Metaphor for enlightenment. A flock of birds flies out of a head. A man climbs up a spiral staircase to the open head. In the background clouds, a skyline and a tree.

We Need a New Enlightenment

Previous concepts of progress have failed. Oceans are polluted, the climate is changing, diseases are rampant, hunger is proliferating, migrants are drowning. A paradigm shift is needed: it is about new thinking for our survival.

Zimbabwe, the nation-state I come from, has never known peace. Various institutionalised forms of violence were practised on black bodies by white bodies in Zimbabwe when British settlers arrived to occupy the land. Officials of the British South Africa Charter Company, the private company founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1889, whose members were outriders of the British Empire, used brutal tactics to bring the local people to heel.

Cecil Rhodes' Pioneer column of 500 men armed with an assortment of weapons that included Maxim guns, marched into the area that is now Harare, capital of Zimbabwe, to annexe the land formally for the British Empire in 1893.
Metaphysical violence included the denigration of pre-colonial belief and other symbolic systems, such as religious, political, knowledge, legal and language systems. This metaphysical violence was part of a deliberate British strategy to create a metaphysical empire.

Various forms of violence were unleashed on black bodies as the new settler state evolved. These forms of violence included the banning of black political parties, police brutality, judicial harassment, abduction, detention and torture. The violence of the denial of freedom was encoded in laws that determined such things as where black bodies could be at what time, where minds embodied in black bodies could obtain education, where a black body could purchase land or farm, and what kind of alcoholic beverage could be sold to or imbibed by a black body where.


Metaphor for violence and pain, illustration: CDD20 via pixabay

As a result of this history, at independence in 1980 Zimbabwe had a violent outgoing settler state. Being born through a brutal liberation struggle in which atrocities that I cannot go into here were committed on both sides, the incoming nationalist state was just as violent. Its military rhetoric focused on conflict, antagonism and enmity, and this is the philosophy that holds sway amongst Zimbabwean authorities to this day. The antagonists and enemies are any entities, including citizens of Zimbabwe and their organisations, that do not comply with the military rulers' wishes.

Two illustrations: Male figure whose arms are tied with green cords; a second male figure has his mouth held shut.
Violence through shackles and prohibition of speech, illustration: CDD20 via pixabay


The formative violence of the Zimbabwean nation state is not an isolated historical occurrence. The greater part of the world has experienced the multi-faceted violence that I have described in the Zimbabwean case at the hands of western empire. This violence is standard for all the imperial enterprise practised by the western quarter of the world on the rest of the globe, a process that began in the fifteenth century. In fact, in some cases, such as the USA the process was even more violent with entire nations being wiped out through genocide.

Violence begets violence

Two illustrations: Frontal portrait of a man with a stylised hand in front of his mouth and nose; in the second image, a hand brutally grips the face of a screaming man.
Violence through prohibition of speech, illustration: CDD20 via pixabay


Obviously, peace cannot thrive under these conditions. Only violence thrives in conditions of violence. It is a well-known fact that violence begets violence, and we see this all over the world today, even in the various homes of empire. Imperial violence created conditions that caused many people to leave their homes and migrate to imperial countries. Citizens of the imperial countries resent this and mete out violence onto the bodies of the immigrants in various ways, including through institutional violence that is justified as an administrative necessity, a justification that was also given during the colonial era.

At the same time, nationals of imperial nations who have a more developed sense of peace and justice take on their country mates who mete out violence to immigrants and conflict results in the imperial heartland. It is clearly a no-win situation. What are we to do, then, to foster peace? Clearly the world structure that ushered in the specific kinds of violence of our era cannot easily be undone. The more than seven billion of us human residents of this planet are today all connected to and embedded in that global system.

Here is an answer, and I personally believe that this answer is simpler than we might think. The violent world order we live in now was brought about by certain hierarchical modes of thinking. The solution is to undo the racialised and other hierarchical modes of thinking based on demographics such as gender, sex, religion, nationality and class, and any other, that were and continue to be the building blocks of empire throughout history, throughout the world.

The solution is to undo the racialised and other hierarchical modes of thinking based on demographics such as gender, sex, religion, nationality and class.

Our current global dispensation does invest large amounts of money into influencing group behaviour. Methods of influencing group behaviour are taught in courses for disciplines such as marketing and business studies, politics and propaganda studies all over the world. Such courses teach students how to define a target group by segmenting a population according to a range of demographics. The desires of this population are then manipulated with the aim of this manipulation being not the good of the people concerned or an increase in peace, but in order to maximise something that we refer to as profit. This may be financial, political, social or any other kind of human profit.

I put it to you that this thing we call profit does not in fact exist. In absolute terms, the notion of profit is a fallacy. In the dimension of the human, and the world we inhabit physically, events and matter are localised in time and space. Value that appears in one time and place is value that has been removed from another time and place. A system based on profit, on receiving more than is given, is a system of exploitation. Systems of exploitation result in concentration and deficit. A system that manufactures concentration on the one hand and deficit on the other is a system of imbalance. Such a system is inherently unstable and therefore not sustainable. How then have we come to invest in an unstable, unsustainable system that is bound to lead to our downfall?

Figure folded from yellow paper in the classical pose of a thinker against a black background.
Thinker, illustration: Vinicius Amnx Amano via unsplash

A little less than four hundred years ago, a Frenchman wrote a long paragraph on the nature of certainty, that is the nature of knowledge without doubt. One phrase of this long paragraph has come down to us. This is the phrase 'I think therefore I am', now one of the most famous and well-known phrases of western philosophy. In this conceptualisation of the world, 'I think' is the only direct, irrefutable evidence a person has of their existence. All other evidence could be false. 'I think' was said to indicate 'I am' or a person's being, and this position came to be formulated as 'I think therefore I am'.

