Critical thinking is possible only where the standpoints of all others are open to inspection. Hence, critical thinking, while still a solitary business, does not cut itself off from ‘all others.’ To be sure, it still goes on in isolation, but by the force of imagination it makes the others present and thus moves in a space that is potentially public, open to all sides; in other words, it adopts the position of Kant’s world citizen. To think with an enlarged mentality means that one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.
-Hannah Arendt, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, 43
Arendt’s appeal to the “enlargement of the mind” of Kantian judgment is well known and is often discussed in relation to Eichmann’s failure to think and recognize the world’s plurality. To the extent that we find lessons in these discussions, a prominent one is that we might all be vulnerable to such failures of judgment.
While recognizing how easy it is for us to not think, especially in the bureaucratic structures of the contemporary world, I want to focus here on the moments of thinking and judgment that do occur but fail to garner recognition.
I was recently involved in a discussion about educational and other support programs in prisons around the country. During the conversation, someone made the observation that these programs seem to appeal especially to women. It was the case that each of the women in this conversation had been involved in some prison program, either as an attorney or an educator. But the observation was intended, of course, to go beyond this relatively small group.
I don’t know whether it’s true that many more women than men are involved in programs like Bard’s Prison Initiative or the Innocence Project or any number of such programs. But what struck me about this conversation was that despite no one claiming to possess any knowledge beyond his or her personal observations, many seemed relatively certain about the possible explanation about this phenomenon (or non-phenomenon): that women might have a greater capacity to empathize with others, not because we are innately sensitive beings, but because we can more easily recognize the suffering of others and respond to that suffering.
Many readers of Arendt will immediately react to this description with Arendt’s critique of empathy in mind. For Arendt, empathy destroys critical thinking to the extent that it tries to “know what actually goes on in the mind of all others” as opposed to the comparing our judgment with the possible judgments of others (Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, 43). In trying to feel like someone else, empathy makes it impossible to respond politically, as it destroys the distance between individuals that makes a response to another as other possible.
But if not empathy, what might better describe those, whether they are women or men, who are open to the sufferings and injustices of others? The answer, I submit, is critical thinking.
For Arendt, critical thinking is necessarily imaginative, as it requires that the thinker make “the others present.” The presence of others is not achieved by imagining what goes on in each of the minds of these imagined others. Rather, this presence is what allows one imaginatively to construct a public space in which one’s actions are visible to other people.
Critical thinking thus most importantly lies not in the ability to compare our judgment with the possible judgments of all others, which is what is often stressed in discussions of Arendtian judgment, but rather in the adoption of the position of Kant’s “world citizen.” Adopting such a position is less about imagining others as such and more about recognizing that one is always putting oneself out there for others to judge. Insofar as it is necessary to construct the audience to which the thinker presents herself, the imagination of others is the first step to critical thinking, but only the first step. Critical thinking is, as Kant writes in “What is Enlightenment?,” “addressing the entire reading public” such that that one presents oneself for judgment by this learned group of which one purports to be a member. Like a politician or a writer or an actor, the critical thinker acts with the understanding that she will be judged not just by friends, lovers, or like-minded compatriots, but by an entire learned public whose judgments are tempered neither by love nor even self-serving support.
The space in which women moved has always been “public” to the extent that women who acted always did so with the knowledge that they are opening themselves up to the judgment of others. Thus acting takes courage and a true living of the motto of the enlightenment “Sapere aude! Have the courage to use your own understanding!” (Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”).
But acting also necessarily engages critical thinking in another sense: one’s actions are always public to the extent that in acting one presents oneself for judgment to the world and discloses oneself. The thinking of women might, in this way, have been “forced” into the realm of the critical, for as solitary as the activity of thinking necessarily is, it occurs in a space in which the others are present by not only the “force of imagination,” but also the force of history. Thus, if certain professions, causes, or activities do draw relatively more women than men, part of the explanation might be that women think more critically. The world that one sees, with all its injustices and its suffering, does not move one to action or service. But this world is not the world in which one thinks or acts. Rather, one moves in and responds to the imagined one in which what one does is meaningful because one’s actions are being judged and because as vulnerable as one might feel in being judged, judgment brings along with it the implicit recognition that what one does is visible to others and, quite simply, that it might matter.
