The mainstream media has let us down. Our education system has let us down. Our justice system has let us down. Our leaders have let us down. The stakes have never been higher. It’s time for us, the American people, to take back the reins. And we can start by becoming inherently more skeptical of the information we’re subjected to, and increasingly more suspicious of the information we are not.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of analyzing fact in order to reach a conclusion or form a judgement.

The key word in that statement is FACT. And just like truth, fact does exist, regardless of how obscured, distorted, and manipulated it has been.

Carl Gustav Jung once stated that “knowledge rests not upon truth alone, but upon error also.” Thus, a fact is something that can be proven true or false. Emotions, judgements, interpretations, no matter how often or in what quantities they are added, do not alter fact. Like truth, it requires nothing be added or removed. It stands on its own and is unalterable.

Fact that has been manipulated in order to evoke emotion, sway judgement, or suggest behavior, is no longer fact. It has become something else. And that something usually has a purpose, an agenda, a narrative to perpetuate. And regardless of what that purpose is, it’s dangerous.

As a teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. Of all the subjects I taught during those years, American History was by far my favorite. As a result, my position as a history teacher was one I took very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my students the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter, in order to find truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of reading, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens. | Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The manipulation of fact is not new.

It’s called propaganda. And it has been used over and over again throughout history with usually one endgame in mind: to control behavior in order to gain and maintain power. It does this by not only controlling the flow of information, but exactly WHAT information is provided. If you never present the other side, it’s much easier to present your narrative as fact, right?

Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

When we think of propaganda, we don’t usually associate it with America, or with democracy. No. We usually associate it with totalitarian governments that control every aspect of their citizens lives. It has no place in a free society, and yet, disguised in its current form as “preventative and necessary measures against the spread of misinformation, disinformation, etc.”, propaganda has not only made its way into the sacred realm of our free and open society, it has burrowed deep.

“There’s an increasing push among people who study disinformation for stronger language and stronger visual cues, so like an exclamation point, a warning, something that really tells people what you’re seeing here is probably wrong. And both Facebook and Twitter now in certain context, if you share something that they know is false, they will then send you a note to let you know that you’ve shared false information. So it’ll be interesting to see if that has an effect on people and makes them less likely to share more false information in the future.” 

Emily Bazelon, staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, October 2020

The mainstream news media, the internet, social media, and the technology giants who run them, have an agenda; the same agenda, in fact. At face value, it’s simply to make money. Beneath the surface though, behind closed doors, there is a much darker purpose at work. One that we, for the most part, have been oblivious to. Until now.

What is that agenda? To reap the maximum return on their investment by capitalizing on their ability to quickly collect and quantify information in order to not only predict behavior, but to manipulate and influence it, as well. To what end? Their own, period. And as we’ve seen more abundantly over the course of the past few years, that also includes suppressing information, individuals, and organizations that stand in opposition to or, in their judgement, are a threat to that agenda.

And it goes even deeper than just the information alone.

Day in and day out we are bombarded with information. Information that elicits emotional rather than logical reactions. Information that reinforces our own positions, while at the same time dividing us from everyone else. Information we provide with a click, a swipe, a like, an engagement of some kind. Information that is collected, stored, and used, at the very least, to expose us to advertising we might be interested in, at worst and most dangerous, to manipulate our emotions with the singular goal of influencing our behavior, and if that is unsuccessful, to silencing us altogether. 

And as we have witnessed, that manipulation is playing out in very real, very violent, and divisive ways before our very eyes. Politicians and the mainstream and social medias waist no time jumping on their bandwagons on the heels of very real tragedies in order to advance their narratives and their agendas. The finger pointing, rhetoric spewing, catch-phrase repeating begins almost immediately, taking the spotlight away from the tragedy itself and placing it squarely on its potential usefulness.

In the wake of the Uvalde school shooting in which an 18-year-old gunman took the lives of 19 children and two teachers, rather than taking a moment to grieve these losses, partisan politicians did what they always do. They used the opportunity to advance their agenda, “The Second Amendment, like all other rights, is not absolute. This isn’t about taking away anyone’s rights. It’s about protecting children,” said President Joe Biden in his national address on June 2. | Image by dietcheese from Pixabay

Most everyone watches news, uses the internet and social media, yes; and that’s ok.

Learning how to apply critical thinking skills lessens the in-your-face-impact what we see, hear, and what we read ultimately has on us. Information is power, after all, but it doesn’t have to be one sided, and in a democracy, in fact, it’s not supposed to be.

