Critical Thought and Shopping (a brief essay by Amanda Hester)

It is not Big Business and its CEOs, Walmart, outsourcing, or misguided policies that shall ultimately destroy the world, but rather, our fear and the ignorance that comes from it.  Indeed, all of our ‘demons’ are born from these two, and continue to be maintained by them.  Bertrand Russell wrote, “It is fear that holds men back — fear lest their cherished beliefs should prove delusions, fear lest the institutions by which they live should prove harmful, fear lest they themselves should prove less worthy of respect than they have supposed themselves to be” (Principles of Social Reconstruction).

Beyond this fear, however, there is an inherent bravery in all of us, housed in the armour of integrity and fed by compassion and virtue. It is indestructible, this Arthurian knight that lives within us, who longs to ‘do the right thing’.  No matter how depressing the world, or how mired we become, this chivalrous heart never goes away, not completely, and utilizing this knight, we need only whet the sword of our intellect to confront our fears.  Critical thought shall change the world.

Buying local, riding a bicycle, or composting is all wonderful, however, the greater point is to have these and other activities arise from an open and questioning mind.  Having reached the level at which our individual actions now take place within a global context, token activity or ‘just doing our part’, or our ‘dot’, is empty and even meaningless if it is not joined with the development of critical thought.

Critical thought is not necessarily aimed at changing our decisions.  One may still buy the usual latte from Starbucks and shop at the Gap, drive the three blocks to Walmart to pick up a new gadget that is on sale there during the lunch break.  However, critical thought is about awakening the bravery of that inner knight to consider and explore the direct and indirect results of these actions, and then (very importantly) to own our choices and the complicity that we have in this world because of them.  Critical thought is about altering blind habits and patterns of behaviour.  Uncompromised critical thinking involves a great deal of courage, facing the monsters that we create, and all of the shame, guilt, and embarrassment that we would otherwise hide from.

During the holiday season we are often accosted by impulse, the need to buy things out of obligation or desire.  Just taking a curious moment, to give pause before acting, looking at what we are doing and engaging the critical thought that considers an alternative, is doing a great deal.  Whether or not we end up changing the decision or purchase we were about to make, considering to whom we give our business, and to what we give value, is a matter of changing our habits of mind and subsequently of lifestyle.  It is this change that is ultimately needed to alter the destructive course that our world seems bent upon.

At the individual level, as well as the international level, we do not live in isolation, and yet, particularly in the West, we have developed narcissistic societies. This narcissism destroys balance.  The narcissist does not consider his ‘other’ or even his environment, he acts within a context only of himself, his needs and desires, and he is ultimately destroyed by this self-absorption.  Self-absorption ignores the reality of others, and it is this ignorance that destroys the balance that holds and maintains both self and other.  One could say that centuries of narcissism have destroyed the balances of the world: environmental, social, and economic.  As a species we appear to have outlived our legacy of short-term planning and narrow view, even as we cling tenaciously to both. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live”.  Yet, most stubbornly, “the masses are always ready to defend their most precious possession – their ignorance” ( Hendrik Van Loon).

The space that is created by critical thought allows us to open up to the reality of the present, as well as the needs of the future, without being overwhelmed.  It is not about fear-mongering and coercion, but rather, it is about daring, integrity, and discernment.  Critical thought is not just about questioning the choices we make, but is about having culpability for them as well.  As the language of ‘green’, ‘organic’, ‘sustainable’, and even ‘fair trade’ becomes increasingly co-opted and marketized, as global interconnection and relationships become increasingly complex, and right and wrong look increasingly grey, as we solidify the global ‘balances’ we have created based upon asymmetry and exploitation, it is difficult to know what the best choices are.  Our integrity comes from questioning, and exploring, discovering for ourselves, it comes from waking our inner warrior to fight against the comfortable cocoon of our own complacency and ignorance.

While I am all for speaking truth to power, the greatest activism of our age may come from, and at the very least needs to begin with, speaking truth to ourselves.  As George Orwell wrote, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”.




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