Learning to Think Independently

Whenever I hear someone tell me they “would not change a thing” if they had the chance to have a ‘do-over’, I immediately know they are not being completely honest. We have all made mistakes in life that we wish we could reverse, be it a conversation with your parents, friends or partner, or an impulse act that had repercussions that you regret.

In 2002 I stumbled upon a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian after a relationship split and whilst it did not have an immediate impact, it would be a book I would (and I still do) return to for a ‘refresher’ on life.

I have never really been one to believe in any celestial, paranormal, or superstitious being and if I did in the past, I later understood that it was purely based on the environment I grew up in. I think this is the same for most of us, there is after all, never really a need to question these positions as a child. How many of us would believe in Santa Claus, Fairies, Ghosts, UFO’s and the like, if we were first introduced to them as a thinking adult?

So back to Letters to a Young Contrarian. The first thing this book taught me was to always distrust my motives for taking an immediate position on any given subject. This is somewhat more difficult than it seems on face value. You could be in a conversation about friends, politics, lifestyles – pretty much anything and you find you almost immediately have a default position, but based on what?

Casting you motives aside, it is a liberating experience to think independently of your motives and actually take each position on its merits, perhaps research the subject a little and see how your position changes. It is supremely unimpressive to me if someone tells me they are a Republican or a Democrat, or if most of their positions are moulded by their ideologies or affiliations.

By 2004 I had the opportunity to start afresh with a new mindset and in a new location and Letters to a Young Contrarian has travelled with me widely and is a book that gives you a new way of thinking about subject you thought were closed.

If I ever find myself now listening to a politician using the word “fact” when making a point I immediately find this term is a display of their arguments weakness. There are no facts in politics, they are almost always debated! So how do I try to operate (not always successfully) in conversation?

I am an Information Junkie

I am no longer afraid to say “I do not have an opinion on this as I do not fully understand the subject”, whereas in the past, I would have an opinion purely based on my motive for that opinion. In any conversation you have with family or friends you will find you automatically have an opinion, this is primarily based on your historical motives and ideologies.

One of the most troubling aspects of the world in today’s age is that so many blogs and media outlets take snippets of conversations, or massage a message to take a position on a subject, which we then form an opinion on. A perfect example of this where headlines after a recent GOP debate where Republican Candidate Ron Paul seemed to say that he would legalize heroin, when in fact if you read or watched the full transcript of his speech you will notice that the message was more in line with, “if you legalized heroin, then how many people would use it?” His very point was that making drugs illegal, you instantly create a market for this and then have to deal with all aspects of the criminalization of the drug including management, policing, detention and not to mention the cartels that then spring up on the supply side.

By legalizing that and all other drugs, you basically eradicate all of the above in one swoop and you are left only with the treatment of addiction for the relatively minor population that will still use the drug. This fits mostly with his view that what people do to themselves in their own private life is matter for them only and does not need government dictation!

Personally I think drugs are pretty silly, I do not do any myself, I do understand why some people do drugs, but to be honest, what people do in the privacy of their own home, is no business of mine!

Evidence and Reason

One great trick many so called experts play on us is to mention outrageous incidences to enhance their arguments. I have heard things like “I saw a homeless man beg for money and drive home in a BMW”, “weather stations are located on concrete under the hot sun”, “teachers earn 100k per year” and the like. These are purposely placed to make you repeat the same conversations to others, when in reality any person who did some research on their own would clearly understand that these if true are isolated occurrences! In Australia immigration has become such a stupid issue that dominates both sides of politics, particularly the amount of boat people that come to Australia (a few thousand per year), that you find now governments prepared to spend billions trying to stop something that really isn’t a problem in the first place!

The title of this little section is to demonstrate how invigorating it has become in my life to think independently on many issues and the discovery that you can no longer be pigeonholed when you do so. When it comes to science there is something few dissenters understand about scientific processes. Science at its core, is all about falsifiable evidence, that means a scientists can take a position based upon the evidence collected, then publish those results along with the data used for anyone else to falsify. If the data and the process of collection is not supplied with the findings, then it is simply not science! Debating science with hyperbole and emotion, to the thinking person, is just a big yawn, yet so many politicians and media pundits do so, and have ardent followers, mystifying!

Thinking for yourself can be a revelation and opens your mind to challenging yourself when reading articles, in conversation or watching current affairs and news. My favorite mind game to play is to guess in advance a position someone will take on any subject and watch this play out, almost to a fault people cannot help but take a position purely based on motivation and ideology.

Here is a little exercise to tease the mind. After reading each line, move on.

  • Barack Obama
  • Climate Change
  • George W Bush
  • Pope Benedict
  • Mother Theresa
  • Green Energy
  • Wall Street
  • Tea Party
  • Ron Paul
  • Osama Bin Laden
  • Hiroshima
  • Henry Kissinger
  • Abortion
  • Bill Clinton
  • Nuclear Power
  • Ronald Reagan
  • Unions
  • Federal Taxes
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Hamas

Each one of these words and I assume you know at least 15 out of 20 (you should) strikes an immediate emotion, based on our ideologies and therefore our motives to come to an immediate conclusion. You will find yourself having an emotional response to many of these, but how much do we really know about each person, event or group? To be against any of these, a thinking person must at least know the subject, otherwise they are either repeating other peoples thoughts or just taking a default position based on ideology.

Understanding each position does not come about by reading a favorable take on the subject, understanding and thinking for yourself involves reading other sides of the argument and then coming to a conclusion. If you get all of your news and opinions from one side only you do yourself a disservice.

You may love Barack Obama and loath George Bush, but why? If you just repeat what others say about either of them, you create an a vacuum of thought and an emptiness of spirit. You can disagree against certain policies, you can spout emotions about either of them, but that does not form an argument, it just begins a discussion.

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