The Decline of Critical Thinking

Did the fact that Dobbs and McGlowan were speaking nonsense make any difference to the majority of those listening to them? Probably not. Their regular listeners may well be too ignorant to know that this surreal episode has no basis in reality. Their ignorance will cause them not to fact-check Dobbs’s and McGlowan’s remarks. They might very well rationalize away countervailing facts if they happen to come across them. And, by doing so, keep everything comfortably simple, which counts for more than the messy, often complicated truth.

Although written primarily about the United States, this piece does briefly touch on the pervasive myth that ‘Europeans’ are far more capable of critical thinking than their neighbours across the ocean. I’ve worked in enough offices and participated in enough knuckle-chewingly frustrating discussions about politics to think that it is indeed a myth. Overwhelmingly people seem to invest in popular and acceptable views – as Davidson notes:

The truth is that people who are consistently active as critical thinkers are not going to be popular, either with the government or their neighbors.

The piece struck for two reasons. The first was that I’d written the other day about the minor storm of outrage surrounding Jeremy Irons/gay marriage and how it seemed to suggest (once again) that self-righteous certitude was far more appealing and dominant than the urge to actually think about the issue. This is something which I’ve written about quite a lot, usually with the tag of ‘liberal identity’ because I come at it from my personal context. I recognise myself in many of these responses. I understand the potency of feeling that you are in the gang of goodies. I also understand how quickly that is removed if you start to ask awkward questions which threaten this sensibility, something Sara Ahmed wrote about as “The Politics of Good Feeling”. Of course it’s easy to replace this ‘liberal identity’ with an individual belief that you personally are one of the only ones who sees ‘the truth’ or whatever, which is only swapping one form of egotism for another. Critical thinking is difficult and uncomfortable largely because it requires accepting that you are wrong about a lot of things a lot of the time.

This takes me onto the second reason why this piece resonated with me this morning. Yesterday I had discussions, both on Twitter and IN REAL LIFE, inspired by this column about how assaulting goths and emos is a BAD THING (I’ll leave aside the ‘hate crime’ issue but you can read further thoughts on that here). I originally tweeted that I was amazed that anyone would think people needed a column to tell them that they shouldn’t assault others. The responses I received were interesting – especially as they were similar to responses I’ve had about a myriad of issues, from ‘It Gets Better’ to Johann Hari’s plagiarism. The argument rests on two pillars. The first typically involves an appeal to an imagined isolated person – usually young – who needs to be assured that they aren’t alone. The second appeals to an imagined perpetrator (here of assault) who needs to learn that what they do/think is unacceptable. 

I’ve heard this line of reasoning so many times now that every time it’s wheeled out it rings alarm bells in my head. It is of course ludicrous to suggest that someone is going to read a newspaper column and decide that they will stop assaulting people – this is usually met with agreement and the assertion that it’s the culture that is important. These columns play an important role in creating a culture where ‘negative’ behaviour is seen as unacceptable. Now, no-one would dispute that the media plays an important role in shaping culture. I would argue, however, that it’s the daily drip of ‘news’ stories, how they are presented, how they are framed, how they are chosen, which play a far more powerful role in shaping attitudes than the clearly demarcated opinion on display in comment pieces. It could even be argued that comment pieces without an accompanying urge (and ability) to think about the wider media are harmful – acting as a ‘pressure valve’, as Ulrike Meinhof put it.

We can follow that logic very well if we focus on the assault piece. It’s imagined that this will play a role in making assault ‘unacceptable’. Ultimately, this rests on the idea that the imagined assaulter needs to be educated out of his (it’s almost always his) behaviour, an idea that is woefully and offensively simplistic. People don’t wake up and decide that they are going to be the kind of person who attacks others on the street. We can’t and must not dispense with individual responsibility but that comes as part of a long, complex line of circumstances and influences which shape a person – what they consider to be acceptable, what they consider to be possible, what they consider to be normal. Anyone who has ever worked in social work will quickly appreciate how impossibly difficult it can seem to address violent and/or destructive behaviour – and will laugh with despair at the suggestion that columns are going to do anything whatsoever to address the problem.

If they did, of course, then that would be great. Yet the appeal is indeed invariably to other people and the effect that the column will have on them – it is never about ourselves. This is the crux of the matter – if we aren’t encouraged to think critically about society, about power, about ourselves, generally, we certainly aren’t inspired to do so in newspaper columns. They are overwhelmingly about parroting our own views back at us and (subtly) assuring us of our superiority over these imagined others – whether that be violent thugs for Guardian readers or welfare claimants for Daily Mail readers. This is why people were so protective of Johann Hari when his lies and slurs were exposed – he told them what they wanted to hear and they didn’t really care where it came from as a result. Columns appear to us as solutions to problems which we conjure after the fact (I’ve learned to substitute ‘Must read!’ with ‘This is what I also think!’ online).

We all do this and more and more, we feel that we’re accomplishing something by reading and sharing such pieces, even if we can’t remember the last time a column (or Question Time) actually caused us to pause and reflect on what we think and why we think it. Davidson touches on a fundamental explanation as to why so much of our time spent online is about perpetuating what we already think and flattering our own ego:

In effect, a closely adhered to ideology becomes a mental locality with limits and borders just as real as those of geography. In fact, if we consider nationalism a pervasive modern ideology, there is a direct connection between the boundaries induced in the mind and those on the ground. Furthermore, it does not matter if the ideology is politically left or right, or for that matter, whether it is secular or religious. One’s critical abilities will be suppressed in favor of standardized, formulaic answers provided by the ideology.

Just so work done within a bureaucratic setting. Bureaucracies position the worker within closely supervised departments where success equates with doing a specific job according to specific rules. Within this limited world one learns not to think outside the box, and so, except as applied to one’s task, critical thinking is discouraged and one’s worldview comes to conform to that of the bureaucracy. That is why bureaucrats are so often referred to as cogs in a machine.

Who could say that they don’t recognise this in their own lives? With regards to the first point, ideology, I could return to the issue of gay marriage and whether people actually devote any time to thinking about it rather than thinking ‘what should I as a liberal person think?’ Certain views and certain issues become identified with left/right stances and become totemic, used as standard bearers for your identity.

The second point is even more important. As Davidson argues, critical thinking is discouraged in our daily lives – I’d go further than just our workplaces though and argue that it is discouraged in most of our daily interactions and relationships. No-one likes to be challenged, especially not when the internet provides the means for 24/7 validation. I’m coming to think of this as being absolutely crucial to many of the issues we speak and write about. I’m coming to think that actually speaking to the people in your workplace is far more constructive, powerful and rewarding than 100 e-petitions. It’s certainly far more difficult – I’m sure many can identify with the clammy sense of dread which descends when your colleages, acquaintances, even friends start discussing something and sharing views which you think are ignorant and/or offensive. Whether we participate in these and put ourselves out there with our different views or whether we retreat to Twitter and write a pithy comment seems pretty instructive to me. It’s a microcosm of the assault issue, really – just as dealing with that requires complex, difficult and draining interaction between people, so does the process of learning and changing opinions (and if our thinking is to be truly ‘critical’, that must include our own).

The Decline of Critical Thinking

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