Thinking Critically

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Too many of us feel our way through life, repeatedly declining to let the logical side of our brain get any kind of meaningful workout. Accordingly, we are often far too easily manipulated and taken advantage of. Increasingly, people are quick to parrot sound bites, assign labels, and draw quick conclusions. They spend little time truly analyzing - truly thinking.

Truly wise and successful people understand that facts matter more than feelings. Michelle Hodkin, in The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, writes: "Thinking something does not make it true. Wanting something does not make it real." It isn't that feelings or desires are unimportant. They are most certainly important - and they are real. But truth matters and it must be confronted, no matter the pain or inconvenience we may experience.

Those who practice critical thinking are not easily misled by labels, slogans, or appeals to emotion. They ask the right questions, probe for pertinent information, and sort through emotion and logic. They do all this, because they understand the importance of investing adequate amounts of time and energy into worthwhile endeavors. They understand the importance of hard work.

By contrast, society is today full of lazy, shallow thinkers and feelers who are easily manipulated or misled. One example of this is how people so often gravitate toward labels. Voters will hear that a particular candidate is "pro-education" and another is "against health care," and voila! They've made their choice! Sure, some voters will probe a little deeper to see if those labels are accurately affixed, but not many do. They're too busy following American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, or their favorite NFL team to be bothered!

Labels are, to some degree, essential and inevitable. A few years ago, a movement calling itself the "No Labels" movement arose, trying to mitigate the use of labels in society. The irony is that, by giving their organization a name, they were labeling themselves! Labels are, after all, words. You can't function in society without words, and thus, without labels. But labels are dangerous if used sloppily or to intentionally (and unfairly) defame a person or group of persons. And they most certainly shouldn't be used as a substitute for one's own research and analysis.

Slogans are another example of how lazy, shallow people can be carried away with ideas and concepts, never giving them the scrutiny they deserve. Let's take "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." I've heard this many times, and it's most often used to make the argument that one can never truly say, in any kind of overriding or objective manner, who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter. But this is a ludicrous argument! As author and columnist Jonah Golderg writes, it is "absurd to contend that because people may argue over who is or is not a terrorist, that it is therefore impossible to make meaningful distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters."

The above slogan calls to mind the late William F. Buckley's hilarious response to those who during the Cold War would morally equate the Soviet Union and the United States - specifically their respective intelligence agencies. As Buckley put it:

"...to say that the CIA and the KGB engage in similar practices is the equivalent of saying that the man who pushes an old lady into the path of a hurtling bus is not to be distinguished from the man who pushes an old lady out of the path of a hurtling bus: on the grounds that, after all, in both cases someone is pushing old ladies around."

Critical thinking and discernment are essential to personal growth and long-term success, and yet neither is really possible in a postmodernist world that robs us of the notion of objective truth.

Those who resist truth claims, especially religious truth claims, often cite the extreme difficulty (if not impossibility) of achieving peace and harmony in such an environment. In his bestselling The Reason for God, Timothy Keller agrees with the widespread western belief that "one of the main barriers to world peace is religion, and especially the major traditional religions with their exclusive claims to superiority." And, to be clear, I agree with Keller.

Wise and successful people understand the need to maintain humility (see the section on self-awareness) and stay open to learning (see the point on education), and they resist any kind of absolutism that leads to arrogance or elitism. But this doesn't mean they keep their mind so open that, as the old proverbial saying goes, "their brains fall out." How open-minded does one need to be, after all, about Franklin Roosevelt being the President of the United States who served during most of World War II? Can we not "close" our minds, as it were, to that fact?

A person need not embrace one extreme after jettisoning another. We should remain humble, polite, cordial, and respectful of people with other lifestyles, beliefs, and religious faiths. But this doesn't mean we should deny that some beliefs are right and others are wrong.

For that matter, resistance to the notion that certain beliefs are right and others are wrong or that certain practices are better than others is itself a perspective or belief that purports to be superior to (or at least preferable to) the notion it contradicts. In other words, the argument collapses back on itself. Keller makes this point very well, discussing religion in particular, when he writes: "It is no more narrow to claim that one religion is right than to claim that one way to think about all religions (namely that all are equal) is right. We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways."

Wise people are aware of the dangers of absolutism, but they don't let those dangers scare them into denying objective truth or giving up their quest for greater knowledge and wisdom - whether we're talking in the areas of politics, health, business, family, gender, sexuality, or religion.

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