I wrote a paper with my friend Sultana about critical thinking in prison called “Critical Thinking with Nowhere to Go.” She teaches in a women’s prison and I was struck by the fact that, while Sultana was teaching social theory to her students, they faced penalties for praxis, putting their new knowledge into practice. The students can think as critically as they want, but if they, for example, take part in a nationwide prison labor strike, they get stripped of their privileges and thrown in solitary.
In the paper we draw comparisons from the convicts (the label they choose) to the existentialists in Nazi-occupied France, and then cautiously argue that we all face some barriers that keep us from acting on our critical thinking. I say cautiously because I am not imprisoned and I’ll bet you aren’t either.
I recently revisited some of the readings that inspired the paper. In At the Existentialist Cafe, the author, Sarah Bakewell, presents the essence (haha) of existentialism as an idea of freedom within situations. You’re doomed to choose because you’re free. And Sartre had this fierce belief about choice. In one part of the book Sartre recounts a story of a difficult choice faced by a French student of his during the occupation. He could go fight the Nazis and get revenge on his collaborationist father or stay put and protect his mother. Sartre “helps” by telling the student all the things that won’t help: parental authority is obviously out the window, but so are religion and self-searching. None of these will help the student know what the right thing to do is. And Sartre says that any attempt to use any of those things as a crutch or excuse for the decision is bad faith.
The story rang true to me as I wondered what on earth it means that we’re free to choose in the face of COVID 19 and climate crisis and mass extinction. Unlike Sartre, I believe in God, but I’m no less paralyzed by the infinity of choices I face than the student in his story: Should I get Chic Fil-A? Should I yell at my son for not listening (again)? Should I ask my wife about what to say in response to my boss’ request before sending my email?
Bakewell’s summation of Sartre’s position is that existence precedes essence. What that means is that there is no core essential identity. Identity accrues through decisions we make: it’s a sedimentation, layers of similar decisions create a narrative we tie ourselves to. We are free at any time to take all the consequences of making different choices (within our context). Context can be heavy under all the personal and social sediments, from personal identity to systemic racism.
The choices we make of what to do and not to do matter and help others matter (or not). Freedom to choose offers up the possibility of constraint as well as it offers up the possibility of action. I think of the (mostly white, male) protestors who wanted to “reopen the economy” during the shutdown. It reminds me of the “freedom of the open road” and the accompanying gasoline that increases cancer rates among poor Black people who live near oil refineries and greenhouse gas emissions that warm the planet.
As humans with bodies, cultures, histories, and tendencies, we face constraints. My privileged body is not confined in a prison. I tell myself that even on a warming planet, we have always faced death. Life is resilient, I say. So to quit choosing, to engage in bad faith, is a mistake whether in the midst of mass extinction or in a fantasy world of endless resources. So Midnight Oil was wrong. How can we dance when the earth is turning? How could we not dance? Are we going to stop dancing? It is the kind of creativity forced on us by constraints that creates cracks and fissures that can be exploited for change.