Radical Humility

Hello, all! I realize that over the past couple of months I’ve been throwing around the term “radical humility” (even including it in my Twitter profilewithout explaining where that term comes from or the thought behind it. First used on the blog in my post on “blanket terms like ‘cruelty-free that imply the moral superiority of certain entities over others,” radical humility has served as a guiding force for me ever since I encountered the idea (at least, explicitly) in two books that I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this past semester: Transforming Feminist Practice by Leela Fernandes and Transformation Now! by AnaLouise Keating (each explained a bit more fully in these two #NewsandChews posts).

In order to provide a fuller context for what has become for me a praxis of radical humility, I want to share with you an updated version of a short essay I penned this past November, that explains what I saw as extraordinarily important connections between Fernandes’ and Keating’s works. Though written a bit abstractly, perhaps the piece will begin to more comprehensively explain where I’m at with my embodied politics right now, and why I seek to keep radical humility at the forefront of my daily life, writing, activist work, etc. I’d also love hear what concepts, theories, ethics, etc. ya’ll are guided by when navigating through this messed up world we’ve all internalized.


Transcending Oppositional Consciousness Through Intellectual Humility

            With each of their conceptions of “threshold theories” and “disidentification,” both AnaLouise Keating and Leela Fernandes, respectively, introduce modes of thinking/being[1] that transcend a deeply ingrained epistemology and praxis that Keating designates as “oppositional consciousness.” With their cultivation of “intellectual” or “radical” humility, both threshold theories and the process of disidentification provide new models of consciousness necessary in enacting truly transformative social movements.

            Keating’s threshold theories and Fernandes’ process of disidentification encourage a flexible mode of consciousness that sheds the fixed identities to which our egos cling, thus allowing for a humble understanding of the self as interconnected with all other beings, both human and non. An alternative to the oppositional consciousness pervasive in dominant frameworks and internalized within ourselves, this new mode of consciousness serves a necessary role in fostering the long-term, radical transformation of society that we cannot achieve when locked into the “binary either/or epistemology and praxis that structures our perceptions, politics, and actions through a resistant energy” (Keating 138).

To move us beyond this binary mode of thinking and being, Keating introduces threshold theories—frameworks that enable us to exist within and “establish connections among distinct (and sometimes contradictory) perspectives, realities, peoples, theories, texts, and/or worldviews” (302). Within these nonoppositional frameworks, we can free ourselves from clinging to one form of external identification by realizing that an innumerable amount of intersecting factors constitute our ever-changing selves, and consequently that we exist as beings deeply interconnected with all others who give rise to those very intersecting factors. Fernandes’ process of disidentification echoes Keating’s acknowledgment of the multiplicity of modes of consciousness available for us to inhabit, calling for “a letting go of all attachments to externalized forms of identity, as well as to deeper ego-based attachments to power, privilege and control” (27).

Such externalized, fixed identities, to use my own experiences as an example, can include those of consumers, perfectionists, “healthy” eaters, obedient women, proponents of the state, people who must get out of bed at 5:45 every morning, etc. Of course, as Fernandes notes, this shedding of externally imposed identity “necessitates confronting the very real effects of such identities, including the personal privileges one may gain from them” (33). Fernandes offers the following example to illustrate what a simultaneous shedding of external identities and confronting of their material effects might look like:

“For instance a strategy for white students dealing with racial privilege would be to recognize and address the social and economic forms of power and privilege associated with whiteness in contemporary society in the United States while realizing that their own conceptions of their self do not need to rest on such hegemonic conceptions of whiteness” (33).

As explicitly suggested by Fernandes’ dismissal of “ego-based attachments,” the new mode of consciousness that she introduces depends upon an internalization of “radical humility,” which parallels the “intellectual humility” that Keating describes as an integral aspect of threshold theories (Fernandes 44).

Keating describes two facets of the intellectual humility—“an open-minded, flexible way of thinking that entails the acknowledgment of our inevitable epistemological limitations […] and intense self-reflection”—that threshold theories require, and that echo features of the disidentified self that Fernandes lays out: complex personhood and vulnerability (Keating 424).

With intellectual humility, we cease to assume that we can completely know the complex constitution of every person whom we encounter based on our rigid definitions of pre-existing identities, and instead begin to recognize each individual’s “complex personhood” (Keating 1191). This recognition subsequently allows us “to make connections among differently-situated people,” since we are now willing to find commonalities between ourselves and those whose identities we previously (and hubristically) thought to be radically different from (and less legitimate than) ours (Keating 892). Also advocating an understanding of the self and others beyond the externally imposed identities that we have internalized, Fernandes seeks to “detach one’s own self-definition from such externally- and self-imposed identities” while still “being fully engaged in confronting the very real inequalities and exclusions which existing constructions of identity do produce” (33, 31). Through this process, we can begin to truly unite under the banner of transformative social change.

In addition to recognizing each individual’s complex personhood, intellectual humility requires a willingness to become vulnerable, as showcased through Keating’s referencing of Gloria Anzaldúa’s conception of nepantla, as well as through Fernandes’ emphasis on the “often painful process of self-transformation” (19). In order for us to “loosen[…] [the] previously restrictive labels” that oppositional consciousness has caused us to internalize, Keating suggests that we emulate Anzaldúa’s nepantla: “someone who enters into and interacts with multiple, often conflicting worlds” (367). Anzaldúa defines the nepantla as having a “frictional existence” and living with “discomfort,” suggesting that we must come to terms with the fact that we cannot—and should not seek to—live “perfect” lives free of strife, since those who occupy this place of vulnerability also have the most potential to “create alternative perspectives” to the oppositional consciousness that keeps us from enacting truly transformative movements (Keating 367). Similarly, Fernandes encourages us to live in the discomfort of weaving in and out of varying social positionings through “a brutally honest, inward process of self-examination” that will allow us to enact the utopias that we cannot even imagine in a mode of oppositional consciousness (44, 19). It is only in this perpetually vulnerable space that we can hope to recognize the connections we share with all other beings, thereby cultivating transformative social change.

            By crafting our individual and collective consciousnesses through Keating’s conception of threshold theories and Fernandes’ process of disidentification, we can foster within ourselves the intellectual humility necessary in recognizing ourselves in nonoppositional terms, and thereby forming the integral base for transformative social movements.

[1] I do not intend for the slash used here to denote a mind-body dualism that would, indeed, reinforce the very binary epistemology and praxis that Keating and Fernandes seek to transform. Rather, by including both of these terms (thinking and being) I seek to acknowledge both the epistemological and praxis-based aspects of threshold theories and disidentification.

Works Cited

Fernandes, Leela. Transforming Feminist Practice: Non-Violence, Social Justice and the Possibilities of a Spiritualized Feminism. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2003. Print.

Keating, AnaLouise. Transformation Now! Toward a Post-Oppositional Politics of Change. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Kindle file.


In solidarity, Ali.

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