A Guide to Critical Thinking

First of all, I ought to apologize for the delayed absence from WMT, I’ve been in the process of moving, which makes blogging a bit more difficult.

Lately I’ve been engaging in discussions about wildly different issues with old friends and family. Many of these conversations have turned out to be fruitful, because I’ve discovered some methods that people use (and don’t use) to think critically about the world.

iStock_000016040394XSmallAnd in the spirit of blogging, I thought I might share some of these observances for public scrutiny and posterity. And maybe to help you and me. So without further ado, the steps one must take to think critically:

1. Define things.

Someone got into an argument with me over communism. They made this wonderfully typical claim: “Communism looks good on paper, but it doesn’t work in real life, because of human nature.”

Now this argument tells me a few things: this person doesn’t know anything about communism, this person hasn’t read anything about communism, and this person absolutely knows what “human nature” is, apparently. My response was to push them to define communism. What does communism mean?

Of course, they couldn’t provide any solid definition.

This way of questioning isn’t only important for winning an argument, however. It’s also important for speaking to someone in clear terms. If I say “communism”, but I’m talking about something else entirely, then we can’t have a genuine conversation, right?

It’s also the only way to have a genuine conversation with yourself. It’s necessary to define ideas in order to truly understand them. Which brings me to my next point…

2. Question your own assumptions.

This is easily the hardest thing to do, but observing and challenging your own assumptions is the most beneficial thing you can do when thinking. Need a concrete example?

Let’s imagine you’re arguing with someone over the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Regardless of which side of the “gun control” debate you’re on, you’re probably arguing over how to interpret the text, purpose, and intentions behind the constitution.

What is the assumption here?

Of course, the assumption is that the constitution is an objective document that we can base arguments on and against. The way to break this down critically is to ask, “What is the constitution? Why do we give it power? Whom does it serve?”

Why, in the United States today, do we treat the constitution as some holy writ?

Because we understand it in a constructed context.

3. Context, Context, Context

A few weeks ago, when Zimmerman was let off, the United States was split between people who felt that the crime, trial, and acquittal had obvious racist undertones and people who are stupid.

There were hordes of white people chanting from the rooftops that the case had nothing to do with race. Why is it justified for me to call them stupid? Because they don’t understand the context.

People who thought that the case had nothing to do with race were ignoring the enormous problems surrounding race in this country. They don’t understand that race still plays a huge role in how we view each other. They don’t understand that we’re not in some post-racist utopia.

Putting the death of Trayvon Martin in the context of race relations in this country makes the situation clear. The situation that being a black male in the United States makes you a target. And this is what makes the study of history so pertinent.

If you know the names of Troy Davis, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Jordan Davis, Brandon McClelland, Kendrick Johnson, and so many others, then you’re less likely to see this as a single case and, instead, put it in its proper context.

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