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.
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.
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.
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?
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.