Ways of Knowing

Changing the Paradigm

7th July 2022
Ildi Tillmann

We need new ways of knowing if we are to challenge the intellectual and artistic conformity engendered by a monolithic Social Justice framework, writes Ildi Tillmann.

Our old people are very powerful in spirit.
They have all kinds of powers.
But we are forgetting these powers.
Now, all the power that people have is
selfishness, money and politics.

Ben Okri: The Famished Road


Human beings have many different ways of knowing. There is subjective knowledge, born in the realm of our perceptions and feelings, and there is objective knowledge, one that we we see as verified by outside reality. Different concepts of ‘knowledge’ determine our understanding of the truth – and of untruth.

What human ways of knowing share is that they are created within a given cultural context, within a specific frame of reference. They are created within a paradigm. Paradigms are shaped by local experiences and they function through language and a given way of logic. Paradigms serve as backbones to interpersonal communication and understanding. They ensure that conversations between people have a predictable structure and agreed-upon boundaries. But they also serve as invisible prisons – we unknowingly lock ourselves inside familiar paradigms.

Beyond cultural frames of reference, knowledge has dimensions, just as there are various dimensions to human life. Art, science and religion all produce knowledge that is relevant to and mirrors distinct areas of existence. If we make them compete, and search for the winner, we lose sight of the wholeness of life.

Religion, ideology and art

In the region of the world where I come from, the Eastern part of Europe with its European and West-Asian based historical and cultural paradigm, people have been raised to be aware of the power of ideology and propaganda, be it a religious or secular kind.

A few hundred years ago, through an institutionalized spirituality and the political and economic power of the Catholic Church and of Christian religious thought in general, it was a framework religious in nature, founded on the idea of transcendent salvation, that drew the boundaries of acceptable thought. During my lifetime and the lifetime of my parents, we lived in a world of ideologies founded in the salvation of the oppressed in the here and now: fascism and communism.

All three were programmes of social engineering on a grand scale that relied on persuasion, rhetoric, symbolic language, visual grandeur and control of education and the arts. Regardless of the source of the offered salvation, each worked through elements of propaganda: impersonal communication, forbidden topics and prescribed ways to produce knowledge. They relied, to borrow from Czeslaw Milos, on capturing the human mind.

Within such larger systems of cultural control, it has always been the individual’s task to find spaces for authentic expression and to search for independent knowledge – in other words, to bring to the surface unritualized, slogan-free, complex human feeling and thought.

Traditionally it has been the role of artists and intellectuals to create space for such thought and expression, and the role of independent art (independent of the Church as an institution, of the Nazi or the Communist government) to create alternatives to propaganda-shaped expression. The marker of true art was the ability to express doubt over certainty, it was to talk about the choices of the everyday man subjected to larger conflicting forces of his context and his personal life, as opposed to singing the myth of the hero. In short, the intellectual/artist’s job was to create with the goal of provoking deeper thought, it was to find human faces in a uniformity-demanding, formalized system.

What has also been the role of art and the task of artists and intellectuals is to emphasize the connections between personal stories and our underlying human condition. It was complex, unspectacular, non-commercial art that helped us overcome the limits of ideology, the limits of the paradigm we were born into and which was hard for us to see. The more we had access to independent art from around the world the more we felt encouraged to look beyond the horizons of our own lives. We became better and better equipped to recognize ourselves in the stories that come from different, far-away lands. Or from lands that were right by our side, but which we were taught to imagine being different.

When I became a graduate student of Africana Studies in the US, I came to learn many things; two of them were about the role of art in society. The first was that in Africa, the Caribbean and South America, the role of art is similar to what I always knew it to be: to find and reflect human dilemmas within the tumultuous flow of history and life. The second was that in the US, this is currently not the case. Here, spectacular entertainment, show business and money are presented as celebrating humanity and signifying art. As the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis put it a couple of years ago during a workshop at Harvard, we have been immersed in ‘an era of historical nowness , vulgarity and (…) of social and cultural underachievement’. We have become a culture that does not even recognize art.

The United States and progressive art

People born and raised in the US have not had experiences that the rest of the world knows intimately, such as state-sponsored political ideologies having the power to govern their opinions and personal lives.

Following the end of the Civil War, people in the US have neither experienced active war on home soil, nor subsequent economic devastation. They have never lived in a dictatorship. What they experienced as unfreedom was colonial dependence and racialist ideologies, the latter of which created race-based hierarchies, segregation and oppression. This historic paradigm, and the ways to fight against it, is what people born and raised in the US intimately know.

North American leaders, cultural creators and educators of the past who were interested in changing the status quo of local unfreedom were revolutionary exactly because they were able to look beyond and work outside the limits of the existing social imaginary of their time. They did not simply want to flip hierarchies, they were set on changing the paradigm.

From Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King to Toni Morrison, people who fought for civil rights and liberties have imagined a world where nobody will be excluded from participation and basic rights, or asked to not speak, based on their belonging to social groupings designated as identity. These people were creatives able to imagine a world that, at the time, did not fit the constraints set by the context of their place and time.

