The Accidental Teacher: An Essay and Memoir (Part 9)

I have had a pretty unique job during most of my adult life.  I have been a teacher—for what seems like forever now—but I’ve never really been the sort who wanted my students to become more knowledgeable, which I associate with acquiring information.  Instead, I have tried to help them hone skills that promote wisdom or shrewdness.  In other words, I haven’t focused on what they should know but on how they should know.  “How” one knows is often referred to as thinking.

Most people believe that thinking comes naturally to everyone because we’re all born with brains.  It’s true we’re born with this organ, but there is a world of difference between run-of-the-mill thinking and critical thinking (or good thinking), just as there is a world of difference between the sounds made when my untrained fingers hit the keys of a piano and the music produced by a world-class concert pianist when his or her fingers touch the ivory.

There are a million things which interfere with good thinking.  At the moment, I don’t have time to get into all these factors.  The old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” explains one of the most important influences on our intellectual development.  Most grow up thinking in the same way their parents did and thus believing in the same things too.  Our parents are our first models and their influence leaves a deep imprint.  To be able to “fall far from the tree” requires that we have to, at some point, question our parents’ way of seeing the world and this takes great courage.  In fact, there is no activity in life that requires more bravery than to think critically because to do so one must sometimes say “no” when important others (or maybe even the whole community or world) is saying “yes.”  Saying no when others are saying yes can be costly or even dangerous.  It’s certainly easier (and more comfortable) to just go with the flow.

I’m thinking a lot about thinking these days because that’s what I do.  Plus, it is campaign season in America and that means the news is full of stories about powerful and ambitious people putting their thinking on display in an attempt to get others to vote for them.  In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll just go ahead and tell you that politicians with the most progressive points of view generally tend to think a lot better—I’m not talking about their ideas, which I also find attractive, but about the methods they use to formulate their ideas and then state them to the public—than do conservatives.  Political conservatives—I actually like to call them “regressives”—make a lot of very classical thinking mistakes that many others might not catch because they aren’t trained to look for them the way I am.  In fact, regressive politicians often make arguments that simply leave me shaking my head.  The fact that so many Americans find such unskilled thinking attractive often makes me despair about the future of the country.

At this point I should probably tell you that I made myself a promise several years ago.  I promised to do whatever was necessary to become the best thinker I could possibly become even if this meant that I would ultimately have to embrace very unpopular ideas.  In my attempt to constantly improve myself intellectually, I often find myself butting heads with what is called “conventional wisdom,” which is mostly a first-rate oxymoron.

I want to conclude by reiterating something I said in a previous blog.  Critical thinking is a way of being.  It is a method of living life with great integrity.  It is not something I turn on and off at will.  It has become the way I conduct myself in this world.

My Recent Twitter Spat with a Conservative

I don’t post very much on Twitter. That’s mostly because I find it very hard to say what I want in only 140 characters—I’m generally more expansive than that. So I enjoy lurking there. It’s immediate and allows all sorts of voices, which I like.

Having said that, some voices bother me more than others do. Bigots and political conservatives are two of the bothersome kinds of people I see posting on Twitter. Actually, not surprisingly, bigotry and conservatism often go hand in hand. It’s not that I believe that such people should keep their mouths shut. It’s just I wish they would take the time to think a bit before tweeting. Or, if that’s too much to ask, then to make sure they don’t post things that are factually incorrect.

I see so many posts about Obama being a secret Muslim and/or Supporter of Terrorists and/or Communist and /or Socialist. Ninety-nine percent of the time I just roll my eyes and ignore such gibberish. It’s not that I’m in love with Obama and thus want to scream at people who say bad things about him. Actually, I’ve said plenty of bad things myself. But I generally try to make sure my criticisms are not based on obvious falsehoods and misrepresentations of reality.

I recently saw a tweet by a woman named “J_.” According to her profile, she hails from Texas and describes herself as a “conservative” and “libertarian” who loves “America,” “the military,” “guns,” and so on and so forth. In her tweet she said we have to remember that Obama “supported the Muslim Brotherhood” during their time in power. And then she included a link to this article.

I read the whole piece, including this paragraph, the sixth one, which I’ve cut and pasted below:

“Upon further inspection though, it seems that while the Egyptian qualms hold some water, the American complaints appear to be more recognizable as mere partisan discourse. The money, said to be intended for the MB, is actually for the Egyptian military and is obligated to be used to pay U.S. defense and security companies providing equipment and support for the military, according to the Guardian.”

I immediately stopped reading and tweeted a response. I asked her, “Did you even read the article?” Of course, I was not surprised by the information in paragraph six. Anyone who knows even the most basic facts about America’s aid to Egypt knows that the vast majority goes to the military, thus allowing them to buy all sorts of new equipment, a cute way of funneling money into the coffers of American companies that build armaments and such. Furthermore, since it was the armed forces that removed Mohamed Morsi from power, it can very easily be argued that by giving aid to this group, the US government played a key role in the overthrowing of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Of course, coming to these kinds of conclusions requires a careful examination of the facts of the case and the ability to do nuanced thinking. J_ seemed either unwilling or incapable of doing either of these things. Or perhaps she was aware she was deliberately distorting the evidence and simply wanted to smear Obama. The most likely explanation is that J_ was simply too intellectually lazy to read the entire article and thus missed the key sixth paragraph.

To make a long story short, after about three more exchanges, she blocked me. Before doing that, she tweeted a response that included the hashtag #LiberalLies. Not surprisingly, she failed to see the hypocrisy of her tweet. So I pointed it out to her and then created a hashtag of my own—#ConservativeLies.

I tell this story because J_ seems to be a typical case. Conservatives very frequently seem to view facts and evidence as of little importance. They build elaborate arguments based on hunches, prejudices, things they heard their neighbor say, or whole cloth. Do you remember how George W. Bush used to talk about “thinking” with his gut?

This recent twitter exchange has got me wondering. Perhaps we progressives need to start being a lot more aggressive in confronting distortions of the sort I’ve written about here? Because we are generally tolerant people, perhaps we take it on the chin too often without punching back? Maybe, given what we’re up against, we have to start being as pugilistic as the other side?