Last post I reflected on why I thought the common sentiment of “think for yourself”, often expressed with regards to topics of great import, is a claim I am sceptical of. Largely speaking it is used in a positive manner, epitomising the Cartesian mentality of a rational observer making evaluations of the world using reason and evidence. In summary, I’m not so convinced that thinking is so easy or individual. Knowing fundamentally presupposes trust in others rendering the notion of self-determination in what we know somewhat specious.
I, obviously, open myself a few rebuttals at this point. It’s probably worth addressing them.
Aren’t you just deferring the issue?
Though knowing things might depend on trusting others, there is an ultimate responsibility on the individual on who to trust. This is most certainly true – I think on this plane of existential activity there is certainly self-determination. In other words, we still must individually decide who to believe and trust. After all, we are the only people responsible for what it is that we believe, and no one else, ostensibly speaking, can make our mind up for us. If this is all that is meant by “think for yourself” then I wouldn’t disagree. What I perceive, however, is that it is instead used a rhetorical flourish to eschew any notion of trust or faith, and adopting of a mindset which presupposes too much about the ability of the majority of individuals (of which I include myself). People aren’t that intellectually rigorous, have enough time, or interested enough to investigate every truth claim being made, particularly on, say, topics like policy proscriptions for climate change.
What we do, necessarily, is listen to others and trust within our communities often without having done any investigation ourselves. This isn’t a bad thing – believing what you’ve been told isn’t wrong or a weakness. What is bad, however, is refusing to listen and trust what other people are saying purely on the face of it. Listen to others, consider what they say and don’t necessarily dismiss it outright. Bring the things you’ve trusted previously into the things you’re being told now and ask questions. Basically, I don’t call for a radical individual scepticism, I call for a radical open listening. You can only dismiss views once you have engaged in the communal dialogue that has occurred in the process of listening.
Isn’t this a regression into identity politics?
Like many, I have found myself captivated by what seems to be unraveling in universities and within modern left-leaning popular politics. That is, an increasing intolerance towards views right of extreme left opinions and pandering towards various interest groups based on class identification and characterisation of individuals centred on generally immutable factors such as race and sexuality. I, as a self-admitted fan of Jordan Peterson and various members of “The Intellectual Dark Web”, find the aforementioned phenomena to be largely contemptible and myopic. However, it seems I am skirting dangerously close to these positions by saying that thinking for oneself is a bad idea, and I wouldn’t blame someone in believing that I was claiming the above.
However, this is not what I am saying. Identity politics is a means of political pandering based on the immutable characteristics of individuals which frames them as a homogeneous group with a universal experience. It is then particularly used in intersectional theory to summarise the net total negative experience of the group – of the sum total amount of suffering or oppression this group has received. It then proceeds to morally elevate these groups due to their perceived suffering (which is a Christian impulse – one which I intend to write about in future). It says that all black people must be x; that the must have all experienced y; and therefore they must all think z, to truly be identified as part of the group. My claim doesn’t go this far. I merely rehash the accurate observation that identity politics rests upon, before it draws wrong inferences.
What people think is determined by the various groups and communities they are a part of; however, it needn’t by the sole determiner. There most certainly is a general experience associated with various communities, but it certainly isn’t homogeneous with every single one of these different communities (gay people in Alabama, for instance, would have an entirely different experience than gay people in California). People are formed by various forms of group identity, but they are not solely constituted or determined by them – there is something transcendent about people which allows them to rise above their circumstances, background, experience and immutable markers of identity. Part of this is due to the ability to listen, empathise and bring the dialogue of other communities to change their minds. All of this presupposes trust of the other – radical scepticism would act against this.
How do you choose who to trust? How can you trust everyone? Is there such a thing as too much trust?
I think it needs to be clarified at this point that there certainly are degrees of trust, and I don’t mean that one needs to trust everyone to the same extent. It would be inappropriate to treat a new female acquaintance the same way I would treat my girlfriend, and it would potentially be very dangerous to me exposing such vulnerability to someone I don’t know. The issue is that underlies this, however, is that trust still under-girds all that we do on an existential level, and I think this applies to thinking too. We fundamentally, as mimetic creatures since birth, inherently learn and act out being human through a process of imitation of others. From childhood we adopt a position of trust to that which is outside of us in order to develop into contributing adults, usually by copying others. It mostly works okay, though it depends on the parents or primary caregivers. Trust is essentially unavoidable being the principle starting place of our experience as humans. Our developmental experience begins with trust and it seems from there the goal is to measuredly trust those around us.
The kind of trust that I am referring to, then, in terms of intellectual inquiry, is that of having a posture of receptivity to others, to communities, institutions, the divine, or whatever else, acting under the presupposition that perhaps that you should take these things at face value and listen to what they have to say. This doesn’t mean you believe everything they say, just that you listen. Radical scepticism doesn’t seem to work within the rubric of common decency and politeness. You trust everyone at a basic level of “you likely have something worth listening to”. It seems, therefore, you choose who to trust based on who has proven themselves trustworthy within this framework, but the only way for someone to do so is if you place your trust in them first and then see what happens from there. Place measured amounts of trust and see how far it takes you.
There are certainly more objections to be made, but these are the ones that I could immediately think of. Let me know your thoughts! My next article will be on why you shouldn’t trust people who want to be preachers.