Sunday, June 28, 2009

Critical Thinking vs. "Feelings"

This is a re-post.

A couple of days ago over at Big Hollywood I read an article by Scott Graves . In it you’ll see this quote from Mark Twain, “we all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking”. I have been thinking of ways to get this quote actually carved in stone and sent to my 9 and 5 year olds daughters, to hang on the wall in their bedrooms. My Dad has a beautiful slab of unused granite in his garage, but I don’t have the tools to shape a couple of tablet size pieces, and then carve in this wisdom. Combined Dad and I have a formidable tool arsenal, but carving stone is beyond that. Well, I guess we do have about 50 cold chisels between us, but no one would confuse my handiness with Michelangelo's. My daughters live with their mother and spend lots of time with the maternal side of their family tree. Twain’s observation is in the DNA of the people who are my girls’ exemplars of what adult behavior should be. For an aware parent, as I hope I am, the idea that my girls will be governed by their feelings rather than critical thinking scares the bejesus out of me.

How did we become a society that prefers to make the emotional choice rather than the rational one? Was it the advent of TV and the brilliant idea to sell products by emotional visual pleas to our wants and desires? I think it could’ve started there. Before TV, ads were in print or radio. The print ads had to use words to get the message across. And though words are powerful, after a while seeing the same type of superlatives over and over, most people glaze over and turn the page. Then radio came along and the words now were infused with tone and inflection that broadcast a more emotional message. But I think it was the music, specifically the jingle that was the big improvement radio gave to advertising. Everybody knows how any little ditty can get stuck in our head and not leave for days. “I’d like to get the world to sing….” Sorry, if I just did it to you.

But when TV came along, man everything changed. The moving visual image made it so very much easier to tug at peoples’ emotions than ever before. Hell that’s what makes TV content so powerful too. Seeing all the smiling actors and pitchmen with the Pepsodent smile, and Scope breath, and Herbal Essence hair, made you feel, ‘that could be me’ Even if you were a toothless, halitosified, bald snot. Let’s face it most of the people alive today who were born before TV are in their dotage and even they, having been exposed to these daily, constant emotional heart tugs have been affected. Those of us born after the advent of TV know nothing else.

Then of course we saw the emergence of the self-help industry and its partner the pay-a-whole-lot for help industry. Both of these industries have at their core this simple question – ‘how do you feel about it?’ And the implied answer is to guide yourself by what you feel. This is not a prudent precept to live by whether it is gotten off a bookshelf, an analyst’s couch or even a confessional. Yet I’ve come to believe that it dominates our society. With these possible exceptions – the scientific community (and it seems to be making inroads here) and the military where decisions are a matter of life and death, and must be governed by reality and facts. Emotion can only be given sway after the battle.

Our entertainment also became more feeling oriented. Observers who get paid to comment on the industry sometimes use the phrase sissified. I don’t disagree. The behavior of men was judged to be out-of-touch(feeling!) and emotionally repressed. So they gave us Alan Alda. Terrific actor, nice man but forever to be saddled as the example of what a limp,feeling man should be. He doesn’t deserve it, but there you go. Thank heavens for James Bond. I really do not know how the character has survived not being turned into a feelings-before-facts squish. He acts on emotion only when and where it’s appropriate and called for.

I know that critical thinking in a simple form, is one of the first things any parent wants to teach their child. The parent had better if he wants to keep his child safe during the moments the child is out of view. My mom tells me the first word I spoke was ‘hot’. Mom has always been most fine at thinking critically. If only my daughters….. Being able to assess personal safety and make the right choice is also a continuing lesson of critical thinking that continues as we grow. Learning the scientific method is still taught in school, at least I hope it is. Hell even learning about trial and error is a way of learning about how to make a choice from what you know rather than what you feel. And everybody knows how to do that. Hold on. I am wrong about trial and error. If I wasn’t, the adage “insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result” wouldn’t exist. So there are obviously people who try something, err, and feeling they must be right about their choice,try the same thing again. Hey, did I just demonstrate that relying on feelings is insanity? Whew, talk about pleasant unintended consequences.

I think feelings are favored over critical thinking out of laziness. In a totally non-scientific study, the people I know who rely most on their feelings are the most intellectually lazy people I know. Oh, they love to think they’re deeply aware of the world and how it works. They’ll scamper to the basement to surf the Internet and learn about the human genome project when it makes the news cycle, then pronounce themselves experts around the bonfire. But ask them why they support abortion, and you get the pro-choice feelings of the mother bullshit. Or some other talking points horse manure. BTW, why is it bull-shit, but horse-manure? I guess the truth is, living by your feelings is just easier to do than actually putting real thought into your actions and the possible consequences thereof. And man oh man, isn’t a whole lot of the world all about taking the easy way out?

Feelings have their proper place. I am the most emotional person I know. I can hate deeply, but love even deeper. Expressing crushing sorrow or exhuberant joy with public tears neither embarasses me or diminishes me. Exaltation and humiliation, I hold back nothing. But when decision time comes, I go by my feelings only when I’m choosing gifts for my loved ones (or gambling -don't tell anybody) The military excels by putting thinking before feeling. Because they know it is a matter of life and death. And first above all things, the military values life. To so many other people, living by feelings is the way to faster gratification of whatever desire they have. How they choose what they choose isn’t such a weighty matter to them. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Dead wrong.

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