Thinking isn’t enough

It is often said that critical thinking is necessary for fostering a responsible citizenry by allowing us to live with concern for others and tackle any topic with cool reason. If any place should exhibit these virtues, it should be Williams. We know how to think, if nothing else. Despite this, even students at the College suffer from an irresponsibly dogmatic attachment to our political beliefs. Our campus shows that critical thinking is not enough.

It is impressive and astonishing how much we know about political issues – on our particular political side. Liberal and conservative students alike are able to rattle of the latest Congressional Budget Office estimates, talking points of our favorite news pundits and specific bills that our favorite politicians sponsored.

Turn this around and ask us to explain the opposing position, however, and we generally start talking in broad platitudes: “The Republicans want to protect corporate greed,” says the liberal student. “The Democrats want death panels to ration medicine,” accuses the conservative. We rarely bring up the studies that strengthen the other side or use any empathetic language to voice such opinions. In its stead are snide and reductive jabs to vilify disagreement.

If these comments started out in jest, they’ve now become the actual battle cries of each side. If conservatives discuss a balanced budget, we are reminded that they don’t care about 47 percent of the country. When liberals bring up tax policy, we are told that it’s because “you didn’t build that.” Part of us surely realizes the mischaracterization in such rhetoric, but part of us also actually believes it to be true. What was once a caricature is now an actual enemy we rally against.

Political discussion has broken down so much that it has fundamentally distorted the way we perceive the arguments we disagree with. More and more, students make statements such as, “It makes no sense why someone would believe ‘X.’” The earnestness with which we say such things suggests that this is not just a turn of phrase. We have a real lack of understanding, and the opposing position is actually incomprehensible to us. We are quite literally unable to conceive how and why those on the other side could believe what they do. Each side sees the position the other side takes as, frankly, insane. Those who disagree with us must either hold the wrong values, or they hold no values at all.

And it’s not that we just disagree with their opinions – being on the wrong side of the political aisle is now seen as a character flaw. We seem to be comfortable expressing immediate revulsion and disgust based on people’s beliefs, without considering possible reasons for them believing that way. The reason for this is clear – it doesn’t matter what the reason is: If you hold that opinion, there is no way your rationale could be justified. Whatever rationale you have for your position, you are wrong.

But consider this: On any issue, 150 million Americans ostensibly hold the opposite view. Such consensus should give us pause. What is more likely: That half the country is immoral and misinformed, or that we have not been charitable in thinking about their position? Given that disagreement spans across all racial, gender and socioeconomic boundaries, it is quite a bold claim to say that all those people are so wrong that we cannot even imagine how they think.

This inability to sympathize with ideological opposites reveals a staggering arrogance in how we see ourselves. To be numb to how others think implies hubris in our own intelligence and knowledge: The issue is so obvious to us that there must only be one way to look at it, and anyone who sees it any other way must be deluded.

It is one thing to disagree with the values and principles that the opposing view stands behind, but not to understand how there could be reasonable disagreement is a failure to see any differing values or principles whatsoever. The very tone behind “I can’t understand how they could believe this” is one of condescension, as if those on the other side are not intellectual equals. Such disrespect makes productive engagement with society as a whole all but impossible.

As our school shows, what we lack is not critical thinking but perspective. As committed as we are to our beliefs, we fail to realize that there is someone just as committed, intelligent and informed on the opposite side. We should welcome disagreement as an opportunity for mutual understanding. Williams students care, and for most of us, politics is not a game – the stakes are real.

It is understandable, then, why we may become overzealous in our efforts to advocate policies we see as necessary. But in the process, we must not lose sight of our place among others. We need a healthy dose of humility. Only with such modesty in our own abilities can we foster real cooperation and growth.


Charlie Cao ’13 is a philosophy major from Winnetka, Ill. He lives in Currier.

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