Sunday, August 8, 2021

A Guide for Developing Critical Skills for Thinking About the World

 Michael D. Benton: A Guide for Developing Critical Skills for Thinking About the World (original 2019, last revised April 14, 2023)

For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hard-liners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals. -- Asghar Farhadi (Oscar winner for best foreign picture A Separation in 2012; Oscar nominated for Best Foreign picture The Salesman in 2016; banned by the Trump administration from entering the United States to attend the 2016 Oscars.)
What is needed is to hold oneself like a sliver to the heart of the world. -- Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 1967) 
If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. -- Lilla Watson, Indigenous Australian/Murri artist, activist & academic (1985: she refers it more properly to originating from aboriginal activist groups in Queensland in the 1970s)
(These are focused on what we can do immediately and what we can cultivate in ourselves in order to realize a better society. The focus is on how we think and being critical about what we feed our brains. Of course, there are huge systemic issues that must be addressed, but I believe this is an initial step for preparing ourselves to think through these problems. Before you start, work on preparing your mind, body and spirit, follow these basic healthy everyday practices: exercise/movement throughout your day; cultivate a healthy diet; seek to get at least 8 hrs of solid sleep on a regular basis; get outside regularly to get vitamin D and experience the living world; do your best to attend real-life social events and communicate/interact with people in a non-customer service relationship; limit your screen time, especially before bed - take long media/internet breaks/fasts throughout your year)

For those that want to think about changing their community/society/world for the better. Develop this in yourself and cultivate it in others:

As citizens of a globalized world it is imperative that we begin to develop a broader awareness of the interconnected cultures and societies that influence and shape world events. Anyone remotely aware of the American social/cultural landscape must recognize that many of our citizens are unaware of the broader relations and connections of the world in which they live in. Many Americans tend to have a narrow understanding of world history, they are educated through banal, corporate textbooks and informed through mediatized narratives filtered through the lenses of the dominant center, both of these effectively ignore the realities of the margins (culturally, economically and socially). Many concerned citizens struggle to carve out meaning in the contemporary data stream and suffer the neglect of a mainstream media that limits itself to predigested dualistic positions. In this simplified media environment, vast regions of the world (and in the USA) are presumed to be unable to speak for themselves and rarely, in the mainstream corporate media that serves as the news for a majority of American citizens, do we receive sustained and in-depth critical analysis of issues through the voices and experiences of multiple interested perspectives.

Recognize the power of questions and do not let others silence/stifle your curiosity. Remember all knowledge is incomplete and in development. Life is too vast for any one
person/group/theory/discipline/profession/religion/culture/nation to grasp and understand. Take responsibility for your education/understanding. Learning is not passive. Any teacher/mentor worth the title knows that they are at best facilitators for your learning. Good teachers lay out a map, point out the paths for potential discovery, detours, and connections. Remember education involving ideas and perspectives - if it has a narrative, it is constructing a worldview - is never objective. Pay attention to the way that knowledge is presented/represented to you.

Do not be afraid to be sensitive. Resist the defensive mechanism of building a shell that insulates you from the realities of the world and cultivate empathy for all beings. A major stumbling block is believing you have to be perfect - we are humans, it isn't going to happen. However, do not solely become focused on your flaws/insecurities as that can paralyze you. Be critical and honest with yourself. Work on what you can, be honest with others as much as possible. Be careful of taking too much on ... do not overload yourself unnecessarily. Figure out what is important to you and what you can actually do.

Resist the social pressures to fear that which is different. Seek out different ways of being and seeing. Develop an understanding/knowledge about your world based upon engaged interactions/experiences with different people/cultures/beings. You do not have to accept what others say or do, but you do need to be open to what they are saying in order to learn from them (good or bad). Be suspicious of those that fear interaction with different ways of seeing/being as some kind of social/moral contamination. It says more about the corruption/insecurities of their beliefs/identity/associations than it does about those they fear.

Develop your empathy for others and fight against social injustices. Investigate/research the broad historical context for why something is the way it is. Avoid accepting the simple explanation/histories (and stereotypes). Be suspicious of the single, simple story that only provides one perspective, voice or cause. Ask what is missing from the frame that someone provides to understand an issue/problem. Map out your own perspective/beliefs. Where did they come from? Are they the product of your own explorations/experiences, or, were they learned at the knees of others? If your perspective/beliefs are genuine they can withstand examination & questioning. Be as critical with yourself as you are with others. Think through any proposal/resolution you wish to make. What are the implications and consequences of doing this or that? Remember, many of the horrors of our world (historically and contemporary) are the actions of people believing that what they are doing is the right thing to do.

