Toward a Critical Habit

Tim Miller, in a recent comment, said he’d race me to an essay on critical thinking, after i said i might write an As I Please on it. This has become more than that: as i started thinking about it, more & more stuff just kept coming.
i think i’ve won Tim lad, haha.
This is the part I-IV, i will post V-VII probably Monday, as i have noted that more than 2000 words seems a bit too much, the essay runs to 4000 (whittled down from something ridiculous like 7000), after i’ve edited the crap out of it, so i thinking cutting it gives people an opportunity to read qualitatively.
i completely understand people’s reading habits online (i often want to read something but then see the length & get a little put off) & am more than happy to oblige taking out my Okkham’s Razor, or just splitting things up if it means people can read my stuff more attentively.

I

Society, in general, is not trained to think critically. Our schools are founded on monastic & military paradigms, as Foucault tells us: “…the idea of an educational ‘programme’ that would follow the child to the end of his schooling and which would involve from year to year, month to month, exercises of increasing complexity, first appeared, it seems, in a religious group, the Brothers of the Common Life.”
We are exercised. Over the last 200 years, itinerary & repetition in the classroom, have been developing us to perform the tasks necessitous to the functioning of a perpetually shifting society; preparatory conditioning for our adulthood. We are not taught, as individuals, to alter them, but to either function as a cog, or to improve them. Thinking critically isn’t essential to the mundanity of most work; satisfactory performance is; so that industries succeed & governments can rule. It is no coincidence that the layout of the classroom is similar to the office or the factory.
There is critical thinking— no quarrel there; however, it is something easily refuted on the basis of the right to an opinion, no matter how uninformed it is; in addition, it’s something misunderstood as a skill available to an elite. i can’t accept this. There is too much history behind us & too much information around us to settle for this. But really, it isn’t that difficult to take information & question it— even the child can ask why. The diallelus is a formidable tool in the arsenal of the most amateur critic, even if it does go on & on & on…

i will talk generally, the exception to the rule is too often inflammatory, standing in opposition to the general, wider effects of an event or problem. If critical thought was more habitual, the events we have witnessed usurping the front pages of newspapers over the last couple of years, simply could not have courted a majority enough to tip the balance. i doubt there’d be a schism between the EU & Britain; Britain wouldn’t be in the throes of an ideological civil war; & of course Donald Trump would not be the president of the U.S.A.
i recognize a world beyond Britain, Europe & America, but i have to limit myself.

II

i make use of criticism as it is applicable in literature. We may not realize it, but we use literary devices to tell anecdotes, the news uses them all the time to report tragic events & deceptions. The intellectual equipment available from a study of literature, its terminology, has application in society & life. i take this relationship of literature to society from Kenneth Burke.
Burke wrote an essay, which is in his book The Philosophy of Literary Form called The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle; one of his reasons: “There are other ways of burning books than on the pyre.”
Burke was acutely aware of how people might take his writing an essay on a sensitive subject. He stresses at the beginning:
“Hitler’s “Battle” is exasperating, even nauseating; yet the fact remains: If the reviewer but knocks off a few adverse attitudinizings and calls it a day, with a guaranty in advance that his article will have a favorable reception among the decent members of our population, he is contributing more to our gratification than to our enlightenment.”
He wrote it to explain the circumstances & events that altered Hitler’s perceptions, which spurred him to alter those of the German public; it was written to educate us, in the hope we become trained to recognize the patterns of behavior at their inception, in the unfortunate circumstances of demagoguery’s return.
An admirable attempt at a safety measure: an early warning signal for when maneuvers in politics are on the brink of taking nefarious turns.
“[And] he was helpful enough to put his cards face up on the table, that we might examine his hands. Let us then, for God’s sake, examine them. This book is the well of Nazi magic; crude magic, but effective. A people trained in pragmatism should want to inspect this magic.”
It is often too easy to misunderstand an intention like Burke’s, the guaranty in advance in the mind of a public unschooled in critical approaches, is to think there is something improper in the intention itself of wanting to say anything about a book like Mein Kampf other than, pure evil. But the fact of the matter is that this reaction, despite being correct, doesn’t help us get to the root of why it is pure evil, so regardless of it being a correct statement & warning against the book, it doesn’t necessarily end the problem of demagoguery or racism.

