Are you a critical thinker?
Answering this question is a lot harder than you might think. Everyone believes they are from within their own paradigm, but true critical thinkers are few and far between.
Difference of Opinion
The growing divide in American politics is evidence of a decline in critical thinking. Critical thinkers don’t always agree, but they are secure enough with themselves to genuinely listen those with whom they disagree. Instead of pointing fingers, they try to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
Most people don’t want to spend the energy required to think about issues, so they usually just go along with what their friends and family think. Of the few that do, most tend to pick one side of the duality and stick to it. The more they buy into their chosen side, the more clone-like they become.
I worked as a French interpreter for an airline over a seven year period and was fortunate enough to fly all over the world. One of the most valuable things I took away from the job was the ability to see different perspectives.
After I developed a good feel for the different ways of thinking that exist in the world, I began to notice that people tend to bunker together regionally with people of similar mindsets. People tend to hang around those who validate them.
Clone Bunker Mentality
Now that we spend time each month in both California and Texas, the clone bunker mentality is even more evident.
It’s almost shocking how often I run across someone (in each state) with the exact same opinion as seemingly every one of their neighbors. When you live in one place, you sort of get used to the group-think and accept it as reality. When you move around a lot, you start to notice this parrot effect.
Texas vs. California
My conversations with people in Los Angeles are starting to get too predictable. I’ve learned not to mention my ties to Texas at first because it’s much more fun to wait until they describe all Texans as racist, imperialist simpletons. That’s my queue to drop it in.
When I’m in Texas, it’s the same story. I don’t mention my ties to California until they describe all Californians as detached, immoral snobs.
Is it possible that of the two most populated states in the U.S., the entire population of one is enlightened while the other is delusional? Not a chance.
It takes a critical thinker to realize that each side’s opinions are based on their own perspective, and each perspective makes up a different piece of reality. Within their own point of view, each side is right.
Critical thinkers are secure enough with themselves to listen to both perspectives and form their own opinion. Clones only listen to their own side. Critical thinkers don’t care what others think, and are therefore willing to have a different opinion than those around them. Clones need to feel validated.
Intellectual and Ethical Development
In college psychology, one of my favorite theorists was William Perry. He studied the intellectual and ethical development of college students as they made their way towards graduation.
The model that he came up with gives us critical insight into why people in general (not just college students) think they way they do.
The first stage of development in Perry’s research is dualism. All of us start out in this stage, primarily while we are under the care of our parents.
In this stage, we think in terms of right and wrong, black and white. All problems have just one true answer.
This way of thinking serves us well as we are growing up and learning about the world. Almost all new college students are in this stage, and most people in general never leave.
If we are one of the few who start moving through the stages, we make our way towards relativism. Thinking relativistically is the opposite of thinking dualistically. Instead of black and white, people in this stage see many shades of gray.
It can be very exciting intellectually to realize that there may be many right answers to a problem, and no clear difference between right and wrong. A person in this stage believes that everything is relative to a person’s viewpoint, and that there is no fixed point of reference.
Politics, Dualism, and Relativism
Looking at these two opposing ways of thinking, political differences start to make sense.
Duality is usually associated with conservative thinking. People on the right tend to think in terms of right and wrong, good and evil. Duality is also a strong theme in religion, and rock solid conservative values. The fallacy of dualism is not realizing that one person’s set of values might not work for everyone.
People on the left tend to think more relativistically. Seeing right and wrong as relative, they are not bound by the strict moral code of conservatism. They tend to be “open minded” to alternative ways of looking at the world.
The fallacy of relativism is not having a solid foundation of principles. A person who loses their sense of right and wrong is vulnerable to a life of questionable behavior and irresponsibility.
Still Missing Critical Thinking
Neither of these stages represents critical thinking. Since relativism is a “higher” stage than dualism, some on the left make the mistake of thinking that they are more advanced than conservatives.
Although it may seem as if relativism is a higher form of intellect than dualism, it’s really on the same level, but on the opposite side of the spectrum. The two sides reflect the two competing natures of the universe.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that there is an alternative that supersedes both dualism and relativism. They think that they only have two options: black and white, or gray, and therefore pick a side and dig a bunker.
Even though few people in this world ever reach Perry’s final stage called “commitment”, it represents true critical thinking. In this stage, you are acutely aware of both the dualistic and relativistic natures of the universe, but you commit to a set of principles based on careful consideration of all available information.
On the spectrum between black and white and gray, this stage doesn’t fall in the middle, it rises above. In terms of politics, a person at this level could be on the left or the right, as long as she has committed to a set of principles after evaluating each side. This kind of deep respect for other opinions brings people together, not apart.
This progression of stages also explains why people tend to become more liberal in college and return closer to center as they age.
The difference between the stage of commitment and the other stages is very subtle. It might take a long period of study and contemplation before it starts to make sense, but then again, critical thinking isn’t easy.
As you move to the highest stage, you will feel humbled by the complexity of the universe. You might even feel a little silly for having put down the other stages on your way up.
It’s important that you begin this journey. As the world becomes increasingly polarized, critical thinkers are becoming more and more necessary to help find creative solutions to our problems. This world needs people like you to help us get past the politics and find real answers.