We are responsible for being informed citizens. Being informed does not mean accepting everything we see, hear, or read at face value. Information, including live footage and images are susceptible to manipulation.Video clips, sound bites, even photographs once taken out of context, can be easily used as propaganda tools. The mainstream media does it all the time. Politicians do it all the time. Many of them are experts at it.

So what can we do to lessen the impact this distortion of fact has on our ability to make logical decisions? We can take back control of our thinking, of our learning, and of our choices and decisions by becoming experts at critical thinking.

Critical thinking enables us to wade through the noise, identify the facts, and then using those facts, draw our own conclusions. Once we remove ourselves from all the noise, and there is tons of it, and focus on the facts, the conclusions we draw on any given subject, are logical rather than based on emotion, anger, fear, etc. Thus, the decisions and judgements we apply that information to are logical as well.

Asking questions, evaluating the evidence presented, or in many cases suppressed, along with the ability to distinguish fact from opinion are the first steps toward becoming a critical thinker. Critical thinking requires us to consider not only the information itself, but also the speaker, the audience, the statement, and it’s relevance.

“Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at the highest level of quality in a fair minded way. People who think critically attempt, with consistent and conscious effort, to live rationally, reasonably, and empathically. They are keenly aware of the inherently flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked.”

Linda Elder, President, Foundation for Critical Thinking, September, 2007

“The third-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the majority. A second-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking with the minority. A first-rate mind is only happy when it is thinking.” ~ A. A. Milne | Image by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay

The Speaker and Audience

Who the speaker is, their affiliations, and how they know the truth of the statement they’re making are as important as the statement itself.

Additionally, who is being addressed, the speaker’s connection to them, and how likely they are to consider the statement true, are also vital. Group-think, hive-mentality, virtue-signaling, etc., are very real, and dangerous byproducts of the largely intentional lack of instruction on the art and application of critical thinking in our colleges and universities. And we’ve had a front row seat to its ramifications for awhile now.

The Statement

It’s imperative that we consider the statement itself. Can it be proven? If the statement itself is true, it’s critical to ask, what else might be true, as well as, are there other possible interpretations of the facts behind the statement? Will it still be valid tomorrow, next month, even next year. We’ve all witnessed instances where in light of new information or facts, statements once considered truth become debunked and discarded. Perfect example, the entire Russia Collusion Hoax perpetrated by opponents of President Trump and obsessed over by the mainstream media. Even as evidence that the entire case was built on a house of cards came to light, like rabid dogs refusing to relinquish their bone, the mainstream media and the engineers behind the farce continued to propagate the madness. 

The Relevance

Just as important as considering the statement itself, is consideration of its relevance. Asking ourselves, what difference does this statement make? Do we care; why should we? What happens now? What happens next?

Seemingly innocuous on the surface, these questions are important for us to decide for ourselves. Too often, the motivation behind statements being tossed out as factual or repeated incessantly, is to elicit strong emotion, usually fear. Fear is a great motivator as we’ve witnessed all over the country in the past few years. As is perpetuating the collective “us or them” victim mentality that has incited so much violence in our cities.

By design, catchphrases are frequently, incessantly repeated to immediately elicit emotion and/or until they become part of the common vernacular. | Image by Digtallife from Pixabay

Critical thinking requires us to step outside our emotions and to examine things logically. When we do so, relevance is more than simply whether or not we should care, it’s an indicator that looking deeper into the statement is warranted and even necessary to uncovering truth.

Why is any of this important?

Critical thinking includes, at its heart, a sense of skepticism, an innate need to question why?

In this day and age of abundant information from an over abundance of sources, it is becoming harder and harder to discern the facts contained within.

Approaching the news, the internet, virtually all sources of information with a sense of skepticism is vital. Not just to each of us as individuals, but to our society as a whole. If we don’t develop and encourage the use of these skills, especially in our children, than we are laying the foundation for a society in which we are told what to think and how to act, rather than deciding those things for ourselves.

And that is just the first step. Every step after that will lead us further and further down the road to a total dismantling of our democracy and our freedoms.

It may seem like a small weapon against such a vast and virtually unchecked machine, but it’s a powerful one. Critical thinking places the responsibility for our knowledge, reason, and our choices where they belong. With us.

That’s how important it is.

“To think incisively and to think for one’s self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half-truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior

JN Fenwick, (© 2021-22) | Former U.S. History Teacher | Contributor and Editor, In the Eye of the Storm and In the Aftermath of the Storm

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