III

History is full of instances where the critical faculties were needed. However, i am more forgiving of the public of our past: hierarchies were more dug in theologically & more difficult to rebel against due to a lack of widely available broadcasting means to advertise & organize a will to reform. It took brave individuals to stand firm first of all, before other’s rallied behind them. There was little more than the nom de plume or guerre for protection from the tyrant.
Men in power have always sought, with systems & rights available to them exclusively, to control the masses; creating a culture & environment of suspicion, in which to question the authority meant punishment or discipline.
Reading Foucault’s Discipline & Punish we learn of the reformations that took place in the judicial & punitive systems of law throughout the 18th & 19th Centuries, into something approaching what we recognize today.
“In the old system, the body of the condemned man became the king’s property, on which the sovereign left his mark and brought down the effects of his power. Now he will be rather the property of society, the object of a collective and useful appropriation.”
Our courts have opened into social media, mutating into a form we might find fair warning against in Foucault:
“The right to punish has been shifted from the vengeance of the sovereign to the defense of society. But it now finds itself recombined with elements so strong that it becomes almost more to be feared. The malefactor has been saved from a threat that is by its very nature excessive, but he is exposed to a penalty that seems to be without bounds. It is a return to a terrible “super-power”. It brings with it the need to establish a principle of moderation for the power of punishment.”
Foucault’s historical context is different. However, our systems of social moralizing, our collective obligation, the contemporary phenomenon of shaming, for example, i imagine, would interest Foucault, especially when he explains:
“In short, the power to judge should no longer depend on the innumerable, discontinuous, sometimes contradictory privileges of sovereignty, but on the continuously distributed effects of public power.” The effects of a multitude to judge, rather than a single man, was more cost effective & far reaching. But could the masses be trusted to do it fairly & constructively?

IV

The social media channels available to us, allow for a constant clock on moral policing; we are moment by moment, updated on the conversations taking place in extensive networks & no matter where we are or what we are doing, we can respond. This public, answering on a whim, distracted by other things going on around them, are not prepared for the details necessary for interrogation; couple this with poor (if any, solid) instruction in critical thinking— it’s a recipe for disaster.
Our media sources extend to amateurism. There are amateur news shows on Youtube, a plentitude of DIY documentaries & short video analyses on popular news items, which also pop up on Facebook. The public, picks up on & moves according to the whims of itself as individuals, part of & working for, the betterment of the collective; a crowd often follows anonymous persons who bring something to their attention, with a tacit stance. The people who watch & create with these available media, believe they are doing the work of democracy, they have a right to their opinions & to broadcast them & to point the finger when someone gives them the go ahead. Because of the safety in numbers, people can rally behind this anonymous upholder of justice, they become a credibility reference to justify the ideas fused with their identity.
Justine Sacco’s story is a typical example of shaming.
Sacco, worked in PR for a New York company. She was going to visit family in South Africa. Bored, waiting for her flight, she wrote some mildly disparaging Tweets. One of these included: “Weird German dude: you’re in 1st class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.” This remained local to her community, which understood it in context. Another was something about crap sandwiches & bad teeth, she was in London. Her final Tweet was: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDs. Just kidding. I’m white.”
Sacco, got on her plane to no great fuss from her Tweet. During her flight, the Tweet exploded. Some internet journalist looking for a scoop picked it up & broadcast it to his flock of followers. People without any knowledge of who she was, were calling her a racist, someone even got the idea to go & photograph Justine getting off the plane, to catch her at the moment she realized she had been shamed. It was fun for the community to gang up on Justine, safe in the knowledge they were righting wrongs. It was easy too; an opportunity for people to show how morally responsible they were, by casting judgement on someone they knew nothing about.
Of course, for Justine, it was devastating. In a matter of weeks she lost her job, the respect of her family & friends; she couldn’t leave her house. She was ruined.
What she said was stupid; she acquiesced to this when interviewed by Jon Ronson of the New Yorker (whose article on Justine & shaming is worth a read). i wouldn’t peg Justine as a racist just as Ronson doesn’t. “Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS” were Justine’s first words to Ronson.
Justine’s accusers were wrong too, with the power of anonymous community behind them (just like the executioner behind his mask), to immediately punish Justine. But unlike the executioner who is guilty about his role, Justine’s accusers feel no such guilt.
They didn’t question her first, they made no effort to critically interact with her. They didn’t even make an effort to discipline her, on what amounts to a single sentence, a Tweet— they went right for the jugular.
It might have been a different fate for Justine if rather than jumping on the band wagon, her accusers asked her “What do you mean by this?” How difficult would that have been?
i do not know the mind or character of Justine Sacco; she could have lied about everything, she could be a racist. How can i know any of this? i have a small amount of information about her. So why would i go for the jugular? Why would i not keep an open mind? There is no history of Justine being part of a racist organization. No history of violence. Nothing in her past to condemn her for what she was condemned, so rashly, as being.
There is an egotism behind pointing the finger at the mistake of the shamed. We have begun to surveil each other, our moral nose snooping, not to fix the moral hiccups of each other, but only to punish for social benefit, for praise & our 15 minutes. Discipline? Of course. Guidance? Without doubt. But not a digital executioner, punishing people for a slip of the tongue.

