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Interesting times...



Like most people, I have some pretty strong opinions, but my goal with this blog was to keep it primarily professional, so I keep many of those opinions to myself.

Today, however, I will make an exception, but still focus on something that is important in our professional lives. Specifically, I think that critical thinking and analytical thinking are vital skills in all aspects of our lives.

As an example, I thought of the “Chinese curse” referred to in the title to this post. I have long “known” that “may you live in interesting times” is a traditional Chinese curse, but a quick Wikipedia check for a source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_you_live_in_interesting_times) led me to the realization that what I had “known” for so many years was simply untrue.

I am a big fan of David McRaney’s podcast, “You are not so smart” (https://youarenotsosmart.com/, or “YANSS”). In it, Mr. McRaney discusses issues related to psychology and interviews experts who demonstrate that humans are not nearly as rational as we like to think. He focuses on our attempts to understand how our thought processes work, or do not, as the case often is.

In many episodes of YANSS, the discussion is around how we react to information that challenges our previous understanding of the world. With “neutral” facts, such as the source of a quote like the one above, my response to learning that I was wrong about it was to think: “Hm. That’s interesting.”

But, when exposed to information which can be seen as threatening our identity (personal or political, for example), we respond in the same way as we do when we are physically threatened. Our “fight-or-flight” response (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fight-or-flight_response) is triggered, and we have exactly one heartbeat’s worth of time before our system is flooded with adrenaline and our mindset shifts into “survival mode”. (See Rory Miller’s excellent book comparing martial arts training with real-world violence for a discussion on this: https://www.amazon.ca/Meditations-Violence-Comparison-Martial-Training/dp/1594391181)

In this mode of thinking, nuance is lost, and things are reduced to basic yes-no decisions. Fortunately, however, where there is no direct physical threat, we have the ability to pause, breathe, and start thinking more deliberately.

This is a learned skill, but if everyone did this, we’d live in a very different world, but we would still need critical thinking skills to allow us to process and verify the information we receive.

When applying critical thinking to the current political situation faced by our US neighbours, it seems clear to me that the REAL problems are polarization, lack of nuance, and lack of critical thinking.

To see the polarization, I highly recommend a YouTube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tEczkhfLwqM) from Business Insider, which describes how voting patterns have shifted in the US over the past 60 years. It looks like nothing so much as cells dividing. While there are degrees of polarization everywhere, it appears to have become quite toxic in the US recently – to the point that collaboration is becoming less and less possible between parties.

This polarization seeps into nearly everything, and is tied to a near-total lack of nuance in any discussion. One highly-charged example of this is reproductive health policies – even the terms used are politically-charged. (Disclaimer: White, cis-gendered, straight male, who is pro-choice.)

The lack of nuance can be seen in those who appear to consider the “morning-after” pill, termination of a pregnancy in the first trimester, termination of a pregnancy in later stages, and the murder of a newborn as exactly equivalent. When I apply critical thinking to this position, my head starts to hurt – I am totally unable to find a chain of reasoning where these situations are exactly equivalent. And without at least SOME common ground, it is very hard to do more than talk past each other.

Further, I see examples where the same people (the Catholic church, as an example) are against both birth control AND abortion, even though there is clear evidence that abortion rates fall when birth control is freely available. I find this baffling as well, but I think the important point is that people should consider the implications the positions they hold have on other positions they hold – at least that way we can be at least a bit more consistent.

I realize that I may have lost some people who have differing opinions regarding reproductive rights, but that’s the point – the polarization and lack of nuance is preventing people from even discussing their differences in a reasonable way.

I picked the US as an example due to the upcoming election, but we see challenges everywhere, and if we are to survive as a global society, we need to figure out how to resolve them.

For any democratic country, the first place to start is to vote. Your vote will not fix everything, and it may not appear to fix anything in the short term, but it is a fundamental method we have to select our own path. And, even if you don’t have a candidate that you “like”, you almost certainly have a candidate that you don’t like, or like less. Don’t give up your opportunity to make your position known.

When you think about a candidate for anything, a few things to think about:

  • To what degree do they reflect your values?

  • Do their words and deeds match?

  • Would you trust that person to take care of your children?

In this contentious time, questions like this are more important than ever.

I’d like to conclude with two quotes which strike me with particular relevance and resonance.

The first is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_Have_a_Dream), which I think everyone should listen to, and read, and try to understand. Sadly, Dr. King’s dream has not yet come true, but that just makes it more important for people to share it and pursue it.

“I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The second, spoken by former President Barack Obama more than fifty years later (https://www.dailydot.com/debug/obama-slams-trump-over-failure-to-condemn-nazis/), pushes back on the point I made about polarization and nuance, but I am quite comfortable with it. I think everyone should think about it very carefully before they vote:

“How hard can that be, saying that Nazis are bad?”

VOTE!!!

Cheers!

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