these assumptions as conclusions drawn from evidence.  In reality, they are PC condemnations of a man whose time, thinking, and morality are alien to Hochschild.

Hochschild doesn't make the same mistake with the Congolese.  To the contrary, he refuses to offer any speculation about how they might feel.  The Congolese were routinely flogged to death and forced to walk hundreds of miles over rocky terrain infested with insects that burrowed into their feet, all the while lugging obscenely heavy cargo.  How might they have felt about those circumstances?  According to Hochschild, we have no idea because of the lack of primary sources written by Congolese.

Hochschild's approach is, to my way of thinking, PC nonsense.  In reality, we have no more primary source about King Leopold's mind than we do about the inner thinking of the Congolese who suffered for Leopold's pleasure.  The concept of "primary sources" begins to break down when the "facts" we are hoping the source will "establish" are thoughts, mindsets and moral constructs.  Yes, it's true that people can leave written records of their thoughts.  But most people are inarticulate, and even the articulate among us very often have only an imperfect grasp of the operation of their own minds.  We can never truly know the mind of another to the standard of historical fact.  We can only ever conjecture.

My criticism is not that Hocschild was, of necessity, required to offer conjectures.  My concern is that he doesn't seem to realize that he's offering conjectures about King Leopold, while refusing to do so for the Congolese.  Hochschild, a white man, seems to feel comfortable inhabiting the perspective another white man for purposes of condemning (what appears to our eyes today as) his racism and immorality; but Hochschild doesn't seem to feel qualified to imagine how it felt to be a Congolese person under King Leopold's rule.  Although Hochschild purportedly supports the Congolese against King Leopold, the Congolese remain to him an "other" beyond his imagination. 

Is it really so impossible to imagine the Congolese perspective?  A man is forced, on pain of death, to march three hundred miles across land that razors his feet.  He's carrying an 80 pound load.  He's not fed enough.  Knowing these facts (which are confirmable through primary sources), is it possible that he's pleased about the situation?

I reject the idea that it's wrong for me to ask these questions because I am a white, American woman living in the 21st century, and the Congolese who lived and died under King Leopold were black tribal people living in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I cannot, of course, know comprehensively or viscerally what the experience of their lives was like, but mental connections (whether imaginative, cognitive or both) between me and the Congolese are as possible as they are between me and Amos Oz.  Indeed, they are not merely possible but, according to Oz, morally necessary.

Oz's assertion that imagining the other is a moral imperative stands as a severe condemnation of Hochschild's political correctness (however well-intentioned).  Isolating another group as being beyond the imagination, whether out of respect or out of maliciousness, forecloses meaningful comprehension and compassion. 

Far from demonstrating his sensitivity, Hochschild has undermined his credibility with his PC crutch.  By constructing King Leopold's Congolese subjects as unimaginable others, he has telegraphed one indelible impression: fear of criticism.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Hochschild, Adam category.

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