After my post a few months ago about no longer identifying with the label of ‘feminist,’ the response was swift and mostly silent: I felt a virtual chill, telling me that I had become a pariah to the circles that once accepted me. With as small of a reader/follower base on any given social media platform as I have, it is not hard to notice when the numbers fluctuate or when the comments and likes slow. Slow they did; down the numbers went. It stung, but I had tried to prepare myself for it: it comes with the territory of changing your mind. I have to accept the consequences.
Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking more about thinking and about how my group affiliations have stood in the way of my truly examining something rather than sharpening my thinking skills. This bothers me. I don’t want to have ready-made, knee-jerk reactions. I want to have thoughtful and generous responses. But that’s also scary, because a thoughtful response does not always align with the group’s approved set of responses, and standing outside of the group is a cold, lonely place.
Alan Jacobs (I guess I’m on an Alan Jacobs roll right now) writes about the importance of thinking and the effects it (or its opposite, not thinking) has on life in How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Much of the book is about how we bypass thinking in favor of our social group and at the expense of the outgroup(s). I say ‘bypass’ because what often happens is that we rely on words, phrases, or subjects not only to convey meaning but also to signal our membership in the group. Jacobs writes,
“The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against—well, against any kind of standard. People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.”
Of course, not only can we not escape thinking within of a social context, but we are made for and by the social world. Everything I believe, everything I think, I learned from someone, even if it was someone who lived hundreds of years ago whom I’ve encountered only through books.
“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”
The painful part (or one of the painful parts) of being written off so easily after writing my post on feminism was that my change of heart was attributed to some corruption done by ‘the enemy.’ I was accused of falling prey to the mistaken and destructive ideology of the Other. Before I was an independent thinker; after I was brainwashed. It felt like I was only seen as human as long as my ideas aligned with everyone else on the ‘right’ side. Once the ideas starting differing, I became at best a weak victim, at worst a repulsive, dismissable piece of scum. Jacobs addresses this phenomenon:
“This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say ‘she really thinks for herself’ when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.
And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.”
I should point out that the response to my post was not entirely negative. My fear exceeded the severity of the response, and those I was most afraid of disappointing, for the most part, didn’t seem to be disappointed at all. They were able to hear me out and love me all the same. Jacobs describes it well:
“I had chosen to interact with people who had very little in common except that I knew—from experience—that they wouldn’t write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with.”
Thankfully, those in my closest circle don’t write me out of their Books of Life when I say things that are wrong, offensive, or merely different from what they think. Jacobs goes on to differentiate ‘true membership’ from the deceptive and potentially dangerous membership of groups based solely on like-mindedness. Because my family is the base from which I function, I especially identified with the definition of true membership as C.S. Lewis put it:
“Lewis explains: How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself….If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.”
As I have wrestled and questioned and challenged myself to hold a little less tightly to my own thinking, I have begun to appreciate the beauty of a social network that consists of varying political, religious, and philosophical perspectives, “…for there can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.”
The facelessness of the Internet and dichotomization of our political climate in general leans less toward kindness and generosity, though, and more toward dehumanization and argument-as-war. We easily slip into ideology mode, actively seeking out what we already agree with and ignoring (or attacking) what we don’t.
“When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.”
I am working on understanding better, which means listening more and reacting less. I’d love to have more interactions styled after the debates described in this post by Robin Sloan, in which one person states her position, then the other person must re-state the first person’s position to that person’s satisfaction, then the second one states his position, and then the first person must re-state the second person’s position to his satisfaction. Even if I don’t find people who want to engage in an actual debate or listening session like that, I still love having it in my mind– a mental practice of truly hearing the other side, almost embodying it, before pushing my own viewpoint.
“After switching back and forth for a while, you may find one of [the viewpoints] philosophically or practically superior to the other, but the one you like less won’t be totally alien to you. It’ll be a world you could live in if you had to, even if you don’t particularly want to.”
We must have patience to listen like this.
“This matters because it’s when our forbearance fails that the social fabric tears. The key to strengthening this necessary forbearance . . . is that you have to be willing to switch codes. You have to be willing to inquire into someone else’s dialect, even, or especially, when it’s a moral dialect. You have to risk that impurity.”
This brings me back to where this post began: my own perceived impurity from writing my post a few months back. Impurity, to the ingroup, is cause for expulsion and excommunication. Though I am trying to think better, in some ways it feels like I’m walking alone in the wilderness. Even Jacobs, who advocates for Learning to Think, warns that the effects may not be wholly positive:
“I can’t promise that if you change your mind you won’t lose at least some of your friends—and that matters, because if you learn to think, genuinely to think, you will sometimes change your mind.”
My hope is that this process of seeking understanding and of genuine thinking catches on, that it becomes less lonely than it has been. More than anything, I am not trying to close people out with my ideas, even as they change. I am just trying to be true to the truth– whatever that is– rather than to the precariousness of social acceptance. As Jacobs says, “Thinking is hard.”