Independents Day: A Call For Critical Thinking

James Madison wrote, in the popular Federalist #10:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Insert “party” for “faction” and Madison’s fear takes on a more modern face.  However, his analysis holds today for those who place the interests of the party over the interests of the country:

“A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Yes, we’ve gotten there. Not that political parties are without  redeeming features.  Parties allow us a framework for political activity; recruiting candidates, establishing a nominating process, organizing candidacies, and promoting a platform of policies and principles.   It’s when we arrive at the “disposed to vex” station that our train is off the rails.

If a portion of the 39% who believe the current President is doing a good job [Al.com] are motivated by satisfaction that the incumbent is vexing to “liberals,” then we’ve met one of the elements which caused Madison to argue against “faction.”  It’s when one group is “adversed” to the rights of others, when we create permanent aggregates of interest, when we are more interested in vexing the opposition than in areas of mutual needs — then we’ve reached Madison’s critical mass.  What is necessary is a bit of Independent’s Thinking.

An independent person may self identify as a member of a political party, but is not defined by that categorization.   A lack of independent thinking yields little but self absorbed partisanship, a feature not conducive to problem solving — or even to identifying the problems in the first place.  There are several sources which purport to define and explain critical thinking, among these the University of Michigan provides a succinct statement. Critical thinking requires analyzing, applying standards, discriminating, seeking additional information, logical reasoning,  predicting, and transforming knowledge into positions or proposals.  Another way to approach critical thinking skills is in the form of a ‘cheatsheet’ illustrating the kinds of questions an independent thinker might apply toward an issue.

If we would diminish the effects of authoritarianism and the less fortuitous elements of partisanship then we’d be well advised to promote critical thinking — which requires more than sound bite sloganeering and the exhortations of televised spin doctors.

For the sake of argument let’s adopt the premise that neither American political party will develop the perfect solution to providing health care insurance to everyone in this country.  What we can, and should do, in this instance is to ask some critical questions,  considering a current proposal: Who benefits? Who is harmed? Who will be the most directly affected?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of the proposal? What are the alternatives?  What actions of policies would create a positive change? What would provide the ‘greatest good for the greatest number?’ Where can more information be obtained?

Why is this a relevant problem? Why is there a felt need to make policy changes?  When will we know if a proposal or plan has succeeded?  When is the appropriate time to measure success?

It is equally efficacious to ask these questions of proposals regarding financial sector regulation,  voting rights issues, and climate change policies… indeed, any prospective issue.

We also need to take a more informed view of the way we categorize partisanship and non-partisanship.  One need not be a political independent, in the sense of registering as non-partisan, in order to be an independent political person.  Too often we tend to conflate the terms “independent” and “nonpartisan.”  It is entirely possible to be an independent thinker while identifying with a political party.  All that’s required is a sense that all proposals should be analyzed and evaluated for the purpose of perfecting them, not necessarily for the exercise of opposing them.

It’s easy to assign some responsibility to broadcast media for a lack of examples of critical thinking, and its application to contemporary issues.  Fifteen minute segments are hardly conducive to asking all the pertinent questions.  Having a biased perspective from the onset isn’t helpful whether it is coming from the Fox News Network or the Sinclair corporation.  Having the “adversarial” format in which CNN or MSNBC broadcast two or more ‘analysts’ launching verbal grenades at one another isn’t all that helpful either.  However, these outlets will continue their present formats until their ratings drop, and drop precipitously enough to convince sponsors that the public wants more information and less entertainment.

It’s also rather too easy to argue that the Schools Should Be Doing More.  Granted the current testing craze isn’t conducive to imparting practice in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation; but, it’s equally true that most education occurs in the home.  If parents and other significant people in the household ask each other to differentiate between facts and opinions, and further to require each other to substantiate his or her statements with facts, then Little Ears will pick up the process — everyone succeeds in this scenario.

Independence Day would be as good a time as any for us to declare ourselves Independents, as in independent thinkers, no matter our political affiliation.

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