To me, a person who has had the good fortune to access another knowledge system besides the western, experientially rather than intellectually, since childhood, the dangers of such an epistemology are glaring. Firstly, as is well recognised, the famous phrase is only a short version of what was originally expressed. The original expression included the useful nature of doubt in ascertaining knowledge: I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am. But those very thought processes said to obtain knowledge through doubt refused to doubt and instead opted for the certainty of 'I think therefore I am', the version that has now become common philosophical currency.

What are the effects of such a common philosophical currency? To think is to conduct an inner narrative. This process of inner narrative is composed of process on one hand – how we narrate to ourselves; and content on another hand – what we narrate to ourselves. Equating the process of one's, or the 'I's' thinking or inner narrative with being results in multiple errors in our knowledge. Allow me to mention two, that are particularly relevant to my feeling like Jonah inside the whale. Both of these errors refer to difference.

Methods of influencing group behaviour are taught in courses for disciplines such as marketing and business studies, politics and propaganda studies all over the world. Such courses teach students how to define a target group by segmenting a population according to a range of demographics.

Let us consider the case of a mind that is not one's own. Let us assume that this other mind that is not one's own, holds a different content to the contents in one's own mind; or that it utilises a different system of evoking and arranging contents and thus of delivering meaning; or that it differs from one's own mind in both content and process. Those who believe that being in the world and knowing in the world is based on 'I think' may very easily come to the conclusion that a mind that uses different contents for representing and different processes of combining contents does not think at all, and therefore does not represent an 'I' at all.

Denial of human value

Let us now go on to assume that this mind that is not one's own is embodied. It is easy to see how such an embodied being that is not oneself, that does not think as oneself does, and therefore is said not to think, is very likely to evoke in one's mind the content 'They do not think, therefore they are not'. Since the thinker of 'I think therefore I am' perceives of themself as human, those who think differently are perceived of as being not like me, or not human. As we know, this denial of the human value of other human beings has the effect of raising the human value we ascribe to ourselves; and as we also know, this mechanism of differential attribution of humanity has been responsible for much of the violence that human beings have visited on each other.

Metaphor for the mind trapped in one's own head. In a stylised white head, a figure sits behind bars instead of the brain.
Metaphor for the trapped mind, illustration: CDD20 via pixabay

I make this point not to discredit the Enlightenment.  It is very hard for me, someone who is not personally connected directly to the history of Europe and its narrative, to imagine what life here was like during the Dark Ages through the Middle Ages, and how deeply the thought revolution that was the Enlightenment was needed. My point is to add my voice to those who say the Enlightenment of yester-century has run its course so that we, all of us on this planet today are in great need of a new one.

Metaphor for new thoughts. A figure puts a key in the lock in his head.
Metaphor for new thoughts, illustration: CDD20 via pixabay

The knowledges of yesteryear and yester-century do not suffice. They did not save us. In my part of the world, our philosophy of living was encapsulated in the idea 'I am because you are' now recognised as the philosophy of ubuntu. This philosophy is still expressed in greetings such as 'I am well if you are well too', but this philosophy did not save us.

The Enlightenment of yester-century has run its course so that we, all of us on this planet today are in great need of a new one.

We must invent new thought, drag it out from where it is nascent in the folds of the universe to effect the paradigm shift in our ways of knowing and valuing and ascribing meaning that is necessary for our survival as we see oceans polluted, ozone depleted, climate changing, temperatures and shorelines rising, diseases ravaging in spite of science, hunger proliferating, and black bodies drowning in oceans on their way to join those who first sailed to join them, becoming this epoch's most enduring sacrifice to what it calls progress.

There will be no miracle cures for our errors of thought. What we can look to is to change our thought patterns word by word, consciously and consistently over time, and to persevere until results are seen in the way we do things and in the outcomes of our actions. I would like to suggest that one way in which the human community in Germany may contribute to do this is through changing thinking around the N-word. I have heard that there is an ongoing dispute here about the nature of the N-word and whether it is inherently violent, with some arguing that it is not, so that those who choose to use it are not choosing to use a violent, but only a factual content.

Inside the whale

Metaphor for Jonah in the belly of the whale. A person swims on the back of a whale that is under water.
Metaphor for Jonah in the belly of the whale, illustration: Vinicius Amnx Amano via unsplash


At the same time, those who are the object of those who use the N-word to refer to them, and their allies in the country, testify to the N-word's violent nature. In such cases, the choice is ours, whether to valorise the 'I' of 'I think' or to look beyond this 'I' to 'We' in our choice of the contents we entertain in our minds. To look beyond the 'I' to the 'We' could lead to mind-expanding reformulations of the Frenchman's phrase, to, for example, 'We think, therefore we are'; or even to 'We are, therefore we think'. thereby, with this latter, changing the location of valorisation from the rational 'think' to the experiential 'are'.

Indeed, my sense of being inside the whale may not apply only to myself. It is increasingly clear to me that we are all inside the whale of our current paradigm. Unlike Jonah, we will not be vomited out as this paradigm that we exist in is of our creation. We have constructed it through our own choices, according to what we perceive of as knowledge and certainty. We will emerge, if we emerge at all, through our own choices to dismantle these constructions and build sustainable others.

Our choices of thought content and process are ultimately a choice between violence producing and peace producing contents and narratives. This is true whether these contents and narratives are expressed only to ourselves in thought, or whether we go on to express them to others around us. Both are generative.

About the author
Portrait of TsiTsi Dangarembga
Tsitsi Dangarembga
Novelist, playwright and filmmaker

TsiTsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean novelist, playwright and filmmaker. She is one of the leading directors in today’s African cinema. She studied film directing at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin and founded the production company Nyerai Films in 1992. In 2021, Tsitsi Dangarembga was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.

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