A vision for a critical society

In a court of the misinformed, questioning accepted ideas is a guilty offence. In modern times, this “misdemeanour” of challenging uninformed views is still common, but dwindling. The effective decrease of criticism is not because critical thinkers are doing less of it, but because the arena of criticism has shifted from literature to social media. It is difficult to challenge ideas on social media.

Modern commentary online is the preferred access point for ideas. This is not necessarily bad. It has democratised ideas. Anyone can share their view. They do not need to rely on an academic journal, a book publisher or an academic qualification. Literature has flaws. It is exclusive and expensive. Publishing has barriers, least of all, an expectation of educated language.

However, social media is unfiltered. It is difficult, for example, for someone with no prior information on a subject to know who to trust to educate them on that subject. This has opened a path for dangerous modern commentary, which spreads misinformation and unfounded claims. Many popular online commentators do not tell us what the foundation of their claims are. This does not mean they are wrong. It just means at best, they can only be accidentally correct.

Worse, they can be very incorrect. Their logical or factual errors are dangerous because they influence public opinion and politics. In fact, the purpose of some modern commentary is political. A political actor sharing their opinion on a social media site is trying to discredit their political opponents, prop up their preferred political views and convince their followers to do the same. Again, there is nothing wrong with them doing this. But, often political actors err and they can do so without consequence on social media.

To challenge these political actor, a critic must become political themselves. If they wish for their views to spread, they must convince many people to share them. The critic becomes what they were railing against.

Say a popular modern commentator says that the sky is red. If too few people claim in response that the sky is blue, then there is a risk that the sky will become red in popular opinion. A critic can write a book, release studies, adapt curriculum and write news articles disproving the red sky. But so long as that idea remains most popular, many people will still believe it. Trust in literature, education and news media is rapidly decreasing. So, the modern critic has to build a political force. The modern model to disprove the claim is to have a lot more people state the sky is blue, thus winning the bout.

If too few people claim that the sky is blue then it is red. This is very dangerous because through history it has given rise to atrocity, fuelled bigotry and it is used to impede political actors trying to improve lives.

So, what can be done?

The obvious solution is to trust each person to look up themselves and see that the sky is in fact, blue. If someone can verify the claim for themselves then the political prowess of the critic is not as necessary. More than this, the uninformed commentator is ineffective. People should be empowered to think critically for themselves.

This does not mean all people know all things about all things. Critical thinking is the process of evaluating various claims, even if that claim is new information. A critical thinker unpacks the process through which a claim develops to its conclusion. They ask if any errors were made in reasoning and if the claim is fairly substantiated. It would not matter how much previous knowledge they had.

So, how do we develop societies of critical thinkers?

First, we encourage early-age reading. We allow people to read diversely, not controlling material to suit political objectives. Second, we encourage question-asking. Our societies have restricted young people from questioning norms, chastising them for doing so. If we encourage the young to seek, they will find. The more critical the questions we ask, the more critical the answers we will receive. Third, we allow critical consciousness to spread. Too often, we isolate critical thinkers in our societies for “ruining the fun.” Instead, we should welcome more of that thinking and find alternatives ways to live, which still achieve our objects.

From a young age, people should be encourage to think, explore, discover and reason. The focus of public education should shift from state narratives and preparing youth for market labour to developing critical thought.

Relying on a few knowledgeable people to do all the criticism reveals a failure to spread critical thinking. Societies should not hope that the correct person has more people on their side. It should have all people critiquing the ideas before them and constantly looking up to see whether the sky is still blue.

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