Critical Thinking

x-do-you-know-what-you-didThe barbed lament of the self-perceived intellectual is: ‘Not enough humans are able to think critically’ What does that really mean?

The reality of communication is in the epistemology, the semantics…the meaning of our words. This isn’t to imply I am about to descend into some Neo-Kantianism lecture, casting forth a net of practical reason with which to ensnare the struggling orthodoxy that is the knowledge of common man and woman. Rather, I realise that to construct a coherent set of statements, there must be precision in language, accuracy in meaning, complicity in construct. In other words, to “say what I mean”, not to “beat about the bush”, “to speak plainly”; then I should remove the need to bamboozle, obfuscate, twist through egotistic desire the forms of my sentence so that the reader is reduced to a despair of ever understanding and reduced to accepting it as the truth by the meagre fact that I said it.

That said, it is simpler still to confuse with plainer words which allow us to utter generalizations which the gleeful pedant (or one of contrary opinion) will latch onto with examples that do not fit the broad statement. I may say “All birds fly”, and promptly be downed by the retort: “What about penguins, then?” Exceptions are the evolutionary normative, but to focus on the exception as a reason for discounting the general concept renders understanding into a weak form, dilutes the progression from opening debate to pointed facts. This is muddied still further when we speak of human relative experience to convey a precise concept. These are what social media debaters announce as ‘sweeping generalizations’.

For example, if Person A says “Watching a film is a nice thought” what does Person A really mean? Person A’s perception of ‘nice’ cannot be guaranteed to be the same as Listener B. Likewise, for Listener B’s understanding of what ‘thought’ is. Listener B may be convinced by Person A’s statement; enough to wander off and tell Listener C that “watching films is what all nice people do”. Alternatively, Listener B might believe they will think critically about it and go search on Google for a few articles before deciding on which answer either wholly or best fits their own view in the light of Person A’s statement.

The fractal nature of thought when applied as a consequence of ‘vague’ statement is a common problem. Within the workplace caveats are dropped when conversations are repeated; for example the original internal business statement of: “we’re very likely to trend towards this solution, based on a confirmation of these percentages” will end up at the client’s ear as “this is the solution, based on the confirmation given.”

Why do we have this need to make absolute statements, generated from optional concepts? This is the worst form of Critical Thinking, spawned from our desire to appear erudite, knowledgeable, in control. Enough people repeat and distort the original statement and we end in our defensive lamentation that “what I said was twisted; I didn’t mean that.” That’s only truth in our justification of our communication but we tend not to want to resort to this defence, for fear it means a tacit acceptance we have made a mistake in our earlier judgements, that we have, somehow, failed to understand and are complicit in passing on a deceit. That we have failed in our Critical thinking.

Indeed, this is what Critical Thinking for the common man and woman is really about. It is not about studying and analysing the words we read; rather, it is  to determine the ‘admiration’ we have for the speaker or the author, who convinces us through either personal charm, intellectual might, or compliant fear. Indeed our admiration can also be by proxy. For example:

Person A: “Our teacher told us Frank L Baum was a great writer, therefore he is a great writer. And a great man, by extension.”

Listener B: “Really, what about this views on the Sioux then?”

Person A: “What views?”

Listener B: “Go read about it and make your own, informed judgements.”

Our sole judgement is reserved, in the time of noisy, global, eternal social communication, for those orators whose rhetoric is persuasive enough for us to attach to their coat-tails.

These loquacious orators have multiplied in a locust-like proportion that would horrify Cicero with our truly global platform of social media. We now have access, through the likes of Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al. to append our critical selves to any dictionary of thought and boast our confident mantra of “[I heard/read/saw it here] that the facts are <insert mantra>”. We may be shouting our views into the void, but what remains is to realise that our own voice is a ghostly, barely audible squeak that can only rise through either a loud voice, or the multiplication of a million voices crying the same sentence. But, before we get the chance to utter our prophetic truths to a deaf audience we have already abnegated the effort of Critical Thinking to be one of ‘Convinced Choice’. Having chosen the sources of our plagiarised truths, the reality is that we drop the vague naming of our gurus and speak confidently as though we, ourselves, came to this knowledge, this understanding, through empirical and theoretical analysis. It is the shortening of our time which means we just copied it directly from elsewhere, or paraphrased in a manner that means to steal some of the erudite glory to fall like dandruff on our own mendacious shoulders.

On this blog I put a cartoon castigating those for blithely repeating the first sentences they read that conform to their own sense of morality, or the social ethics they adhere to. It’s broadly accurate. Our need to leap on the shoulders of the common cause, to hide our lack of Critical Thinking in the herd stampede makes us foolishly repeat nonsense, that, in its most destructive form, becomes false belief.

On occasion I find myself on the message boards of national US or UK newspapers, reading with alternating amusement and anguish the claims and counter-claims of those hidden behind avatars; those who are slyly stirred to spew their opinions so by journalistic emotive headlines until the failure of debate is swallowed by the hollow cry of modern social media’s full stop of “troll!!!”.

When the final statement of any debate, any rhetoric or dialectic is one of tapinosis, then the claim to Critical Thinking is lost entirely; it is not a victory for the one who did not succumb to the name-calling, despite the race to the podium.

Of course, there is the claim that everyone is entitled to their opinion; if you don’t like it, then “leave”, but that is a dismissive claim that does a great deal of damage to any cultural attempt to encourage Critical Thinking. If we leave our social media boards to their own devices of ignorant thinking, striding off with a superior sense of intellectual right, then we abandon our own people to the corruptive influence of those with nefarious designs. One day that corruptive influence results in painful, horrifying actions which impact us all. We are collectively responsible for freedom of Critical Thinking, Yet, as Harlan Ellison who put it so bluntly for our generation: “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant”. Correct. Informed opinion is born of Critical Thinking. Critical Thinking is born of informed opinion. The two are Castor and Pollux.

So, when it claimed that ‘Not enough humans are able to think critically’ the real meaning is to imply that ‘The only critical thinking of the average human is to choose whose words to which we attach our thoughts”. The irony is that this, in itself, is a sweeping generalization, but remember that finding an exception to this should not lessen your understanding of the import of the words.

One world religion says “In the Beginning was the Word”. Fair enough, but what Word? What was really meant by it? (only the one who uttered it will truly know and it is incumbent on that being to clarify matters, rather than letting us struggle to understand, and, in our failure to think critically enough, subsequently kill each other in our billions because we cannot agree on our own common understanding. We cannot change the Beginning, so let us venture to expand and say “In the Beginning was the Word; in the middle was the Meaning”. Now is the time of Meaning, but to achieve that let us remove the Shakespearian ‘sling and arrows’ of interpretation and understand how we genuinely move towards Critical Thinking so Meaning becomes clear for all.

Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: London, United Kingdom

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