17 thoughts on “Toward a Critical Habit

  1. “The diallelus is a formidable tool in the arsenal of the most amateur critic, even if it does go on & on & on…”. The question is one of competing terms. Many people think their opinions are facts, and treat them as such because of their emotional attachment/desire for their opinions to be true. So none of what you are saying won’t work (getting a critically thinking public) because emotions will always be the snakes in the grassy field of thought.

    Only a believer thinks faith is critical thinking…

    1. I see your point. But what about people who become atheists? I know a lad who was raised a Catholic, was heavily into his faith until his early 20s then became an atheist, even a nihilist to an extent. But now I’ve gone & used the exception to the rule, which i don’t want to keep relying on.

      1. My argument rests on my definition of atheist: one who cannot claim they know for sure that in some remote “corner”of the universe or closer, there might be someone or something that qualifies as divine (“god”) BUT the evidence presented so far on Earth by holy men and holy books is provably not evidence for god thus they don’t believe. Thus the diallelus ceases with one small step back to the definition. One cannot have faith/believe in atheism, because there is no thing within it to resist or accept.

    2. “Only a believer thinks faith is critical thinking.”

      As a ‘believer’, that’s the last thing I think it is! Here’s an instant, just-add-water example of one of Mabel’s Fables*:

      In the land of the Atheists there was once a young lad who decided he wanted to be a Believer. He had heard that in the city of Bialystok there was a famous Believer called Goldberg, so one day he set out to walk the many, many kilometres to the city. On the way, he passed through many villages, where the villagers were astonished to see such a determined, young pedestrian.

      “Where are you going?” they would ask.

      “To Bialystok, to see Goldberg the Believer,” he would reply.

      “Ah, a strange one that! The only Believer in the whole land of the Atheists!”

      When the lad reached Bialystok, he enquired of the people he met where the house of Goldberg the Believer was.

      “Ah, a strange one that!” said each of them, and pointed the way.

      Eventually, in a narrow street, the lad arrived at a house that everyone had assured him belonged to Goldberg the Believer. He knocked on the door, which was opened by a servant, and asked for an audience with the famous Goldberg. The servant took him through the house to his master’s study, and asked the lad to wait. While he waited, he looked around at the bookshelves that lined the room, and received a great shock – every single volume in Goldberg’s library was an exposition of atheism. The great atheistic philosophers, the great critics of faith and belief, philosophy’s foremost questioners, were all represented – there were the works of Thomas Paine, Nietzsche, Marx, even a brand new edition of Richard Dawkins. The lad’s mind reeled at the sight of what must surely have been the most comprehensive library of atheism in the world! Just then the door opened, and a venerable gentleman entered. It was Goldberg himself.