Resist sliding into solipsism. Get outside. Build coalitions. Know that there is power in collective struggle (this is why authoritarian power structures often try to brutally suppress it). Recognize that you can't do it all yourself. Be critical of those who pursue/profess the fantasy that they have done it all on their own. Develop your voice and perspective (very important and necessary), but make sure you always engage with other voices/perspectives. Just as important as actively engaging/learning with/from those we admire, is actively discussing/learning with/from those we disagree with. Do not be afraid to admit you do not know about something, use it as an opportunity/inspiration to learn from another or later on your own. Regularly think about and question your own perspective/beliefs. It is easy to slip into a feedback loop and hard for us to perceive what is outside our goldfish bowl.

When developing a critique/argument learn what you are discussing as well as, if not better, than the proponents of what you are critiquing. Use their direct statements in order to represent their positions. Read/watch/listen-to as much as you can from their side and if at all possible discuss directly with supporters/advocates of what you wish to critique. Think about what your intent is, if it is to convince people to understand and maybe even agree with your perspective then do not engage needlessly in rude/insulting dismissals/attacks.

Be suspicious of any attempt to state: “this is the way it is and the way it always will be" or "that could never happen." Do not make 'blanket generalizations' about groupings/classifications of people. Avoid slipping into usage of stereotypes. Know your history (individual/family/community/society) and make the connections to other histories. Notice similarities and differences. Do not look down on another culture because they drive on the "wrong" side of the road. Learn to recognize the social construction of reality (practices/rituals/laws/taboos/values etc...). Remember that nothing human in this world simply came out of a vacuum and nothing will last forever.

If you feel the call to lead, cultivate transparency and demand the same of anyone else that attempts to lead. Leadership is service to your community, be suspicious of those that use leadership positions for self-aggrandizing stroking of their own ego. If you are in a leadership position, do not seek to punish or marginalize those that ask critical questions. Use their engagement to sharpen your own awareness and as an opportunity to think about how you can serve your community better. Most importantly, do not allow yourself to become isolated from the community you serve. Admit your mistakes and never fear to change course. Only fanatics/dictators/bullies believe they are always right (or that they know everything) and everyone else is wrong.

Recognize that the world we experience is heavily mediated (and what we call "mainstream media" is controlled by 5/6 corporations). Be critical about the information and entertainments you absorb, recognizing that in our media they often work hand in hand. Learn about propaganda/disinformation techniques so that you can defend your headspace and not mindlessly propagate misinformation. Seek periods of silence and reflection in order to be open to the universe in yourself. Constant noise/chatter is destructive to critical thought/awareness. Remember that technology/entertainments can act like a diversionary drug distracting us from the actual details and doings of the world. Even the intense pursuit of knowledge can isolate and distract if it becomes all consuming. Think of the political junkie, isolated intellectuals, fundamentalist believers, or sports' obsessives who become lost in their limited perspectives. Take breaks from the pursuit of knowledge/information or life online.  

Read a book - I repeat, read a book. Even if it is just one book a year carefully absorbed and reflected upon. You will learn immersively about that subject more than any surfing/sifting of endless internet texts/videos can provide. Use it as a training model for slowing down at times. Cook a meal and eat without distractions. Hang out quietly at a favorite outdoor place. I'm quite fond of babbling water sites and vast forests. Enjoy the wordless company of a special person. Just be at times.

Take the time to reflect. I like writing out my thoughts, but that is not the preferred medium for everyone and should not be over-privileged as the only/best way. Creative people, in their art & discourse, of all sorts, think through and reflect upon their existence in this world and their observations. Draw, make music, sing (even badly), bodily art (in adornment and through meditative exercise), dance as if nobody's watching, refine a physical practice (yoga, martial arts, sports, etc...), the options for reflection and thoughtful presence are endless.

Cultivate a conversational style, a great form of reflection, making sure that you take breaths, providing openings for others to engage, because dialogue can never be monologic (single voiced).  Listen to people, allow them to explain their views, and ask sincere question so you can develop an understanding of what they actually believe/mean (rather than what you think they do).  It takes time to understand another. Listen to the non-human world. Observation of non-human animals and the forces of nature provide vitally important lessons for being in this world. 

Be passionate and love fearlessly.  I'm a great admirer of Dr. Cornel West whose thinking/speaking style is always developed from a place of love for others, even when he is fiercely critiquing them.  Listen to the way he talks, and in doing so thinks, it is powerful. Also cultivate your love for other living beings and places, which, for an animist like me, are living beings. Resist our culture of cynicism and superficiality. Learn/practice radical love, that is not controlling or dominating. This is no way a critique of the pleasures of consensual sexual play, it is instead a rejection of the forms of controlling and dominating the essence of another to feed one's ego.

