Developing Cynical Thinking Skills

I left Facebook (call it a hiatus, I’ve too many photo albums to have actually deleted my account) two days before the election for two reasons: 1. I was spending an inordinate amount of time, usually debating, which was cutting severely into the productivity of my day and my more immediate responsibilities to my family; and 2. I was becoming angry with the vitriol, angry with dear friends, and the negativity was impacting me measurably.

Of course, it isn’t just Facebook. If you look for negativity, for doom and gloom, for an argument, you can find it anywhere. “Seek and ye shall find.”

Some weeks, or even months, prior to leaving Facebook, I began enjoying regular conversations with a very good friend over coffee. Among the topics that have come up on more than one occasion, and which at various intervals manages to tie into other topics by the simple nature of modern man and how we communicate, is the habit (we all seem to do it, some more than others) of engaging in political/social debates using social networking as a medium. I must credit my good friend for the insight which, after much discussion, we have more or less agreed is uniquely problematic.  Aside from the fact that highly complex problems simply cannot be solved in thirty-second sound-bytes, there are other problems which seem to develop with the medium.

Interpersonal Relationships with Walls

Whether it’s a Facebook “wall,” or the proverbial wall we all feel like we’re talking to on occasion, the plain fact is that we tend to speak (or write) rather more loosely, provocatively, and carelessly than if we were physically engaged in a conversation with that person (or persons) face to face. We say things we wouldn’t have the nerve to say in person because we are far removed from the immediate consequences, and because it is far easier to turn away from an online dialogue then turn and walk away from a person, especially if that person happens to be a friend. The same applies to online conversations involving groups. Imagine for a moment bringing everyone engaged in an online debate into the same space, and how that same conversation might go. How many of us would throw our arms up in the air and walk out of the room like we were 14 years old? Why is it any more socially acceptable in cyberspace?

It isn’t just a question of missing out on the nuances of tone and body language. For some reason we feel that we can “get away with” saying things we really, honestly wouldn’t say – or at the very least would say very differently – if the relationship in which we were engaged was personal.  As it is, we tend to develop mere “interpersonal” relationships with walls, flying off the handle with random thoughts we relish as witty; what we’re really doing is talking to ourselves. And when this becomes a habit, it tends to wend its way into those areas of our lives where we are interacting with people face-to-face, contributing to a breakdown of genuine communication. We stand to diminish or lose the ability to communicate effectively where it is needed most – the human world with which we interact outside of cyberspace; and we tend to become more self-absorbed without even realizing it. This is most true when the noble motivations and intentions of our debates and conversations disguise and veil the subtle narcissism germinating within us.

Cynical Thinking versus Critical Thinking

A second key problem I think arises from the social networking medium as a forum for discussion is that we develop – along with a subtle narcissism – a proclivity to regard cynicism as “critical thinking.” This is a challenge for me to explain, but I’d like to try by making two statements, the first as an example directed at readers who regard themselves as leaning “Right:”

Extremely wealthy people have well beyond what they need to be comfortable, so they really ought to contribute more to the well-being of those of little or no means.

You’ve just read a mere thirty words, and I’m willing to bet that from those thirty words your mind has already conjured up all kinds of things about the kind of person I am. Perhaps you surmise from that statement that I am generally opposed to free-market capitalism; that I am likely to be a proponent of reproductive rights for women; that I am a proponent of the progressive tax code; that I regard Wall Street with antipathy; that I support nationalized healthcare. Depending on how recently you might have engaged in a debate on any of the above contentious subjects, you likely glean from that statement a great deal about me as a person. But here’s where it starts to get interesting, and where cynicism starts to play a role.

If you lean “Right,” and if you’ve arrived at the above thoughts even loosely, you are probably also questioning my motivations. You may suspect that I’m a bit beleaguered with circumstances I’ve placed myself in, and that I’m seeking the path of least resistance in calling for free support. Perhaps I want to dismantle an economic system that I believe survives on the backs of the disadvantaged. Perhaps I believe the government can and ought to solve problems with increased regulation, and higher taxes for the wealthy. In a nutshell, I don’t want to take responsibility for myself, and expect others to do it for me: a character judgement.

Next, I am going to make a separate statement as an example directed at readers who regard themselves as leaning “Left:”

No matter how much wealth a person has, it ultimately does belong to them, and shouldn’t be taken away against their will, even to feed the poor.

You’ve just read a mere twenty-seven words, and I’m willing to bet that from those twenty-seven words your mind has already conjured up all kinds of things about the kind of person I am. Perhaps you surmise from that statement that I support free-market capitalism; that I am likely to disparage women’s rights; that I am a proponent of tax loopholes for the wealthy; that I regard Wall Street as the source of all prosperity; that I believe people who can’t afford it don’t deserve healthcare. Depending on how recently you might have engaged in a debate on any of the above contentious subjects, you likely glean from that statement a great deal about me as a person.