Arendt’s understanding of judgment is closely tied to Kant’s Critique of Judgment for a good reason: she herself builds her ideas directly on Kantian judgment. But reading Arendtian judgment through Kant’s shorter piece, “What is Enlightenment?” opens up to us aspects of the former that have previously been obscured. And it opens us up to acts of thinking, judgment, and courage to which we are often blind. Again, I don’t know that more women than men engage in work that supports prisoners and advances the cause of prisoners’ rights. But I don’t think it is controversial to say that the perception that they do exists and that women’s ability to empathize with others, whether because of their backgrounds or simply because they are women, is frequently an accompanying discourse. This could be the right explanation. But it could also be an expression not only of prejudices of what women are, but also of an insufficiency of our conceptual vocabulary to capture what it is that is going on in a way that does not simply reassert these prejudices.
In the two years since its inception, the Arab Spring remains an extraordinarily difficult phenomenon to define and assess. Its local, national, and regional consequences have been varied and contradictory, and many of them are not obviously or immediately heartening. These observations certainly apply to Syria: although growing numbers of the country’s military personnel are abandoning their posts, the Assad regime’s war with the Sunni insurgency still threatens to draw Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, and Jordan into an intractable sectarian conflict. But they are, if anything, even more relevant to Egypt. There the overthrow of the Mubarak regime occurred with less brutality, all things considered, than we might have reasonably feared. But, the nature of the country’s social and political reconstruction nevertheless remains extremely uncertain, given the delicate balance of forces between the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist Nour Party, and the country’s diverse liberal and activist camps.
The effects of Egypt’s revolution have been particularly ambiguous for the country’s women. To be sure, women have played a noteworthy role in the Tahrir Square protests in January and February 2011, and many local and foreign observers commented on the lack of intimidation and harassment they faced in the days leading to Mubarak’s fall. But as Wendell Steavenson details in the most recent New Yorker, the protests were by no means free of gendered violence, and the revolution has yet to create a more comfortable or equitable place for women in Egyptian public life.
Let me touch on one example from Steavenson’s article. Hend Badawi, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student, was protesting against the interim military government in Tahrir Square in December 2011 when she was confronted by a group of soldiers. In the course of her arrest, the soldiers tore off Badawi’s headscarf, dragged her several hundred meters by the hair, cursed at her, struck her, and groped her breasts and behind. One of the soldiers also apparently told her that “if my sister went to Tahrir, I would shoot her” After being taken to a parliament building, Badawi was beaten again and interrogated for several hours before landing in a military hospital, where she was treated for severe lacerations on her feet, a broken wrist, and multiple broken fingers.
The next day, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, at that time Egypt’s effective ruler, paid a visit to the hospital for a photo op with a state-TV camera crew. Despite her injuries, Badawi confronted him: “We don’t want your visit!” she reportedly screamed. “We are not the ones who are thugs! You’ve beaten us and ruined us! Shame on you! Get out!” News of the tongue-lashing quickly made the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, and when Badawi was moved to a civilian hospital, she used a video camera smuggled in by friends to issue a lengthier statement about her ordeal. The resulting video went viral, and independent TV stations used it to challenge government claims that the Army had not used violence against civilians.
One might expect that Badawi would be honored for her courage and conviction, and I can only imagine that she is, at least among pro-democracy activists. But her family, which happened to sympathize with the Mubarak regime, was appalled. Badawi had gone to Tahrir Square without informing them, and they blamed her not only for the violent treatment she had received, but also for the damage they believed she had done to the family’s reputation. Badawi’s relatives locked her in her room; her elderly aunt yelled at her frequently; and her brother Ahmed hit her. Later, when Badawi’s family did not allow her to return to Tahrir for the first anniversary of the revolution, she basically reenacted the protests of the previous year—only this time on a more intimate scale. As she related to Steavenson, she launched a hunger strike to protest her treatment at her family’s hands and made placards that read, “Hend wants to topple the siege! Down with Ahmed!”
