A philosopher considers the power of social movements in change

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Q Can you give examples from the book of how social movements bridge the gap between theory and practice, as well as between political thought and political action?

A. Part of bridging the gap between theory and practice is to generate more insightful theory. I argue that most successful social movements produce engaged moral inquiry that deepens our understanding of the demands of justice by virtue of a nuanced understanding of the experience of injustice. The book shows that one of the most important insights that emerge from engaged moral inquiry is that we have a duty not to look away from injustice: as James Baldwin has pointed out, “nothing can be changed until confronted”. That’s why Emmett Till’s mother was right in 1955 to demand an open coffin at her son’s funeral, and to have his body photographed by the press. It’s also why from 1958 to 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was right to believe that Jim Crow segregation would only end if the world was forced to face disturbing images of physical violence against nonviolent protesters. .

But we can only bridge the theory-practice gap when we truly understand what constitutes effective practice. It is easy to assume that the methods of social movements are mainly sit-ins, marches, boycotts and various public demonstrations. Make room for justice shows that the most effective social movements have recognized the need for additional methods such as narrative activism (as in the writing and dissemination of slave stories in the 19e-abolitionist century), linguistic activism (as in the development of the concept of sexual harassment in the 20e-century women’s movement), and aesthetic activism (as in the 21st-century of protesters seeking to remove dehumanizing monuments from places of public honor).

Q What books have you read recently that you would recommend, and why?

A. In the Theaetetus, the Platonist Socrates asserts that philosophy begins with wonder. Lately, I’ve discovered that my sense of wonder has been greatly enriched by reading poetry, especially that of Emily Dickinson and Mary Oliver. I skim through a two-volume compendium of Oliver’s glowing poems, New and selected poems. The edition of Dickinson’s poems that I know best is a one-volume collection from 1960, The Complete Poems, edited by Thomas Johnson. As a philosopher reading the extraordinary poetry of Oliver and Dickinson, I have become convinced that it is time to call a truce in the age-old feud between philosophy and poetry.

Q What’s on your bedside table now?

A. The reading I do for pleasure falls into two broad categories: memoirs (broadly defined, including autobiography) and books about film and cinema.

A memoir that recently surprised and engaged me is that of Robert Graves Farewell to it all for his complicated interplay between the personal and the political, and the combination of biting humor and moral sensitivity with which he writes about the horrors of the First World War. I just started reading Mary McCarthy Memories of a Catholic childhood, which first attracted me with the goal of understanding how McCarthy’s life changed after his parents died in the 1918 flu epidemic. I hope to read School of the Arts Writing Professor Margo Jeffersonit is Negroland second, partly because I’m from Chicago, like Jefferson, but mostly because, by all accounts, his memoirs are brilliantly written.

Film and film books have become important because I plan to develop an undergraduate course on philosophy and film. Since I’m a fan of movies like The Red Shoes and black narcissusI just finished a book by Andrew Moor, Powell and Pressburger: A Cinema of Magical Spaces. I also read several books by philosophers on cinema, including that of Robert Pippin Douglas Sirk: Filmmaker and Philosopher. The 1959 remake of Sirk impersonation of life is one of my favorite films, and Pippin provides an illuminating analysis of what makes this film so distinctive.

Q Do you have a favorite book that no one else has heard of?

A. One of my favorite books probably isn’t widely known outside of the world of filmmakers—Walter Murch At a Glance: A Perspective on Cinema. Barry Jenkins, who directed the 2016 film Moonlight, praised Murch’s book for what it taught him about editing and filmmaking. But In the blink of an eye also looks at the role of emotion in making and watching movies, how we perceive and think about the world (in and out of movies), and what it’s like to tell a good story.

Q Exciting summer plans?

A. I’m excited to be returning to the central California coast after being unable to get there during the pandemic. For over two decades, our family has spent at least part of several summers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Big Sur, one of my favorite places to visit. Indeed, if I had my druthers, I would retire to Big Sur, despite the constant threat of wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes. I’m unlikely to retire there, but at least I can take the Pacific Coast Highway to enjoy one of the most beautiful shorelines in the world.

Q You are hosting a dinner party. Which three scholars or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. It is difficult to limit the list to three, but I would prefer to invite James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Albert Camus, because they understood the power of literature to challenge and enlighten us, and because they appreciated the need of a social thought that relies on the imagination to inspire hope, even in the face of disappointment. More importantly, the conversation would certainly be lively and stimulating.

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