Perception and Critical Consciousness
By Omar Swartz
Perception is crucial for understanding how a critical consciousness works. Critical consciousness involves the perceptional integration of language, community, memory, and history. Any one of these variables, by itself, does not lead to a critical consciousness. Indeed, even together, we cannot assume that they equal a critical consciousness. By critical consciousness I mean the ability to see in the positioning of the world the seams of its construction. A critical consciousness enables us simultaneously to be here in the present and to be in the innumerable pasts as well. Notice that a critical consciousness accentuates our ability to understand how we are placed. Politics is always about placement. Persuaders (or politicians in the most general sense of the term) are always placing us—as consumers, as citizens, as passive spectators. We are placed in our schools, placed in our jobs, placed in our churches, placed in the “war on terror,” and placed in countless hierarchies. Most of us assume that this is normal, and readily take what we can get, particularly if what we have is more than the next person.
When people talk to us we hear them and understand them based upon our mental predispositions. We constantly judge what people say or write by the way it relates to things we already know or consider being valid. In other words, what makes sense to us?
It does so because of how it relates to other things we already know. Knowledge, in the sense I am discussing it here, is incremental, and the good persuader uses metaphor and reasoning to relate the unknown to what we already know.
If we hear something that does not have a reference within our experience, it becomes nonsense (literally “non-sense”). Consequently, in our daily lives we tend to surround ourselves with people, who talk like we talk, think like we think, and are what we are. We surround ourselves in a community. There is nothing wrong with this; this is a wholly human activity. It is not, however, a critical activity. The point of critical activity is, in the words of the philosopher Michel Foucault, “to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.”
Some people live for this critical experience, while others approach the experience with some trepidation. In general, however, most of us live as if we could not live otherwise, safely isolated as we are in our secure communities. There are, however, times in our lives when we hear somebody talk differently. When this happens we pause, and sometimes enjoy the spectacle. But sometimes we hear something that gets us thinking—it stretches us a bit, makes us puzzled, or taunts us with its difference.
Or sometimes we pick up a book that comes from a radically different perspective than the ones we have read in the past. For example, we may read the historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and learn that the history of the United States, usually presented (or digested for us) as the history of “progress,” “democracy,” and “industry,” can otherwise, and perhaps more accurately, be presented as the history of slavery, labor struggle, war, imperialism, and international aggression. Regardless of which narrative we ultimately believe (the traditional narrative or Zinn’s challenging of that narrative), what becomes important is how the characterization of U.S. history is personalized for us, as readers, or as any people listening to communication, such as a Presidential speech. Does it make sense, or is it non-sense? Does it lead to further discussion, or does it assume that too much has already been said?
Here is where community is important. If a person reads Zinn’s work and responds, “that’s absurd,” then we can conclude that the community experiences of this person have not allowed him/her to make sense of the book. After all, little in our culture encourages us to think of our national past in any substantive manner. America has always been about the future, about movement West, about rootlessness and what is typically called “freedom.” The precious illusion of freedom, however, is shattered when we realize how tightly the past holds us. While we can run from the historians who call our attention to our history, we cannot forever escape the pull of responsibility that our history demands from us. Those ignorant of the past can never be fully free in the present. A powerful myth in America is that an unreflective freedom is a real freedom, when the opposite is true.
But for some communities Zinn’s book makes sense. It “rings true” for some people—the book has sold over 400,000 copies through twenty-five printings. In other words, the descriptions within the book bear some resemblance to the experiences that we have or to the things we already hold to be true. Yet the book may anger us, like flag burning angers some of us, and we forget that what is being burned or challenged is an idea. The fact that some are angered by Zinn’s book is a clue to its larger cultural worth. The more we are pained at the experience of reading Zinn, the more we find that the ideas he debunks are constitutive of who we are as a nation. Because what he writes stings, we become defensive and we express our incomprehension that what we may value and hold as an unquestionable “truth” is not readily appreciated by others and may, in fact, be denied. Think, for instance, of how some Christians react when somebody in their presence denies the importance of Jesus Christ, or how a non-Christian reacts when someone declares their faith and love for Jesus Christ. In both cases, people act with astonishment and incredulity. For some, it is difficult to believe that people take things like God and flags seriously. But people do take these things very seriously, and it has to do with belief, and belief can never be “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad,” except as such by the community that depends upon it and sustains it.
Perspectives such as Zinn’s portrayal of U.S. history make sense to some of us because we already belong to a community in which these perspectives have been discussed, and in which their referents have already been established. Zinn’s claims are well documented, can be collaborated, and are respected by other historians. Furthermore, as Zinn writes of the common person, as opposed to the propertied elite, most of us can identify with him on an important subjective level. This, in fact, was one of Zinn’s goals for writing his book—to write a history that we, as ordinary Americans, can recognize as our history.
Thus, we can see that a relationship between language and community exists. Zinn’s language “makes sense” because Zinn speaks to a community that understands its experience. In a sense, Zinn is writing a history of that community. The more that we can recognize this as individuals, the more we can come to “own” our country. In other words, the more often people like Zinn can write us, the average people, into the history of the United States, the more likely the United States will become our country and the more likely our nation will come to represent a political force that we can be proud of in the future.
As suggested, the community that Zinn writes for and helps to create does not exist in a specific place, like a classroom, or a geographical location. Zinn’s book was first published in 1980. Its readership exists dispersed through time and location. Yet these readers, nevertheless, constitute an authentic community. Zinn may have readers in the future, perhaps people who have not yet been born. Furthermore, there may be people who are a part of this community that Zinn describes, who will never read his book—people who died before 1980, for example. My point is that community exists wherever a person or group of people has a memory of a past culture, one that involves similar struggles. That is, we participate in a community because we have a memory of past experiences, even differing experiences, but ones that we unite through language and use to constitute a collective identity.
The political Left, for instance, is one such community. It is diverse and often lacks unity, but it exists in its fragmented sense in many places throughout the world. It exists, and it will continue to exist for some time because there are recurring themes in the drama of our modern experience that allow it to exist, that evoke and sustain it. For as long as the practice of inhumane treatment to people is systemic to our social system, as it is now, communities of resistance will form independent of each other in response to their conditions. While such struggles are often carried out independently, they are, nevertheless, united across time by a shared sense of suffering. The socialist principles of solidarity and internationalism are grounded in this experience.
In contrast, the political right exists by historical default. The Right exists in an absence of theory and practical experience. It is neither contemplative nor compassionate. It survives and thrives on prejudice and fear, and seldom does it extend from a sense of historical vision and community. While most people may not overtly identify with being a part of any political community (in the sense of the continuum evoked above), people nevertheless express a political preference to the extent that their community, their memory, their history, and their language speak to some issue. If the struggle for justice and equality seems to be “other people’s problems,” and if the conditions of workers throughout the world are simply not a concern for us, and if our thoughts are limited by a priestly religion rather than a religion of spirit, then we probably see all of what has been written here as “rhetoric”—that is, as empty talk, as nonsense. Yet even people who feel this way have the potential to grow. A critical consciousness helps to facilitate this growth.
Omar Swartz is Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, University of Colorado at Denver. A.B., 1989, Humboldt State University (cum laude); M.A., 1992, University of California, Davis; Ph.D., 1995, Purdue University; J.D., 2001, (magna cum laude) Duke University.