Badawi’s experience is particular and inevitably her own, but it nevertheless exemplifies the conundrums that many women face in contemporary Egypt. As the daughter of a pious rural family, she has benefitted from the increasing levels of affluence, education, and occupational opportunity that at least some young people, both women and men, have enjoyed over the past several decades. But she has also come face to face with the possibilities and the limits created by Egypt’s Islamic Revival, which has established new expectations for women’s comportment on the street and in other public institutions. (If many women in Cairo went bareheaded and wore skirts and blouses at the beginning of Mubarak’s reign, almost all now wear headscarves, and the niqab is not an uncommon sight.) Finally, Badawi’s life has been shaped not simply by her family’s notions of appropriate womanly behavior, but by a wider climate of pervasive sexual harassment. According to one 2008 survey, sixty percent of Egyptian men admit to having harassed a woman, and the country’s police and security forces either openly condone such treatment or engage in even more serious assaults themselves.
Badawi chafes at the “customs and traditions”—a common Arabic phrase, which she employs sardonically—that mold and circumscribe her life. And, like at least some other women, she regards Egypt’s recent upheaval as a potential opening, an “opportunity to mix my inner revolution with the revolution of my country". But it is significant, I think, that Badawi does not seek a “Western” form of women’s equality and emancipation. Although she appreciates “the space and freedom” that appear to be available to women on American TV shows, she nevertheless intends to pursue them “in the context of my religion”. At the same time, many of the reforms that she and other women’s advocates might champion are now thoroughly tainted by their association with the autocratic Mubarak regime. For example, many Egyptians dismiss recent amendments to the country’s “personal-status laws”—which allowed women to initiate no-fault divorces and enhanced their child-custody rights—as cosmetic changes that only aimed to improve the government’s international image. Many other citizens, meanwhile, view Mubarak’s 2010 effort to mandate a quota for female members of parliament as a patent violation of democratic procedure.
These developments offer no clear path forward for Badawi and other Egyptian women, whether or not they regard themselves as activists. But they also pose a distinct challenge to outside observers—like me—who sympathize with their efforts to transform Egyptian society. Ten years ago, the Columbia anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod drew on the impending American invasion of Afghanistan to question the notion that the U.S. should “save” Muslim women from oppression. Instead of adopting a position of patronizing superiority, Abu-Lughod urged concerned Americans to ally themselves with local activists in the Middle East and to work with them on the issues that they deemed most important. In the context of the Arab Spring, however, even this advice appears to have its shortcomings. I worry that American (or wider “Western”) support for women like Hend Badawi, however well-meaning, will unintentionally undermine the very reforms that the activists themselves favor. I also suspect that a considerable number of Egyptians will resent even the most “enlightened” coalitions as yet another instance of anti-democratic meddling if not neo-colonial imposition. After all, the U.S. did much to keep Mubarak in power for thirty years. Why now should Americans, whether they are affiliated with the U.S. government or not, attempt to intervene even indirectly in Egypt’s transformation?
I certainly believe, from a political and scholarly perspective, that Americans should care a great deal about the consequences of the revolutions in Egypt and other North African and Middle Eastern states. In the end, however, I wonder if the most advisable practical course may be to adopt an attitude of principled non-interference in those cases where mass violence is not imminent. In short, we should allow Egyptians (and other Middle Easterners) room to work out the consequences and implications of the Arab Spring on their own, even if we are not entirely comfortable with the results.
Note: Lila Abu-Lughod’s argument, which I reference near the end of this post, appears in “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and its Others.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 783-790.