Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Culture of Ignorance

Watching the congressional health care scrum and ensuing “town hall meetings,” I find myself wondering whatever happened to the art of critical thinking. The near-decade of politicians on the right pandering to the lowest common denominator—devaluing intellectuals, rigorous education, and what used to pass for common sense—has created a weird cult-like segment of the population that is easily led by falsehoods and fear.

When people aren’t doing their own thinking, it’s easy to prey on their ignorance of the issues. It’s a piece of cake to get them to see themselves as victims of an enormous and complicated system they don’t and can't understand.

Does anyone really believe that any part of the various proposed health care policies include a “death panel?” And how can people not see that, in effect, that is how our current system works, with insurance companies deciding who gets coverage and treatment and who doesn’t? I watch people ranting on TV and wonder, “Who are these people?” They seem like agitated and terrified creatures from some alternate universe.

Our culture has encouraged people to become passive observers who believe what they are told by people who cast every issue as a binary choice: right or wrong. Our people, it would seem, no longer are taught how to do the real work of independently assessing information, determining by their own investigation and standards what’s true or false, and then acting on it in a rational manner.

Instead, many people appear to have no filters; they drink in what they’re told. They sit back and let ever-more-shrill politicians, zealots, and pundits tell them what they should think, largely based on what they should fear. Fear-mongering is like fast food for the brain: it’s easy to incite and triggers adrenalin, providing an immediate emotional payoff (Kapow!). It is far less exciting to take the time to study, assess, and come to one’s own conclusion about complex, often hard-to-understand issues (Yawn).

When there is true critical thinking, it is difficult to get a group of informed and intelligent people to come to agreement on most issues. How then can the Republicans walk in lock step on nearly every issue? How is it that they manage to represent everything in binary black-and-white/right-and-wrong terms? The answer is that people want assurance and clarity from their leaders. It makes folks feel safe--they know where the boundaries are. The problem is that most issues that our government has to grapple with are not black-and-white, with clearly defined edges, and there are few, if any, set-in-stone yes/no answers. That’s one reason why the Democrats are always in such disarray—between a tradition of independent thinking and a culture of political ambition, it’s pretty hard to get those ducks in a row.

It will take a huge shift to overcome the culture of ignorance we’ve created. I can only hope that Mr. Obama can somehow find a way to overcome the overwhelming resistance to thinking for oneself. And the rest of us might want to consider our role in this, too.

1 comment:

Kathleen Dames said...

I became truly disheartened by the stupidity of the American populace when Bush was re-elected. That's when I almost gave up hope. Here's hoping!