Over the past couple years, my commitment to certain causes/ideas (for instance, the ethics of international development, sovereignty of a people and universal access to education,technology) have deepened. Now, I treat these matters analytically. I look for facts, data and coherent sets of concepts and policies. But when I reflect on what first prompted me to care about these issues, it certainly was not data or logical arguments.
My first encounter with social justice/ethics in college was during orientation week itself. All new students were required to attend a student directed theatrical performance on campus diversity and social justice. The performance had imperfections and the content could be objectively contested. If I had been there to examine the performance critically, enough of the content was in the unresolved, grey area that I would have would up cynical about the whole affair. But I was there as audience for art and I was moved by the art and its subjective content.So I joined that theater troupe, Ordinary People.
During my sophomore year, I took to reading 19th century Russian literature. In Anna Karenina, the character Konstantin Levin’s inner struggle with the feudal system, his faith, meaning and righteousness all seemed to afflict me, the reader, as much as it did the character. The Japanese film maker Akira Kurasawa’s Ikiru caused an upheaval in my thought, in the kind of impact I want to have on the world. These works of art evoked emotions and thoughts which would otherwise be inaccessible in my current environment and interactions.
The raw, evocative power of art is next only to that of experience. Although I’m currently immersed in readings about environmental ethics (PHIL2680) and the socio-political theses of Aristotle, Hegel and Marx, I do not find myself personally moved by their thought or writing. I attribute this to my training in critical thinking. When studying a work of Philosophy, it has now become habit to identify claims and evaluate the arguments. I first seek to understand and then perhaps poke holes (in a constructive manner that contributes to the discussion). This is what I do when I read an opinion piece in the New York Times, listen to a well-executed speech, come across astonishing data or see a bold headline. My education in the past four years has taught me to treat data and rhetoric as tools in knowledge building, but to never believe that data or rhetoric without carefully scrutiny.
On the other hand, powerful art is not someone’s thought or speculation; it’s an embodiment of someone’s experience and that cannot be fabricated. So art has an inherent honesty which lets me set aside my critical thinking hat and simply give in to the experience, to give in to emotions that I am unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with. My interaction with such art opened up unexplored worlds/ideas. After my first year with Ordinary People, I went back to Delhi and found summer work related to urban poverty, development and conflict. The art inspired me to experience the reality it drew from. After that summer, I took classes to understand these issues at a global level, in all their complexity, with more analytic sources and tools. Art was the first step of the process that will culminate in action, impact and change.