Friday, 18 September 2015

Why Thinking For Yourself Has Never Been More Important Than Now

Wendy Cockcroft - Cartoon of me thinking
When I began the job I'm in now my employers were blown away by how efficient I proved to be. They shouldn't have been, I was one of the oldest and most experienced workers there, and having worked in a variety of industries gave me a wider range of skills than the others had.

The point is, I could think on my feet because I'd been in so many sink-or-swim situations, and I could resolve difficult problems quickly because I can think for myself. Most of my colleagues, when confronted with an unfamiliar situation would just leave it. I'm the one who went looking for solutions and chased jobs down to completion, even if they were out of my personal remit. These are the attributes that got me hired as a full-time permanent member of staff despite the fact that on the first day I was two hours late. This is not a "Go me!" post, it's about the value of thinking for yourself. Most of us don't.

Authoritarianism is the enemy

One of the things that actively gets in the way of thinking for yourself is deference to authority figures on principle. Sometimes we defer to the authority of principles. An example of this is the "Microaggressions" trend in the US. That's just a fancy way of saying, "Passive aggression is a thing." You don't say! Really? I spent three years on the end of it on an internet community before I realised I'd be better off getting out of the toxic environment in which that kind of behaviour is welcome. It's not new, is what I'm saying. But the style and execution is. By using the language of offended dignity and arrogating to themselves the right to set the standards of social propriety, people engaging in microaggressions snipe at each other by accusing each other of causing offence. This then becomes a game of "No, you!" in which the winner is the most aggrieved person in the room with the most supporters and sympathisers. The most effective manipulator wins.

On the liberal side...

Political correctness is a prime example of this, and though it has many defenders, their arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. Protip: if your position on a given subject is actually solid, why talk about related things instead of the actual subject? It's good and right to be respectful but PC doesn't help much with that. I already know how to be polite, thank you. If you're afraid to say anything in case it offends someone, that's a problem, right there.

On the left...

Well it's great that Jeremy Corbyn now heads up the Labour party. And by all accounts he did a most excellent and praiseworthy job at Prime Minister's Question Time. In fact, he owned David Cameron, who apparently sat there looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights. And I'm glad he crowdsourced the questions he asked the PM. How very Pirate of him! I approve. However, there is a mile-wide streak of authoritarianism at the root of Socialist thought and I flat out distrust it. Any party on any part of the spectrum that demonises whole groups of people and blame them for everything as a group in order to scapegoat them is a problem in and of itself. I call foul on class warfare and bourgeois-bashing because they're the essence of the dinosaur politics I want to see left behind. None of those words mean what they used to mean any more and I find it hard to discuss these things with hard-left-wingers because they're more interested in propagating their stale ideology than in solving problems and making things better for all of us, not the favoured few. I'm not a member of the Sacred Society, nor do I want to be. If you think for yourself, ideology is a guideline, not a rule. That's where it falls apart. What Corbyn gets right is that he's not pushing the old tropes, he's actually representing his constituents. Well done, that man. Keep up the good work.

And on the right

While there is some variation on the right as a rule, it's not by much. The Rabid Right has been busily bashing Jeremy Corbyn (commie bike, anyone?) as a threat to the nation - and been royally mocked on Twitter for Red Scare-mongering. It only works on *some* of our American bretheren, folks. But yeah, they're going at it hammer and tongs and they're just making fools of themselves. Honestly, it creeps me out when people insist on total conformity, and Our Glorious Leaders are going the same way as our cousins across the pond.

It stops you thinking for yourself

Authoritarianism, in and of itself, is the enemy. By forcing us to accept the dominion of people, authority figures, or ideas, it robs us of agency and choice. Binary thinking is not thinking and "my way or the highway" is not a choice. Thinking for yourself means rejecting the choices provided for you and looking at the situation as it is, not how it's presented.

Emotions and opinions should not trump facts

I've been in near punch-ups on and offline over Basic Income and variations thereof, mostly because the people I argue with love the idea of a simplified way of providing not-actual-handouts-(but-they-are-really) to people, particularly themselves. And yes, if you're in the bracket that would actually benefit it would be loopy to oppose it since it's in your best interests to promote an idea that leaves you free to lie around on the couch all day at my expense benefit mankind and wha'ever, innit? But since I think for myself I ask awkward questions that the proponents never seem to be quite able to answer without resorting to logical fallacies, usually appeals to emotion. This doesn't work on me so don't bother.

Emotion-led opinions are harmful

Perceptions are subjective, which makes them hard to argue with. The Atlantic explains that many poor people actively oppose wealth redistribution on the grounds that they're doing well enough, thank you very much. Yeah, about that: the problem here is in the framing. "Redistribution" is a dog-whistle word that conjures up images of government-mandated thuggery as jackbooted officials kick your front door down in the middle of the night, grab your stuff, and give it away to total strangers to satisfy their sense of fairness. If you asked the people who inspired the article if they would prefer to be paid better and have access to tax-funded services I'm sure they'd say yes. I daresay they just don't want to feel like leeches for saying so.

People often trust "gut feelings" over facts

Last year, Vanessa Wamsley wrote in The Atlantic about how personal stories of vaccination experiences have more sway than medical information from a physician, or from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One skeptical mother she interviewed said: “Right now, the people telling their personal stories influence me more. I feel like the data could be flawed for one reason or another, but I feel like someone’s story, because they’ve gone through something, and they don’t want other people to go through it, I feel like I trust that more.”

This is why debating is so damn hard these days and often descends into the kind of petty name-calling that gets people muted on Twitter. Where tribal/brand loyalty or identity politics holds sway, logical debate goes flying out the window.

What can we do?

Insist on being logical no matter how much pressure is put on us. This sets an example that others can follow, which will hopefully result in a more reasonable society. The trouble is, when facts can't be established due to personal or political preferences, setting a standard for reality and truth is going to be an upward struggle. I won't stop, though. We'll never get anywhere if we can't or won't accept the truth of a matter and nothing will get any better till we do.

Am I right?

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