The Mod | “How To Think” by Alan Jacobs

We are bad at thinking, bad at thinking about thinking—and our thinking is bad for us.

Thinking today seems more endangered than ever.  Deep and contemplative reflection is in recession. Language itself has, with the prevalence of new technologies and social media, become what George Steiner called “a vulgarization, a mendacity of words and syntax.” If language is indeed a defining attribute of what is human, our current use of it to stigmatize and categorize can only, in the end, dehumanize.

 

When NARAL Pro-Choice America decided to target pro-life pregnancy care centers at the center of a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, it gave them the pejorative label of “fake women’s health centers” and created the social-media hashtag: #endthelies. I do not know what makes women “fake” or what need fake women have of a health center; nor do I know what makes a health center “fake” any more than a steak dinner is “fake.” Never mind the missing hyphen and the missing logic in the label. NARAL apparently hadn’t thought about the perfect opportunity its hashtag presented for a pro-life riposte: “I think you meant #endthelives.” “Hey @NARAL, fixed your typo: #endthelives.”

Whether or not NARAL put much thought into the implications of its hashtag, the motive of its campaign was quite clear: to denounce “the Other” and rally the members of its own in-group. Perhaps more significantly, in reducing a reasonable but disputable social argument to the anti-rhetoric of a hashtag, NARAL signaled its determination to avoid rational argument. As Alan Jacobs describes it, the use of this “keyword”—certainly not a practice restricted to one wing of the political spectrum—demonstrates an investment “for the moment anyway, in not thinking.” And it is a not-thinking that completely undermines its own goal: rather than ending any lies about health centers, public attention has been focused instead on NARAL’s own project to end the lives of the unwanted unborn. It is an example of the retreat of reason that calls to mind Chesterton’s lament: “Many people seem to be wondering what will become of the human soul in another world. I am wondering what has become of the human mind in this world. I am especially wondering what has become of the human power of reason in this age.”

Thinking today seems more endangered than ever.  Deep and contemplative reflection is in recession. Language itself has, with the prevalence of new technologies and social media, become what George Steiner called “a vulgarization, a mendacity of words and syntax.” If language is indeed a defining attribute of what is human, our current use of it to stigmatize and categorize can only, in the end, dehumanize. We are bad at thinking, bad at thinking about thinking—and our thinking is bad for us. This is what Jacobs sets out to remedy in How To Think.

He begins by writing that the problem is that we do not want to think. But as he slowly reveals, the problem much of our society faces is that we do not want to think differently, and we are hard pressed on every side by forces that both prevent our thinking and ease our escape from it. Against such resistance, Jacobs is admirably cheerful and confident that we can do better.

How? By learning to think well. One of the most invaluable suggestions in his book is a strategy for dealing with the immediate temptation to stop listening and shut down when we hear something we disagree with: “Give it five minutes.” Simply pausing, before responding, improves thinking. Here, as with much of the book, Jacobs is prepared with support from the sciences. What may be a pleasant surprise to readers—and is certainly a credit to Jacobs—is that the support never seems to be necessary. Responding to a disagreeable point by giving it five minutes seems so simple, so intuitive, and though it undoubtedly demands our continued effort, it does not seem out of reach.

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