If you lean “Left,” and if you’ve arrived at the above thoughts even loosely, you are probably also questioning my motivations. You may suspect that I’m a bit greedy with whatever I’ve earned, and that I view people of lesser means as lazy. Perhaps I want to expand, bolster, and deregulate an economic system that exploits the disadvantaged. Perhaps I believe the government is the source of all problems, and gorges on my personal prosperity to provide entitlements to leeches. In a nutshell, I don’t want to share anything with anyone, and think the poor are their own problem: a character judgement.

I know, these are generalizations. But honestly, how quickly did you place me in one snug category or another? How quickly have you fit me into a square, 3-dimensional, easy to understand box? How quickly might you either dismiss further things I may have to say, or infer from one or two phrases that my deeper motivations are selfish and generally destructive to the world around me? Is my ideology antithetical to yours?

By cynical thinking, I mean our capacity (and unfortunately habit) to assume the worst, according to our worldview, of others – making a judgement call on another’s character and motivations – and doing so on a mere twenty-five to thirty words. I get the impression that most of us, whatever our worldview or ideology, tend to react defensively, putting up a guard, so to speak, against a supposed ideology or worldview that is antithetical to our own – all too often based on a few phrases lacking the benefit of the broader context we would enjoy face-to-face. In short, we fear each other. And I think this severely obstructs constructive conversation and the development of solutions.

The Real McCoy

If we were able to sit down together over a cup of coffee and engage in conversation – it is likely to have a great deal more substance versus bleating tweets or commenting on a feed. And not only due to fewer time restraints, but more so because in person we are accountable. Furthermore, you would find that I firmly believe both statements used in the above example, and we could discuss whether and how they may or may not be contradictory, we could discover that we very likely share a common motive and common end, and that all that remains is to discuss the pros and cons of whatever means may be available toward achieving that end. We could be constructive.

Our culture seems to so divided that, setting aside tolerating each other, we can’t even seem to tolerate isolated ideas. I think this is a real problem. I get the sense that we tend to process one or two key phrases into one of two neatly contained boxes, one labeled good and the other evil, one for us and one against us. I am concerned that, in part, we have developed this tendency because we’ve never taken the time to get to know each other. And I am concerned that, for far too many, social networking has replaced real, genuine human relationships. This is not to suggest, at all, that social networking is itself a problem. Like anything, it’s how we use it.

Let’s use it constructively. Let’s open our minds not just to other ideas, but to the people behind them, the catalysts in their lives that influence them. I am wholly confident we will find much more in common than not, and once we’ve gotten to know and understand each other – even though we may still disagree – that we will find we have little to judge, less to fear, much to learn, and more to love.

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About A. S. Ellis

I am always learning. Always. And that is as it should be.
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6 Responses to Developing Cynical Thinking Skills

  1. grndmachris says:

    Very good blog, you were right with so many of your points. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Theresa says:

    These are among the many reasons I left FB two years ago. Even now, when I sense that things I’ve put forward via email are easily dismissed with replies such as “I’m so done with this!” -and that’s it, end of story, I tend to think, “Wow. You Loony! This isn’t FaceBook! I’m going to see you at Mass tomorrow! Show me some respect and reply to my thoughts! Don’t just shut me down!”

    In any case, do you feel oddly liberated and refreshed, or is that yet to come?

    Anothe conclusion I came to after leaving FB was that it’s so unnatural for us to inundate ourselves on a daily basis with the minute details or expressions of other peoples’ lives. Doing do made it very difficult for me to love others because I was constantly stuffing them into mental boxes instead of engaging the human person.

    Resist the temptation to go back. Stay clean and all aspects of your life will improve! 🙂

    • A. S. Ellis says:

      I still miss it, but as the days go by I find I miss it less and less. I developed a great many friendships on Facebook with people I otherwise wouldn’t have. And I do intend, at some point, to rejoin them. For now, it is a luxury I simply can’t afford. More importantly, much of the negativity surrounding our abysmal political divide is simply too much a burden to me, and on Facebook, more than useless, those discussions tend to do more harm than good.

  3. Steve Freund says:

    While I still think social media can be used effectively as a means to foster some meaningful dialogue, I agree whole-heartedly with what you say here, especially this: “If we were able to sit down together over a cup of coffee and engage in conversation – it is likely to have a great deal more substance versus bleating tweets or commenting on a feed”. I’m sorry if anything I posted on Facebook drove you to anger. I wish I had more “real” friends (as opposed to facebook friends) that actually enjoyed sitting down and having those types of conversations you and your friend had. Those types of conversations are the most interesting to me, and yet are often the ones that no one seems to want to have. Most people care more about sports and pop-culture, or almost seem to fear any conversation that might touch on deeper topics. Regardless of any previous discussions, I still think we could have some great exchanges of ideas given a more appropriate venue. I could say so much more, but in the interest of respecting the point of your post, I will keep it short and end here.

    • A. S. Ellis says:

      Steve, one day we will. It’s fascinating to me that we’ve exchanged this many words and never met in person. I think it would be a thoroughly awesome coffee, with eve more awesome conversation. Cheers!

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