Critical Thinking for Self-Defense
Why is critical thinking important?
When I was a classroom teacher I would usually organize my answer to this question around five themes:
- Autonomy and Freedom of Thought
- Personal Empowerment
- Democracy and Civic Duty
- Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom
I started using the martial arts metaphor in my teaching many years ago when talking about this first theme: critical thinking for self-defense.
Self-Defense Against What?
Why do people sign up for martial arts classes?
Some do it just for the exercise, some enjoy the sporty aspects, but obviously a lot of people take martial arts because they want to be able to defend themselves against physical attacks — they do it to learn “self-defense”.
Why do we feel the need to learn self-defense?
Because we know that, no matter how kind-hearted or cautious we are, the world is a big place with lots of different kinds of people in it, and we might find ourselves in situations where we’re confronted by people who aren’t as kind-hearted or as cautious as we are, and where violence is a real possibility. And in those situations we want to able to protect ourselves and avoid getting hurt.
The situation is exactly the same when it comes to critical thinking.
In this case we’re not talking about people wanting to do us physical harm. We’re talking about people wanting to influence our beliefs, and our values, and our actions. We’re talking about people with a vested interest in getting us to believe what they want us to believe, to value what they want us to value, and to do what they want us to do.
Who are we talking about? Well, in some sense we all have an interest in exerting our influence on the world. Parents have a special interest in exerting influence on their children, peers have influence over peers … there’s no escaping it, it’s part of being human.
But in thinking about the self-defense analogy, I’m thinking more about powerful social institutions, like political parties and advertising companies, who you can think of as being in the “influence business”, whose job it is to get you to think and do what another person or group or institution wants you to think and do, and who have enormous resources and expertise at their disposal to be effective at their job.
Institutions Don’t Care About Your Well-Being, For Your Sake
What’s crucially important to understand about these kinds of institutions is that, as institutions, they don’t have any interest in your personal well-being, for your sake. They care about your well-being only to the extent that it affects their goals and interests.
In the case of politics the goal is to acquire enough support to gain and maintain political power. In the case of advertising the goal is to sell you a product or service. In both cases, your needs and interests only matter to them insofar as you’re instrumental to meeting these goals.
Now, there certainly are people in politics and business and advertising who are good-hearted and genuinely want to serve your interests. My point is just that the institutions themselves don’t and can’t care about you in this way. They can’t know or care about what matters to you as an individual, what fulfills you, what’s meaningful to you, what you value.
These powerful institutions that are in the influence business have a logic and dynamic of their own. They survive not by threat of physical violence, but by getting us to believe and value what they want us to believe and value, so that we then behave in ways that conform to and reinforce their goals.
But of course they’re not alone. They’re in competition with other powerful institutions, with similar incentives and resources, to gain influence overs our beliefs and values.
So we find ourselves constantly bombarded by influence messages and being pulled in different directions, and being asked to take sides on ideological issues: Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, protestant or catholic, religious or non-religious, Coke or Pepsi, Mac or PC, and on and on and on.
This is the world we live in, where it’s not an exaggeration to say that powerful social forces are engaged in a pitched battle for influence over our beliefs and values.
Institutions Have Powerful Persuasion Tools
The art of influence may be as old as human society, but over the past hundred years, and especially over the past forty years, there has also arisen a science of influence that has dramatically increased the power of institutions to gain control and influence over our minds and actions.
I’m talking about cognitive and behavioral psychology, social psychology, behavioral economics, and host of other scientific specializations dedicated to understanding, predicting and influencing human behavior.
It’s important for all of us to understand that governments, businesses and political parties hire PhDs in these fields to help them craft their influence strategies. Or they outsource it to third-party firms who specialize in this kind of strategic consulting.
Strangers to Our Own Rational Self-Interest
Here’s the important point from a self-defense standpoint. Influence strategies can often be very effective in getting you to believe or do something, but your beliefs may still be completely unjustified from a rational standpoint, and your actions may have nothing to do with your own true rational self-interest.
Think of the techniques used by effective sales people, think of the rhetoric of charismatic leaders, think of the crude appeals to emotion and the manufacture of discontent that is the bread and butter of advertising. All very effective, and all of it as likely as not to run counter to your most genuine needs and interests.
The more vulnerable we are to this messaging, the more we become strangers to our own rational self-interest.
Critical Thinking Can Help
The first reason for caring about critical thinking is self-defense: self-defense against the sophisticated manipulations, the bad arguments and the non-arguments that are the weapons of choice in the battle for influence.
A good education in principles of critical thinking and persuasion can help to sensitize us to the presence of these weapons, and reduce the harm they may cause, by learning to discriminate between good and bad reasons for belief and action.
But this isn’t the end of the road. This is just the first step in becoming an independent critical thinker.