‘Beyond our ideas of right doing and wrong doing there is a field I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, each other don’t make sense anymore.” RUMI a 13th century Sufi mystic.
What I think the quote refers to is that ideas of right and wrong do not apply when we contemplate concepts greater than ourselves. Right and Wrong concepts do not apply in the complex landscape of information download for our often confused and overwhelmed brains. Also it seems to suggest that when we think in black and white terms we have difficulty connecting with our family and friends let alone others who are quite different from ourselves. Xenophobia, racism and a rigid adherence to ideology all situate in the realm of right and wrong. In order to protect our civil rights and very survival needs we need to be judicious in our approach to analyzing information.
We have ample examples of misinformation, political spin, subterfuge and downright lies in mainstream and alternative media. Chris Hedges in his book “Empire of Illusion” suggests that people are living in Illusionary world where facts and reality have disappeared.The current state of US politics and the presidential race is a prime example of this. Facts and civility have taken a back seat to spectacle and deceptive rhetoric. We are in an age of anything goes media. Our previous Conservative government was big on ideology and short on facts and evidence-based actions. It muzzled scientists and tightly controlled information to the public.
The Brexit debate is another example of a breakdown of civility and faulty thinking. I listened to John Oliver, a comedian known for his strong social commentaries laying out the case for and against exiting the EU. Whether we agree or not, it was concerning when the case for staying appeared so reasoned and the campaign against appeared skewed and deceptive appealing to emotion and nationalism. The result to leave is devastating to many who believe in the EU, developing alliances and the idea of collaborating with others for mutual benefit. Do not get me wrong there are issues that need reform in the EU but I am discussing the campaigns presented in the public sphere. I do not know what the “truth” is because rarely issues are rarely black and white. Unfortunately the referendum and corresponding discourse rendered everything in highly convoluted terms. Now we see the result that indicates reasoned and critical thinking likely stayed on the back burner during the debate. It certainly reinforces for a lot of people that we certainly cannot sit back and trust that others will make the right decision.
This brings me to another point; how people form opinions and make decisions. Some of the questions that I think are crucial for critical thinking: What sources are the authors using for evidence and in whose interest are these claims made? Are these “experts” credible? Do they really serve the truth of the situation or are they puppets of another kind? The truth is embedded in the rhetoric and systems of power. It is not like RT or CNN or even CBC have the entire truth of a situation. Our BC news people tend to use the Fraser Institute often as a news source and yet they are heavily right wing with biased corporate-backed research. At one time they were the only source quoted but now for balance the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) is often quoted as an another source. We need balance in reporting and yet that is the very component that is missing in mainstream and alternate media and citizen journalism.
Rhetoric from John Oliver or Bill Maher in the late night comedy scene seems closer to the truth than CNN or RT but still they are only partly right. Knowing how to conduct a thorough analysis and, knowing what questions to ask are important. Especially now when media is concentrated in fewer hands and investigative reporters and researchers are a dying breed. News rooms are culled and spectacle and entertainment are an excuse for real news. Serious fact-checked news is in short supply. Internet news sources abound but are they accurate and credible?
Throughout history we have seen demagogues and dictators control information shared with the masses to keep them afraid and ignorant of what is really going on. I am afraid that we have more and more of this and, in addition, all of our communications are monitored by security agencies. We are so bombarded with information that it is difficult to know what the truth is. Many of us have good critical thinking skills but with so much information and so little time to sift out the garbage from the truth, we cannot do what we should be doing without a lot of work. In addition, the psychology of forming opinions suggests we are often overtaken by “confirmation bias” where we tend to privilege information that confirms our world view.
My generation was not raised with the Internet and 24 hour news cycles and we are very sceptical of authority. I am not so sure that Millennials, in particular, are as skeptical of the Internet but many of them do think our institutions and authority figures are inept and not serving their interests. They do not listen or watch the traditional media sources but alternate media some like “Alex Jones”and other conspiracy purveyors. Some seem to believe counter opinions and conspiracy claims on the Internet without actually using good analytical skills or knowing the history around the issue to discern whether the claims are credible.
Hregime of power and it takes critical thinking to untangle truth from fiction. It seems to me it really is worth the effort when we analyze what people, advertisers, the media and public relations spinners want us to know. It takes stepping back and asking some pertinent questions like “In whose interest is this information? Why is the truth not apparent in this information and why is it coloured with rhetoric? “ Where is the evidence for this statement? Does it fit my world view or is it a credible challenge to it?
Us older folks will not have to live with the consequences of faulty thinking but in the case of Brexit, young people who voted in low numbers are apparently the losers. This just may be a wake-up-call for those who are are not well informed or critical thinkers. There appears to be a lot of apathy fuelled by materialism and celebrity culture. Escapist pursuits are enticing when it’s hard to make sense of the world.
When we hear the statistics of sexual assault, rape and domestic violence that largely affects women and children, we are fearful for our daughters and sisters but the media focuses on other more sensational crimes such as gang wars and terrorists. In reality, the chances of these tragedies affecting our life are minute. Basically It seems to me that the system of how information is disseminated and analyzed is faulty and increasing our capacity to deconstruct it is absolutely essential. The personal is political and vice versa and critical thinking is the tool we must cultivate to make sense of what we are hearing and seeing. The consequences are dire if we don’t. Just ask the 20 and 30 somethings in the UK!
The philosophical question of “knowing is important .” To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” Nicolaus Copernicus
The University of Arizona has taken the Copernicus theorem further with their Curriculum on Medical Ignorance (CMI) and developed the “Ignorance Map”, which identifies:
Known Unknowns: all the things you know you don’t know.
Unknown Unknowns: all the things you don’t know you don’t know
Errors: all the things you think you know but don’t
Unknown Knowns: all the things you don’t know you know
Taboos: dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge
Denials: all the things too painful to know, so you don’t
—[acknowledgements to Perkins D (2009) Making Learning Whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education San Francisco; Jossey Bass p 241 for the link.]
Dan A Wilson, a retired professor of linguistics, pointed out that the greatest body of material that we don’t know that we know is the language we use so proficiently:
“Much of what we know, we know we know. Much of what we don’t know we know we don’t know. Less obvious to most people is that there are things we don’t know that we don’t know we don’t know . . . ). Least obvious to most people is that there are things we know that we don’t know we know.”
Michel Foucault the 20th century French philosopher is brilliant in his explanation of how truth can be extracted from our current milieu:. The problem is not changing people’s consciousness—or what’s in their heads- but the political, economic, institutional regime of the production of the truth. Its not a matter of emancipating truth from every system of power (which would be a chimera, for truth is already power), but of detaching the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic, and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.
In addressing the production of the truth we must address language. If we know the nuances of language and how it is used we begin to unravel the “truth”. Actually our very survival is dependent on being able to discern the “truth” and making decisions accordingly. When nutritionists themselves and the general public are not on the same page with what foods are good to eat, then we have a big job ahead to discern the truth. As in the example of Volkswagen and other auto makers, who have been lying to us for years about emissions and auto safety, we certainly cannot trust that corporations, insurance companies or governments have our best interest in mind. This is blind trust!
We might have to rely on local knowledge for some decisions and for matters political, voting, or our physical safety it is essential that we judiciously investigate until we are reasonably certain that we can believe the information. Even then it is incumbent on us to have a healthy scepticism, only then we have a reasonable chance of “knowing” and making good decisions for ourselves and the ones we love.