The historian Howard Zinn reminds us that mindless obedience is more dangerous than disobedience. He also rejects the notion that we can ever truly be objective or free of bias ("you can't be neutral on a moving train"). The political theorist Noam Chomsky's intellectual lifework has served as a lesson that the "myth of objectivity" always serves the interests of abusive power and promotes a monologic culture - the most dangerous form of culture. Speak truth to power, even when your voice shakes.  Resist dogma, especially your own. Check your privilege, if you don't think you have privilege, ask others.

Take care of your body. What you feed your mind and body matters. They are not separate, each depends on the health of the other. Exercise both, but be comfortable with your own particular body/mind and do not let others, or your culture, try to squeeze you into a limiting, pre-determined, box. Avoid being trapped by our funhouse media into becoming obsessed with your body image. Be aware of how social media sites and other media seek to make you insecure for their benefit/profits.

Focus on questions, before you attempt answers. Once you have some answers, start asking the questions again. Be wary of those that seek to frame the questions and profess to know the only answers:

Materialities—how does the stuff of the world impact us?
Spatialities—how do spaces and places, including the way that they are perceived, used, and regulated, gain and lose force/impact on our lives?
Temporalities—how does perceived time (including the way in which we construct a temporal reality) shape our relations in the world?
Culture/community—how is our subjectivity (inter)dependent on our communal/cultural environments?
Representation--What is ‘described’ or given life in the representation (objects)? What are the ‘links’ or ‘hinges’ between whatever is being described (relations)? What are the assumptions about what may be ‘known’ about objects or relations (epistemology)? What are the assumptions about what it is to know or ‘be a knower’ (subjectivity)?
Modalities—how does the subject know? Textually? Visually? Audially? Corporeally? Cognitively? Emotionally? Aesthetically? Magic/Mystic source?
Knowledge--If society is organized around conflict between groups with different forms and degrees of power, do these differences result in multiple valid accounts of the world? What is the relationship between authority and knowing? What typifies the “everyday” and what insights might we gain from its study? What are the hierarchies we privilege in our understanding? What knowledge do we exclude or ignore (and does it matter, in our worldviews, what we are ignorant of)?
Power--How is inequality maintained by existing social structures and what means are used to challenge these situations? Which social structures promote egalitarian ideals? Which social structures depend on a top-down, authoritarian model? Are contemporary forms of knowledge solely dictated by the entrenched interests of power, or are they becoming democratically organized by the acceptance of multiple accounts of the truth? Are power structures destabilized by the propagation of a recognition a multiplicity of truths, or does structural power remain constitutive even of subversive forces (bringing the outside, inside, making it safely a part of that authoritarian force)?

If anyone is struggling. I can't promise you it will get better or all of your problems will be solved. However, I do know that the struggle is worth it and there is so much to learn/experience/share. Get outside, do things with other living beings (human or otherwise - I find animals & plants to be great friends), learn about your world (intellectually and experientially - learn-about/experience other people's/cultures/ways of being), do not shut yourself off or isolate yourself (including in the funhouse media mirrors). Keep your elasticity (think of the wonderful elasticity of your mind when you were a child) - be open to the wonders of the world. Reach out when you need someone! Be there for those that reach out to you.

We live in the best of times in which we are able to learn about the world and its incredible diversity of cultures/beings/places/perspectives in a way never historically possible. 
We live in the worst of times when we are able to confidently isolate ourselves completely from anything different from our own narrow view/conception of the world/reality while believing that we are informed. 
The choice is yours! -- Michael Benton


Addendum (April 14, 2023):

I do not think any relationship with thinking is dangerous if it involves an awareness of multiple sides/versions and takes notice of the context in which it's produced/engaged in. Like Hannah Arendt, using the example of Eichmann, or Emma Goldman on ignorance, I believe that non-thinking is the more dangerous action/state (and it is willful and active). Partial/incomplete understanding as a part of thinking put into action used to enact a policy/organization/law/ideology/belief-system that is proclaimed/meant to be the only truth (excluding/persecuting any alternative truths), may be the most dangerous of all.

If there is conflict/war - seek to be a force for peace
If there is poverty - seek to share the wealth
If there is sickness (physical, mental, spiritual) - seek to bring healing to all, no matter their status
If there is ignorance and misinformation - seek to adequately fund public education for all and to be a force for critical thinking
If the planet is sick - seek to bring clarity to the situation and put everything you can into addressing the problem

Do not side with the powerful over the poor
Do not engage in fear-mongering
Diversify your sources of experiences/information/entertainment
Speak the truth even if your voice shakes

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