      “I am sorely disappointed! More than that, I am disgusted!” raged the lad. “I came here to meet Goldberg the Believer, and what do I see? Nietzsche? Marx? You’re a fraud! How can you be the famous ‘Goldberg the Believer’ and have such a library of disbelief?”

      The venerable gentleman waited until the lad had calmed himself, then he said this…

      “I am Goldberg the Believer, not Goldberg the Ignoramus.”

      __________
      *What I call me collection of whimsical short stories with a tongue-in-cheek moral. They’re usually based on a slightly twisted version of an existing story. As an example, here’s ‘The Golden Casement’, which is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Kejserens nye Klæder’.
      https://mairibheag.com/2017/04/04/the-golden-casement-a-new-version-of-an-old-tale/

      1. “It kind of makes my point for me. But I am not here to defend or attack anything.” – Pretty blunt point, then. 😀

        Never try to limit human conscious and expression to the purely rational. We don’t work like that.

      2. i wouldn’t charge Dan with limiting human consciousness, he’s a good man. But i agree we aren’t rational, but the results of irrationality are, on the whole, i think, better curbed. But that may just be because i am from the West Midlands.

      3. Amongst the results of human irrationality you can count the imagination. What possible rational use is it? I’m and a poet and a story-teller, and I write ‘fables’. In short I tell lies, I construct things that are irrational and untrue. Every work of art is a lie, even the most faithful mimesis.

        Amongst the results of human irrationality you can count the fact that we have bothered to construct a vocabulary to express the metaphysical. How irrational is that? Bloody irrational, I’d say! And yet we find the metaphysical compelling enough to want to construct a vocabulary so that we can discuss it.

        Every time we dismiss a function of human conscious and cognition – be it faith, fable, emotion, expression by art, whatever – we limit it. There are only two kinds of people, it seems – those who see things as we do, and the other blind, prejudiced idiots.

      4. i suppose they are irrational, but they are useful in making connections. The imagination isn’t useful only in art. How about something like Bentham’s panopticon, or to design something like an algorithm? Do you think this is purely rational?

        i think you send off a bit harsh. Wouldn’t you say ignorance is taught as much as knowledge? i mean, there are plenty of people who are even proud of their stupidity.

      5. Proud of stupidity. “It’s life, not books, what taught me all I know!” to which I always answer “No dead man ever wrote. No dead man ever read.”

        I’m blunt, rather than harsh. But comment noted, I’ll try to smooth my edges.

  2. “We may not realize it, but we use literary devices to tell anecdotes, the news uses them all the time to report tragic events & deceptions.” – It is important to note that the news is nowhere ‘reported’, it is everywhere ‘narrated’.

    “There is an egotism behind pointing the finger at the mistake of the shamed.” – The Justine Sacco story raises many questions of moral and practical philosophy. What happened following her idle tweets was an example of a system without gatekeepers; but our knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘gatekeeper’, in early 21c thinking, is “Hey! – ‘gatekeeper’ – Bad Thing!” Gatekeepers are the elite, the people who tell us what we should see, what we should do, what we should think, what we should say, what we have access to, and the democratisation of expression and information has rendered them dinosaurs. However, the last thing social media is is democratic. We were led by the nose to it and dumped there, so if we behave like a bunch of four-year-olds with flamethrowers it’s no surprise. The thing about democracy – and I speak here as an anarchist, someone whose ideal is to take democracy down to its most basic and total level – is that it requires time, effort, energy, and participation. In short, we need to take collective responsibility and be our own gatekeepers, exercising the lightest touch we can, in order not to stifle freedom. That takes a hell of a lot of commitment and collective organisation – as a PRE-REQUISITE to setting up a means of free expression. I reiterate that we were led by the nose to social media, which are nothing more than tools to make the likes of Mark Zuckerberg rich. Democracy is NOT the world of “Fuck you – I can say what I want!” That world is the diametric opposite of democracy*. The principle of democracy is that we govern ourselves, not that we indulge ourselves.

