For a long time I held the strong conviction that the downfall of our society would be attributable to the internet. It was my belief that unsavory characters, motivated by power and greed, would use technological platforms to pump out disinformation to manipulate vulnerable people and cause great damage to our nation. To a certain extent, this has happened. Case in point, look at the Capitol insurrection. This was prompted, at least in part, by QAnon believers who frequented conspiracy theory chat rooms and social media sites where their fears and subsequent actions were fueled by outlandish untruths. In the weeks that have followed, numerous Capitol insurrectionists have since been arrested by the FBI, and many of their lawyers are using the defense that they were “duped.”
While I believe that technology plays a part in the psychological manipulation of many, I do not see it as the sole cause of it. Instead, I see technology as the vehicle being used to get this dirty job done. The real culprit that makes it possible is the widespread problem of the lack of critical thinking skills in our country.
I’m going out on a ledge here, but I think four things should be mandated into every high school curriculum in the nation:
A class on the theory of knowledge
A course on logic
A course on research methods
A Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) program
Notice, I said high school, not college. Not everyone goes to college, nor should they. However, our collective lack of ability to develop critical thinking skills should be of major concern to us all. We mandate that citizens must pass a written and physical driving exam before issuing a driver’s license. Why can’t we issue a similar critical thinking exam before we can register to vote? I know what you’re thinking: “Passing a driver’s test could be a matter of life and death.” Well, is it any less dangerous for someone to base their vote on a crazy QAnon falsehood like Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks are running a pedophilia ring out of the basement of a Washington, DC pizzeria?
If you think my comparison between the driver’s license test and the need for a critical thinking exam is a bit far-fetched, you are probably correct. While I do think that we do need classes in high school to better address our nation’s apparent shortage of critical thinking skills, I used this comparison, called a moral equivalency, to make a point. Moral equivalencies are ridiculous. They basically occur when someone tries to make a moral comparison about two things or events that have different contexts and dynamics. One recent example is when people try to compare the Black Lives Matter protests and riots to the Capitol insurrection. Very little is solved when a dialogue turns into, “Well, this is worse than that.” It is lazy thinking at best. These types of moral equivalencies are fallacies grounded in cognitive dissonance. As a result, these discussions often turn into “whataboutism” deflections, void of meaningful discourse. You may as well be comparing the proverbial apple to an orange.
We are entitled to our opinions. However, our opinions are not always facts. As I teach my students, it is helpful if we see our thoughts as “mental activity, not always absolute truths.” Teaching critical thinking skills based in logic, reason, and science would help our children learn that in our seemingly “post-truth” society, just calling something “fake news” doesn’t automatically render it fake. Just like labeling something “the truth” doesn’t automatically make it true. In a world where anyone can have a website, a podcast, and a YouTube show, kids need to learn what makes a source or site credible and what makes it propaganda. By all means, we should question anything and everything with skepticism, but we should never let anyone equate their unfounded opinion with something that has been proven by qualitative or quantitative examination.
As a long-time educator, I am all for arguing important matters intelligently and civilly. The best way to ruin this type of discourse is to start labeling each other. When we start throwing out words and phrases at each other like “liberal” or “fascist,” we are trying to marginalize the other side, and it negates the opportunity for any meaningful conversation to take place. We often hear people use these types of terms who have no idea what they mean. Most likely they heard them on television or on the radio. Next time you hear someone using these terms, ask them to explain the differences between Marxism, Socialism, and Communism to you. Sadly, I bet most can’t.
I don’t mind being proven wrong. This is where learning takes place and growth ensues. In fact, if I had a dime for every time I was wrong, I could retire right now. This nation is at its best when both major political parties have strong leaders with moral convictions and platforms built on compassion, not hate or divisiveness. Arguing is part of the process. The first step to healing is learning to argue intelligently.
Greg Graber, the author of Slow Your Roll- Mindfulness for Fast Times, teaches mindfulness and Social & Emotional (SEL) skills to schools, top sports teams, and various organizations around the world. Graber, a frequent keynote speaker, currently serves as the Director of SEL at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may be contacted through his website: www.greggraber.com