Critical Thinking: The Joy of Division
While enduring the wrath of the death spore over the past 16 months we have discovered many new ways in which to divide ourselves. To become divided. To choose sides. Divided in debate between life and livelihood. Divided over the concept of what constitutes personal freedom. Even to this day, divided over whether this pandemic is real or a hoax.
It’s not that we didn’t have division before, nor is it even that division in this sense is a bad thing. In fact, I feel it is entirely possible to stand while divided, and to fall while united. This is not a blog celebrating our differences, nor is focused on Covid 19. Rather, it is about critical thinking – one of the 8 pillar competencies in my book, and the name of this website – “The Daily Undoing: Being Better at Being Human” – and how truly understanding the meaning of division helps us be better at critical thinking.
First, let me explain the context of the word of which I am speaking. To be clear, I am not talking about the fundamental mathematics operation of division, but I am talking about a concept from which even that definition was derived. According to Online Etymology Dictionary, divisioun, from the Latin, ‘divisio”, has its earliest roots in the 14th century, defined as: “the act of separating into parts, portions or shares; a part separated or distinguished from the rest; a state of being at variance in sentiment or interest”. That last part is the version of the word at the basis of this post. Because this post attempts to make an argument in support of division. A divisive statement if there ever was one. And a statement that requires some explanation.
For the record, I believe that the Covid 19 pandemic is real, physical distancing and wearing masks are necessary health pre-cautions, and vaccines are not only effective, but humanity’s only way through this dense patch of fog in our history. But as I hear these words echo inside my head, I hear also those of detractors vehemently stating opposite points of view.
When I conjure in my head a visual of someone who steadfastly believes in the “scamdemic”, or that masks and gathering bans are violations of human rights, or that vaccines are some evil plot to put us under some sort of spell, I summon in my mind, a caricature of a character from the film “Deliverance”, and yes, this vision comes with the requisite “Duelling Banjoes” soundtrack twanging in the background. I immediately go to a stereotype, a category used to make sense of the world. A shortcut, a bias, a heuristic. I overlook the fact that I do know people, who possess opposing beliefs from mine about Covid 19, and yet who do not own a corn-cob pipe, dress impeccably well, and who despise bluegrass music (which I actually enjoy). I also know that there are people who, when conjuring people on the side of the divide on which I stand, in their heads, are prone to think of some arrogant dipshit/know-it-all/academic-egghead suffering from a life-long superiority complex. Isn’t division fascinating?
Suddenly, “a state of being at variance in sentiment or interest” doesn’t quite seem to fit what we know as division in a Covid/Social equity/climate change world. “A state of wishing to slap the shit out of one another over differing opinions”, seems a more apropos definition in our current global state.
Yes, divisions have become chasms in which boiling cauldrons of emotions incite violent thoughts, words, and actions. So how in the world do I see a positive in division? Six simple words still stick with me from Joe Biden’s victory speech last November. “Let’s give each other a chance.” With his homespun Delawarean charm, and DC-polished diplomacy, the president elect was valiantly attempting to plug those holes which were leaking toxins from that boiling cauldron throughout America, and to a certain extent, the world. But we live in a time when charisma and wordsmithing, no matter how well intended, only get us part way to understanding. While empathy is, of course, a mandatory ingredient in addressing our differences, I would argue that critical thinking is the pre-requisite competency which must be accessed first, in order to even spark empathy. And this is where I begin to make my case for the value of division.
The handy, if over-simplistic, “branding” I attempt to attach to the critical thinking competency in my book is the “Open Minded Always Competency”. I say over-simplistic because, kind of like design thinking often gets sluffed off as “thinking outside the box”, there’s so much more to critical thinking than merely having an open mind. What is an open mind really? It is more, so much more, than holding the door slightly ajar to allow a select few opinions in – particularly those close to your own. Nope, a truly open mind is wide open, attempting to consider all perspectives.
