How To Think For Yourself.
A reaction to dogma in a time of Covid
I never liked authority. As soon as anyone ever told me to do something, my first question was always: why? When my parents told me not to drink, smoke, or hang around with bad people, I had to do all of it. In fact, for most of my life, I did the opposite of what people would tell me. It seems everyone has suddenly got all up on their goat about a revolution against conventional wisdom. When I was twenty studying philosophy, I was writing essays about disbanding the police, systemic racism and the ethics of private security firms, now it seems entire populations of people are just as possessed as I was with those ideas. Sure I was thinking, but was I really thinking for myself?
In this essay, I couldn’t tell you ‘what’ to think, but I can teach you how to think, how to avoid the pitfalls that lead your mind to become the nesting ground for somebody else’s thoughts, an ideology. You have probably heard the word ideology a lot and think that they are a bunch of ideas, which is not strictly correct. An ideology is a low-resolution picture of reality, a single explanatory principle for the complexities of the world, and in some sense, we all start with an ideology. We have our suspicion of how the world works, and we plug that information into every intellectual dilemma we see in the big bad world, and if our bias is confirmed, then hey presto, we have the answer to everything! My ideology, as I have mentioned, was that the west was a corrupt tyranny. Capitalism was terrible, and we needed a new revolution to tear the whole thing down. I don’t know if I was taught this view at college or at home or if it was just the style at the time, but I was as radical as radical could possibly be.
Most young people are revolutionaries, it’s a stereotype really, you have to be because you are at the bottom of the hierarchy. When you start as a young person, you have no name, you are no one. You have to make your mark on a massive society and having ‘the answer’ can undoubtedly facilitate this process. If you, like me, were a bit vengeful, narcissistic, and not taking your potential seriously, you can start to imagine the way to the top of the hierarchy is only through corruption and feel morally superior for forsaking the process entirely. The people at the top cheat their way there, win the genetic lottery, and get all their money from their parents. The reality is that the majority of millionaires (79%, The National Study of Millionaires 2019) received no inheritance at all, and only 2% of millionaires surveyed describe themselves as coming from an upper-class family. An ideology gives you what you want, but never what you need. As the poet Derek Mahon puts it in his poem Ecclesiastes: ‘close one eye and be king’. Because maybe if both were open, you wouldn’t look so rosy.
We think that people have ideas, but in my experience, ideas have people. We have our bias, and then we make up the reasoning afterward. We choose a package of ideas that suits our bias, and if you want comfort, you’ll select easy ideas. Most of us are too busy, too hectic, to really consider all the ideas we are discussing, yet there is a massive pressure to be informed and up to date. Thinking for yourself is not so much building a house, but more unwinding a ball of string. At the end of each string is your puppet master, a temperament, a weakness, a fear, which makes you vulnerable to possession by these spirits of emotion masked as reasoning. The boring and unpalatable truth I’ve come to learn in my 26 years on the earth, my 7 years of writing, and 3 years of Philosophy is that no complex phenomena has one explanatory principle. There is no ‘saving truth’. Usually, there are many factors to be dealt with in resolving the problem, and often there is no final solution at all, only hard work.
When you are possessed by an ideology, you are like a bad workman who only has a hammer, a bad worker man who only has a hammer will see every problem as a nail. Every problem is not a nail, and every nail is not a problem, but you have to lay your hammer down to see the real problem. The hammer prevents you from seeing the truth of the other issues. This problem is a quirk of perception.
There is a test of perception (selective attention test or invisible gorilla test) where a group of people are playing basketball, and you are asked to watch how often they pass the ball. At some point during the exercise, a man in a gorilla costume will walk out onto the court and do a little dance. He is there for quite a while and is about 6’5, and yet 50% of people will not see the gorilla during the video at all. That is because our perception screens out information that does not help us achieve our goal. So how you think for yourself isn’t about confirming the ideas in your head but removing the illusions that are stopping you from seeing the truth. We actually see the world very differently from one another, and as my mother says, we are like the three blind men with an elephant, one has a hand on the trunk, another on the tail and one has the leg, and as individuals, they think they’ve found a snake, a mouse, and a tree. Only through shared perception can we get the whole picture.
Anyone who read my article ‘How To Stop Over-Thinking’ will have an idea of how complex an ecosystem our minds are and how difficult it can be to decipher what is you and what is an emotion, or what might be what you had for lunch that afternoon. This idea might seem strange if you are used to thinking that everything in your head is you, but Sigmund Freud pointed out a long time ago that ‘we are not masters in our own house’. That’s why I laugh so much at the idea of ‘implicit bias’ training, honestly if anyone manages to find a successful means of rewriting their subconscious, let me know. The best way the psychoanalysts found was through dream analysis! I like the idea of the middle-class liberal women desperately searching through the manifest content of their dreams for racial stereotypes; they could well find some.
