the danger of critical thinking

It’s been a week of polarizing, at least according to my Facebook newsfeed. In the wake of the overturning of Utah’s third amendment that defines marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman, opinions and positions packed the feed, my own included, as we both celebrated and complained about U.S. District Court Judge Robert J. Shelby overturning the amendment on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

Our brains defaulted to our own automatic attitudinal responses, in neurological speeds that don’t account for a suspension of bias or any tolerance for ambiguity. We aligned with primary certitudes about gay marriage that have become increasingly cured like hot cement that never had the pressure of a provisional footprint.

Primary certitudes drive our automatic attitudinal responses. We come by these in an interesting and pervasive process as a result of being raised in a strong content culture where we get the same messages and values over and over, becoming so saturated with the content that we surrender any provisional perspective. I’ve written an example of this in Smoking at Legoland where primary certitude resulted in an prejudiced evaluation. In a strong content culture that demonizes cigarette smoking through repetitive messages weekly in religious and cultural gatherings the outcome tends to result in a relationship between smoking a cigarette and being bad.

I grew up the same way, with the same cultural conditioning about people who smoke, but the primary certitude never cured in my brain because of the paradox I lived with, my parents. As parents do, they established the foundation for my moral compass, built character, instilled in me the golden rule, taught me tolerance, all the while smoking cigarettes.

There is no relationship between smoking and character, a strong content culture created that relationship through the force of repetition. Similar relationships have been established with the concepts of divorce, holidays, chastity, birth control, pork, alcohol, giving blood, as well as charitable donations, going to mass, taking the sacrament, reading scriptures, except on these latter, the relationship is between good and those mentioned actions where, again we abandon a provisional perspective. We’ve all been surprised to find out that a church-going person did something contrary to what we think a church-going person should do. That surprise is an affective result of our primary certitude.

A couple of behavioral tendencies grow out of cultural conditioning. One is hidden presumptions, beliefs that are so ingrained as fact that we do not believe they need to be proven at all. The other is ethnocentrism, the belief that our way of life or our culture is better than all others, the very conditioning from which stemmed the justification for the woman who walked into a train station this morning in Russia and detonated explosives killing sixteen people.

Hidden presumptions not only stem from primary certitude, they come from prejudice, intolerance of ambiguity and defensiveness. Our own prejudices prohibit us from hearing new information or ideas that are different from our own pre-determined standpoint. If messages are unclear or misunderstood, hidden presumption results in an intolerance of ambiguity, no patience with, nor critical attention to the question at hand, just defaulting to a polarized, pre-critical position. This results in the either/or fallacy where there are only two sides given to an issue, where in fact there are many more ways to see that issue. Defensiveness comes from acting on little information, jumping to conclusions on insufficient evidence and responding with our dukes up, ready to fight.

What all three of these have in common in sustaining our hidden presumptions is that they forbid or extinguish critical thinking, the provisional perspective.

Ethnocentrism is the result. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Ethnocentrism is the single most divisive influence in any strong content culture. It’s the reason our political process appears to be in shambles – a default attitudinal response. It’s the reason faith has been replaced by certainty – a primary certitude. It’s the reason why discrimination is justified, it’s why the prestige of the appearance of morality prevails in the intolerance of ambiguity. It’s the reason why we don’t treat others with differing opinions as equal.

This is nothing new. It’s just amplified now through the channels of social media. And that requires us to become more critical than ever, to create a provisional perspective.

Before you stop reading, allow me to assure that to create a provisional perspective does not require you to abandon your belief system. In fact, doing so has as much potential to strengthen your position as it does to reconsider it.

The provisional perspective is cultivated through a practice of critical thinking. This practice includes considering the sources of any position, of any evidence, any argument. Critical thinking identifies assumptions and presumptions, both your own and those of others. It has the ability to defend more than one side of an argument. The provisional perspective asks questions, it experiments and designs, it’s creative and definitional, it’s well informed, and it staves off conclusions until it’s satisfied that all the evidence has been considered.

That’s a lot of work. The automatic attitudinal response isn’t, it’s simply a default. The provisional perspective takes time and care. It’s considerate of others.

It’s also dangerous, with enough power to jack-hammer away at strong content cultural conditioning, leaving you with your own standpoint.

Sources for this post include; Herrick, James A. (2011). Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments, Fourth edition. Strata. And Larson, Charles U. Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, Eleventh edition. Thomson/Wadsworth.


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