Social Justice – from liberal process to prescriptive paradigm

While spirituality and religion are foundational to many people in the US, there is a general consensus that it is important to separate the various spiritual beliefs from the type of ‘knowledge’ that guides public policy or the curricula taught in state sponsored educational institutions. Let’s call this latter secular knowledge, one that, as a rule, relies on the methods of science. There appeared to be an agreement, particularly among the liberal-leaning cultural leaders and political establishment, that it is important to keep the various dimensions of life and their respective ways of knowing separate.

This theoretical consensus notwithstanding, two things have recently become apparent:
One is that systems of thought that appear secular on their surface do not necessarily result in cultural contexts that are free of rituals, fetishes, formulaic language or taboos, and from the related power those afford over people’s minds. In fact, communism and fascism, two recent, secular totalitarian systems, relied heavily on symbolism; their overarching cultural hold was partially the result of simplistic grandeur and of the suppression of authentic thought.

The second thing that has become apparent is that liberalism, as a method, and progress, as a goal, are not the same as liberal politics and progressivism as currently practiced in the North-American context.

For illustration, we can look at any of the social justice or diversity and inclusion efforts of recent years, with their related activist movements. From a dialogue based on curiosity and the inclusion of various ways of human knowing, Social Justice (capitalized) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (also capitalized) have largely solidified into a system of prescribed truth-statements. Social Justice has morphed from an outlook into a practice to be enforced through bureaucratic processes. It has solidified into an ideology that has ceased to meaningfully interact with experiences and histories which do not fit its paradigm. It does not invite encounters with others, seemingly its only concern. Instead, it encourages its followers to see themselves reflected everywhere.

One important difference between over-arching thought systems of the past and the current focus on Social Justice is that conformity has not been introduced through government-led measures, although those are certainly on the rise, rather, it has developed through the ossification of North American colonial thought patterns which attach primary importance to group divisions based on gender or skin colour. The latter, true to traditions of the local past, is equated with ‘race’.

With the active participation of current forms of Social Justice, the old, Atlantic cultural reference frame and social engineering principle is well and alive.

Rituals and formalism as knowledge

Social Justice movements in the US have become heavily reliant on impersonal language and obligatory training sessions that are not based on dialogue, but rather on imparting the truth and prescribing correct behaviour. This has been accompanied by widespread funding for artistic creations that are either identity-based at the expense of merit and achievement or in schematic works of art and creative products that proudly serve local ideological or political ends. The knowledge this type of art produces tends to lack authenticity, deeper thought, or a view of the wider world. It encourages its audience to conform, rather than to question and doubt.

The fight for Social Justice has recently abounded in rituals and in attempts at bureaucratic coercion. A few examples are: taking the knee, applying words such as ’allyship’, ’whiteness’, ‘privilege’ (male, white, cis, able etc.), ‘anti-racist work’ or ’systemic’ with the goal of disqualifying large segments of society from having a say; posting squares and flags on social media; using slogans to win arguments or delivering public apologies that testify that the person saying sorry is in ‘need of education’. These rituals have come to function as tools of propaganda that perpetuate historical thought patterns; they are born of symbolic language and action. (See, for example, Yiyun Li’s comment at the Global Literary Conference held in New York in May 2022, or Coleman Hughes’ open letter).

The most infamous example, although far from being the only one, of suggested state coercion within the Social Justice field is Ibram X Kendi’s proposal to set up a Department of Anti-Racism that ‘would be comprised of formally trained experts on racism’ and tasked with large-scale enforcement of numerically identical outcomes in prominent sectors of society, based on a colour-coded social system. Kendi’s proposal aims to enforce a culture where racialized identities are part of the way individuals living in American society are forced to think about themselves.

In a hypothetical classical liberal system, where Kendi’s ideas represented one proposal among many to attempt to improve unequal social outcomes, his writings would add to our understanding of the variety of attitudes and experiences in a multi-ethnic community. But when we, as a culture and society, elevate his ideas to the level of The Solution, we end up creating a system which resembles the methods applied by Soviet-style regimes around the world. Even worse, we come to accept a system where assumptions about people based on assigned, colour-based codes continue to be considered foundational to our knowledge and to our creative expression. Rather than creating a progressive society, we make the dilemma on race endless. We preserve the paradigm.

What my years in Africana Studies and my encounter with various cultures have taught me is that one of the most empowering ways to overcome prejudice and to reflect on our own acts of ‘othering’ is to identify the limits of the cultural context that each of us, in our own ways, are born into, and to start looking beyond the confines of our own familiar frames of reference. We need to recognize limits and patterns, and start feeling confident enough to pry open the paradigm.

Ildi Tillmann is an author and photographer of Hungarian origin who lives in the US. Situated at the crossroads of art and documentary, her work explores similarities and connections in the larger flow of history and our shared human fate. To see her work, please visit her website.

Photo by Enzo Tommasi on Unsplash