The first step of how to think for yourself is to realise you are imperfect. Ideological positions always promise something absolute, a utopia, a final solution, if you think about say Scientology, you have these negative guilty feelings called thetans then they offer you the ‘clearing’ process to remove your negative feelings. The problem is we will always have negative feelings, we will always be uncertain, so you get stuck in the cult for the next 40 years until you wise up; an expensive lesson in reality. You can think of ideologies as the conceptual equivalent of those home shopping ads, ‘The best hoover in the world! The hoover of your dreams! You will never need another hoover again!’ Ideologies are junk food thinking because they cater to our worst impulse, the desire for finality. Eureka i’ve got it! It’s a really annoying problem because life is so confusing, can’t we just have one answer? One thing that we can use to get through the minefield and obstacle course of existence? One God, we can believe in? And the answer is no. No, you have to wrestle between your perceptions and your ideals to find truth until you pop your clogs and you will fail most of the time. (I’m getting very zen in my old age.)
One example of an ideological tool would be ‘corruption,’ you’ve probably heard your mental uncle at Christmas, that no matter what happens in the world, there’s a conspiracy underneath. The answer to everything is ‘corruption.’ No matter what the problem is, nothing is as it seems. Corruption is a problem, but the problem with ideologies is they reflect some truth but not the whole truth. The doctrine on the left is ‘prejudice.’ gender wage gap? Prejudice. Prison incarceration gap? Prejudice. Wealth inequality? Prejudice. None of these problems is the same, so why would they all have the same answer? If you are coming to the same conclusion every time you address a disparity, you are not addressing the disparity. Bias could well be one of the issues, but like the conspiracy theorist, you are biased towards ‘prejudice’, which is kind of ironic.
The beginning of thinking for yourself is learning that you don’t have the answer and that complex social phenomenon often doesn’t have just one explanation, they need quite a few. Often the other reasons aren’t in the limelight of our perception. They are cast in shadows that require us to re-think our positive emotions and descend into the elephant’s graveyard of negative emotions to poke holes in our new and shiny balloon. There is an extra effort between ideology and thinking for yourself, which I call love. Few are willing to go the extra distance to take a couple of steps in the wrong direction; only those that love the truth and are willing to humble themselves will go on.
Patience and discipline allow you to think for yourself. What is massively under threat in our society is the nuance of opinion; the piece of the elephant we each possess. Problems in life are not mathematical equations, and their solutions are more like works of art. If your work of art looks like everyone else’s, you have failed in your job as an artist. Your answer should be as nuanced and unique as you are. This is basic stuff but worth reiterating, like in primary school when the teacher said ‘use your own words’. Be very suspicious if someone tries to tell you what to say, lest you end up a character in someone else’s play; thinking for yourself is writing your own dialogue.
When your thinking is nuanced, you are no longer possessed by ideology, and nuanced thinking is the only hope of solving complex problems. You don’t have to say what I am saying, in fact, it is paramount that you don’t. To think for yourself, you need the confidence to stand behind your own conscience and experience, and the best way to do this is to work hard. I’ve had to test all my ideas out across time, some good, mostly bad. You apply them, watch the fruits of your labour, and determine if you have met failure or success; fail, then fail better. Thinking for yourself, much like ‘stopping overthinking’, is a never-ending process. You must always be conscious, always paying attention, always disciplined, and always questioning. Thinking for yourself is a lifelong fight.
The final tip on ‘How to think for yourself is to read BOOKS. I recently made a tweet;
‘learning how to think from Instagram quotes is like learning Spanish from a Pitbull song.’
Catchy phrases, and jingoistic rhetoric, make you feel like you’ve learned something but, in reality, it’s superficial and forgettable. Even articles like this one can only give you a subsection of the depth of reading required to have a proper context for basic facts, only by disciplined reading can you get a nuanced opinion.
What I see as the realist danger to our society at the moment is our conformity of thought. Conformity is a strong power and tends to stick groups together like psychological glue and can make you feel very powerful, but the problem is it doesn’t come off. Suddenly we no longer know our right from left, our up from our down, and panic sets in. I could feel the pull of conformity lately in my gut, the lure of the void and the disintegration of individual conscience in the crowd’s approval, a tasty cake, but I don’t trust tasty cakes. I never liked crowds, and I never liked authority. So no matter how much effort it takes, I will continue to think for myself. Never be ashamed of thinking for yourself because we all have a little piece of that elephant, no matter what people say, ‘your piece is wrong’, ‘it doesn’t matter, do not believe them, believe in the truth of your own experience. This loss of shared humanity is the real shame of discrimination; you lose the magic of another person’s perspective, of their experience in the world, and you stay the corrupt king with one eye shut. The real threat and enemy of progress was and always will be; orthodoxy.