    This post is a very thoughtful and insightful opening into the debate about critical thought. A more useful tool than the diallelus, though similar in some respects, is the discipline of Socratic Questioning. Rather than requiring constant justification – though it will ask for justification if necessary – it concentrates on our being sure about how we define our terms**, and challenging us to do so at every turn. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    * And no, it is NOT ‘anarchy’, as defenders of the status quo would have you believe!
    ** Pace the uncertainty let in, from the 20c onwards, by such academic and philosophical disciplines as semiotics, phenomenology, existentialism, the study of cognitive bias, etc. etc., within which defining terms is a bloody awful problem! And by the way, I’m all in favour of the shaking of certainty – it’s a humbling process.

    1. i think “narrated” would have been a more suitable word there with its literary connotations.

      i quite agree with all you say here. i actually edited out a couple of paragraphs on gatekeeping elites, but i decided not to add it in.

      i am more hopeful than ever, or not hopeful, as not willing to give up trying to find a way, even at a local level, to challenge people’s ideologies. The general case is always difficult to alter, but the small victories are worth trying for.
      i only didn’t use the Socratic Questioning because it is slightly more complex, you have to pose a question, the diallelus is, to me, like a child asking why everyone time you tell it something. It is the most basic form of curiosity. This is belittling i know, but i don’t really mean it as an attack. It is an effort to show there is not really an excuse not to ask at least a basic question.
      But then i’m not blind to the blinding effect an ideology has on a person. There are a lot of layers to strip away. But there are also tiers of people whose layers are thicker or finer & we never know how obdurate they are if we just react emotionally.
      Let’s shake certainty, i’m all for being humbled more. These days i don’t feel any attachment to anything but my humanity.

  3. “It was easy too; an opportunity for people to show how morally responsible they were, by casting judgement on someone they knew nothing about.”

    Red guards didn’t die out when the Chinese Cultural Revolution “ended”. They’ve only multiplied on a grand-scale, global level, not ignorantly defending communism but, fueled by the self-righteous stink of their self-proclaimed “moral responsibility”, they do it for gratification (as opposed to enlightenment.) The prefix “self” here is ironic too because, as you said, the only credential behind their politicky-tacky boldness is the support of the mob. And we can see the mob will forever be drawn to gratification, not enlightenment. The so-called world leaders of today who reinforce the platform of Twitter, etc. as the preferred method of idea sharing, knowing damn-well the dearth of critical thinking existing there, are not trying to dismantle the mob but build it up as a wall to free, informed thought and personal liberty.

    1. That’s a good example.
      Foucault talks about how the Panopticon made power less visible, even invisible. & in that inversion of control, power become even stronger & much more effective. Social media is the perfect tool. We are all watching each other & we have become our own surveillance & in our groups we can rally around those we support, both at the level of those who affect society & who are simply affected upon.
      But Foucault doesn’t seem to be saying this is necessarily a bad thing. & i am in some way inclined to agree, but only if we use the technology correctly. If a racist speaks up on a social media platform, they can be confronted, & people (whether the person listens or not) can, provided they curb their emotions, are given a platform to explain to that person why they are in error. It seems important to me that the effort can even be made. This is why critical thinking even at minor levels, is important. Even liberals should get less emotional, they need to just question the person. In my opinion, if you want to change someone, learn about them through a conversation with them. My aunty is a racist, she hates all Muslims. i got angry about this, as i discovered it after years of admiring her. But once i settled, i decided to, rather than just blank her, understand her. So i said to her: “persuade me. Make me hate Muslims, with evidence.” She agreed. She has yet to persuade me, but she has to question herself in the process. i know people are emotional, but they don’t have to be. Ideology is by design, not nature.

a penny for your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.