Fly on the Wall—Spontaneity’s Pitfalls

Why Critical Thought Means Thinking Past Our Instincts

Geese were once said to spontaneously germinate along riverbanks; their nests were nestled amidst thick reeds and when the goslings emerged in trails of swimming fuzzy cuteness people assumed they’d hatched out of somewhere tiny.  One goose species in particular, the Barnacle Goose, was thought to honk its way into adulthood after emerging in this spontaneous fashion.  The fact that it “was never seen to breed gave rise to a myth that it was in fact spontaneously generated from molluscs, the Goose Barnacle, or Goose Neck Barnacle, Lepas anatifera, a deep-water mollusc that is occasionally washed up on shore attached to pieces of driftwood.  Its shell resembles a goose head, and is attached to the substrate by a long stalk somewhat resembling a bird’s neck.” (evolvingthoughts, online).  Makes sense, right?  If an idea or belief walks like a truthful duck (or goose) then it seems to be valid.  Yet, as with the children’s game duck-duck-goose things get squawky and interesting when reality is turned on its head by the appearance of opposition and difference within homogeneity and conformity.

Dogma is the enemy of the creative mind, as we at AU find when our learnings contrast with common sense in our daily lives.  Try convincing your rural and folksy friends that almost 1 in 6 Canadians actually speak a language like Punjabi or Mandarin in their homes, for instance.  (Major, online).  Facts often abide at a distance from experience.  Social science courses teach that many beliefs that appear solid emerged from our cultural atmosphere.  Ideas and truths may seem self evident yet, in reality, they emerge from a process of socialization.

A way to see the myth in a certainty is to remember that no assignment writes itself; to write creative and incisive essays in a worthwhile fashion requires us to entertain opposing beliefs and to compare and contrast perspectives within them.  An open mind is the start of a successful investigation into any academic topic.  What happens, though, when compliance to cultural propriety meets our need to conduct a creative inquiry?

Nothing is more personal, and yet coyly distant, than our beliefs about our own essential identity as a reasonable and thoughtful specimen.  When our core beliefs are upheld society seems normal and nature, a predictable pastiche of us and them, education and ignorance, respect and intolerance.   Yet, as a species, little divides us more than disagreements about the fundamental nature of what it means to be a human and how we ought to behave to others.  The heart is where the actions are, so to speak, and how we envision others says much about how we will act toward them.  So, when those who are unable or unwilling to use their words instead resort to violence, we come face to face with the consequences of not learning to abide with those whose words we find distasteful.

The recent assault on Salman Rushdie, known for his novel The Satanic Verses that some Muslims found offensive, is case in point.  The assailant’s facility with language (or perhaps social media) was not enough; he chose to act out his cancel culture instincts in violent and disgusting form.  By attacking Rushdie as the latter was about to give an academic lecture reminds us to take stock of how we feel about humanity when bad people do bad things.  Immanuel Kant claimed that “out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.” (Kant, online).  Sad notion, but, wait, Kant had a portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau on his office wall and Rousseau famously claimed that “men are born free, and he is everywhere in chains” (Rousseau, online).  Maybe culture is the restraint on our freedom, not our basic essence.  We may feel restrained by our cultural climate, as our education leads us to new political or philosophical belief systems that challenge the status quo.  For AU students who may face mild or severe opposition for our opinions, being as we aren’t denizens of a comfy college campus, the consequences are not immaterial when we express ourselves.

Maybe prior to edification through AU our unconscious ideas were like straps holding us to a cultural gurney; once we realized they were there we could snip ourselves free of our plight!  Regardless, in our mental responses to circumstances, those knee jerk kicks with which we react to the words and deeds and art of others, we learn much about ourselves.  Hopefully our academic critical thinking skills are bettered too.  Perspective is a skill acquired through learning in school as well as in the so-called real world.

Compare and contrast, that old exam question framework, finds useful application in cultural studies and current events.  Imagine, for instance, what sort of response a book about Islam titled The Satanic Verses might glean were it published today.  Possibly it’d be labelled offensive or even obscene by the cultural gatekeepers of political correctness.  On the other hand, books like The DaVinci Code received only limited backlash and certainly no fatwas were endorsed by the Vatican the way the Iranian government called for Rushdie’s assassination.  What does that say about our intelligentsia today, that we tend to shirk at the prospect of offending religious adherents by a book and its title whereas, in his heyday, Rushdie was a hero par excellence of the supposedly progressive modern world’s notions of free speech? Maybe the rubber of reality has ceased to really hit the road, in terms of norms and propriety.

A recent example of saying tricky things that can offend is the leading figure in the upcoming Italian Presidential election.  Her name is Giorgia Meloni and her party dates back to the fascists of Mussolini.  I was struck by how fearlessly she mouthed slogans that many a Canadian politician would shy away from.  Responding to the notion that historically (deep history, that is) all Italians were once immigrants she said “when we migrated, no one maintained us with 37 euros a day” (Meloni, online).  Instinctively that might sound pretty provocative, but to cancel her words might defeat the purpose of our freedoms; after all, she did not call for violence.   Mentalities of tolerance may be doublespeak for oppression in the manner of Rousseau’s chains; repression often leads to violent efforts to attain freedom.  And often, as is the case with children, ignoring what we’d prefer not to hear works to not encourage such words or behaviour.  So whenever we feel a spontaneous answer rising in our gullet, let’s recall that part of education is to calmly and comfortably entertain multiple takes on an issue or concept

evolvingthoughts.  (2006).  ‘Tales of the Barnacle Goose’.  ScienceBlogs.  Retrieved from
Kant, I.  In Berlin, I.  (2013).  ‘The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas – Second Edition’.  University of Princeton Press.  Retrieved from
Major, D.  (2022).  ‘Record Number of Canadians Reporting a First Language Other Than English or French’.  Retrieved from
Meloni, G.  (2018).  ‘Extraordinary Speech by Giorgia Meloni on UN Global Compact in Italian Parliament’.  Retrieved from
Rousseau, J.J.  in Sack, H.  (2018).  ‘Man Was Born Free and He is Everywhere in Chains’.  SciHiBlog.  Retrieved from
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