Alicja Gescinska: ‘All power to the imagination? We need common sense!’

Alicja Gescinska (1981), Polish-Belgian philosopher and author

Where can we find the spirit of ’68 nowadays? This question makes philosopher and author Alicja Gescinska (1981) laugh scornfully. “Which 1968? The one in Paris? Or the one in Poland, where tens of thousands of Jews were forced to leave the country during a huge anti-Semitic campaign by the communist government? Or the one in Memphis, where Martin Luther King was killed?”

Gescinska, who fled from Poland with her parents in 1988 and grew up in Belgium, wants nothing to do with the glorifying stories about the revolutionary year in which people said everything was possible. All power to the imagination? “There are currently people in power who use their imagination very well. They imagine that you can solve a problem by simply building a wall, or that you can substitute facts for ‘alternative truths’. Realism and common sense – that is what the world needs.”

Is there nothing we can learn from ’68?
“It can teach us that citizens are not a powerless puppet on a string.Every citizen can make his voice heard and in that way make a difference – although this did not happen only in ‘68, of course. But it must go beyond just the realisation that citizens can initiate change. What if we see active citizenship not just as a possibility, but as a moral duty?”

“Some people say that democracy in Poland is already dead. Seriously? Citizens there take to the streets en masse.”

Have we forgotten our democratic duty?
“We never learned it properly. I think that many do not fully understand what democracy entails. With every election, you hear people complain that their voice is not being heard. But democracy does not mean that the masses must speak. The point is that we have responsibilities towards each other, to our fellow citizens, to nature. An active citizen is an involved citizen. It means you look beyond your own interests: engaged citizenship is not about what you want, but about what’s good for the community.”

How do we get there?
“I wish I knew the answer. It’s like asking how to make sure that someone cares about his fellow man. Phew. Often, people are primarily motivated by how something affects their own wallet. On the one hand, I think we should try to involve everyone, but on the other hand: the goal is not that every citizen is active, the goal is healthy coexistence. Take the mandatory waste sorting of recyclable materials. It doesn’t really matter that some people do not see the point of it, or that they do not like it – it’s more important that it happens.”

You can say that not everyone has to agree with important matters, but in recent years the ‘angry citizen’ has been calling out louder and louder.
 “Democracy is a system of constant collisions. If you want to prevent these collisions, you do not really want democracy anymore – you want a society of enlightened minds. Then you should appoint an enlightened supreme power to say what is ‘right’. That is a frightening idea.

“Of course, things can go wrong in a democracy, like when an undemocratic leader is elected. In Poland, democracy is under pressure, and some people even say that democracy is already dead there. Seriously? Citizens have taken to the streets en masse. There is a growing concern, people write about it – I do not see passivity in Poland. The fire in the citizens there is burning much harder than in the citizens of the Netherlands or Belgium.”