Francis Bacon, a 16th century English philosopher said, “Read not to contradict nor to believe; but to weigh and consider” (Gaugkroger, 2001). To “weigh AND consider”. This is the essence of critical thinking. First to take in (read) all that relates to a topic or issue; to weigh, which is to be unbiased in measuring, and ultimately to consider “it” whatever it is, on merits separate from those you’ve curated yourself. It’s about the intent of “reading”. Neither to validate your own, nor refute an opposing thought, but to consider them all. Not accept them all, or any, for that matter. But to simply consider. In a world so divided, we must give each other a chance. We must consider other points of view. And only from this attitude can empathy truly arise. I love the thoughts of the more modern day philosopher, the late Stephen Covey, on the subject of dealing with differences. In “Habit 6: Synergize” from his landmark book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, he suggests, “When I become aware of the difference in our perceptions, I say ‘Good! You see it differently! Help me understand what you see.” Think of the power of this approach in its ability to diffuse a ticking time-bomb of deep emotional differences of opinion between two people, two groups, or two countries.
My wife and I received our Covid 19 vaccinations this week. There was no disagreement between us that it was the right thing to do. We were concerned about side effects, which we discussed together, among family and friends, as well as with our physicians. We questioned the efficacy of the differing formulae available, but I must admit we basically ignored the warnings of those opposed to vaccinations. I don’t regret our actions to proceed with the vaccinations, nor our decision to avoid admonishments of “anti-vaxxers”. But when it comes to the argument over whether they, those who oppose vaccinations, are recklessly abandoning their responsibility to save humanity, I feel I owe their view at least an opportunity to be considered. To put up a wall disallowing points of view, which differ from my own, is not only close-minded, but impairing to my learning. I am not about to present my argument for vaccinations here, nor a rebuttle. I am trying to make a case for the central tenets of critical thinking. Considering thoughts beyond your own. Giving people, and their opinions a chance. Seeing differences as learning opportunities rather than win-lose.
I’ve read how the division around Covid 19 vaccines has severed apart families, and we’ve seen it play out in sometimes violent behaviour on both sides of the chasm. But it’s not the division itself which is the culprit. Remember that definition discussed earlier “a state of being at variance of interest or sentiment”. It is our heated, or even violent refute of views on the other side of that divide that is the problem. But fixing it requires an undoing of monumental proportions. Simple, but not easy. It does literally start with an open mind. As Biden soothed, “Let’s give each other a chance”. As Bacon philosophized, let’s “weigh and consider”. And as Covey queried, “Help me understand what you see.”
The foundation of competency based learning IS learning. And to embrace learning as a daily pursuit. And to realize that not only do we never know everything, but that learning-to-learn should be, in itself, a daily mental undertaking. Learning to learn absolutely hinges upon critical thinking. To take in learning so that we understand, and can be in a position to give each other a chance.
So where does this joy of division, I spoke of earlier, come into play? Division forces us to acknowledge that opinions other than our own exist. And that we owe our learning the consideration of alternate points of view. Bacon’s world was not as noisy as ours. Literal, physical “reading” was the only way to ingest the thoughts, views and events of others who did not live within a geographic proximity. Our world is immeasurably noisier. People publishing their opinions by the nano-second, around the world, across countless channels. This post being a mere microbial signal in a constellation of views in which the keywords “covid 19” and “vaccination” are embedded. But this is not a blog about either. This is a blog about learning from division, from differences and the key role critical thinking plays in this space.
Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to take in even a fraction of the thoughts in circulation. But on important stands we feel worth taking, it is important to learn about the stands taken by others, on the other side of the divide. Without division then, our source of learning, our willingness to learn-to-learn, and by virtue, our work on being better at being human, doesn’t stand a chance.
References: Covey, S. (1989) "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People"; Simon & Schuster, New York, NY Gaugkroger, S. (2001) “Francis Bacon and the Transformation of Early Modern Philosophy”; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge, MA Online Etymology Dictionary, www.etymonline.com; accessed April 29, 2021