I’ve been trying to do some thinking—which is harder than I thought. I’ve tried it a few times before, but what’s made this latest attempt particularly difficult is that I’ve been trying to think about thinking.
This is Alan Jacobs’ fault. A Baylor University professor, Dr. Jacobs has recently written a book entitled How To Think. I figured he wrote it because as a college professor grading thousands of student papers, he sees firsthand how rare it is for real thinking to occur. But a better clue to the book’s purpose is its subtitle: “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.”
You don’t have to think about it much to realize that lots of us don’t think much. But almost all of us think that folks who disagree with us socially, politically, religiously, etc., are folks who don’t think much at all—or at least not very well. It turns out that we have more in common with those folks than we think: none of us think enough about trying to recognize even the iceberg’s tip of the biases we all bring with us to our own thinking.
Jacobs has a name, by the way, for “those folks.” He calls them “repugnant cultural others” or RCOs, for short. We all have RCOs, and we all are RCOs for somebody else.
Here’s the rub. We don’t like those “other” folks. We actually do find them pretty repugnant. It doesn’t take long to think about the way hard-line Republicans feel about dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, for example. Then pick out any of a jillion other groups or issues and, well, there you have it.
We don’t understand those folks; we don’t like those people. We don’t plan to understand those folks; we don’t plan to like those people. Which means we almost always succeed in our plan. This all means, of course, that we don’t know each other, and we don’t intend to. Knowing each other just a little, we might like each other even less, but . . . well, we might be surprised to find that we actually do share a few likes/dislikes. Chocolate, or something.
Sadly, disastrously for any kind of dialogue, we listen to social or other foes for about two seconds before in our social media-ravaged minds, we hit Like or Dislike and start mentally (or actually) tweeting. Jacobs recommends that we listen to each other for a few minutes, all the while being vigilantly on our guard lest we immediately enter “Refutation Mode.” That’s when we quit listening and start formulating our own arguments. Then he suggests waiting for almost an eternity—five minutes (twenty-four hours is better)—before beginning an assessment of the other person’s opinion.
By the way, true and false are real deals. Some other folks’ convictions really are grounded in truth; some are truly false. Yes, and the same is true in the mirror. But we’ll come a lot closer to learning something when we realize that we all have a lot to learn—particularly from folks we’d love to never listen to.
If we don’t think we have any biases that at times foul up our own thinking, Jacobs suggests a quick perusal of a Wikipedia article, “List of Cognitive Biases.” It is, as he warns, depressing to see how seriously affected our thinking is by biases that have almost nothing to do with the issue at hand. Oh, we still may be correct on the issue. But being aware of our tendency to be biased can produce a couple of real blessings: better thinking and deepening humility. Both make for fewer rifts and better relationships.
Hmm. It seems that I remember Jesus telling us to love God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. And didn’t St. James say something about being “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (1:19)? I’m thinking that’s wise counsel.