A Plague of Free Thinkers

Ever since a certain music superstar of a certain chromatic disposition tweeted out his approval of the a similarly melanated individual’s cognitive workings–a person who happens to occupy a different spot on the political spectrum than most of her co-colorists–“free thinker” has been bandied about by a whole lot of people to describe themselves.

It’s an utterly meaningless term that is so smarmy and self-righteous it makes me want to puke.

Everybody on Earth think’s they’re a free thinker. Every one. Unless you are literally under some form of mind control (for example, under threat of physical violence or imprisonment or other harsh penalties for not expressing certain viewpoints), all of us think we arrived at our viewpoints based on thinking freely about all available options, looking at things from every side’s perspective, being open-minded, and so on.

The only problem is that it’s all nonsense. We have a plague of “free thinkers.”

People have biases. People have trouble overcoming biases. People are often not even aware of their biases. People also almost to a man think that they’re smarter than the average person, or even the above-average person, on every topic imaginable–call it Dunning-Kruger if you must, but I like the term illusory superiority.

I ask you again, then, what makes your thinking freer than that other guy’s thinking?

More often than not, the measure of the other guy’s status and ability as a free thinker is how well the other guy’s conclusions match with your own. If that proverbial other guy agrees with you, then wow! You’ve found another free thinker! But if their conclusions don’t align with yours, then I guess they’re just an unthinking, brainwashed buffoon. There can’t be any other explanation, right?

If you can’t see the problem with this line of thinking, then you are a part of the problem.

This line of thinking is what demagogues and propagandists of all stripes and persuasions use to build and condition their little armies–and sometimes their big armies–into believing that they are utterly right about everything and the other guy is utterly devoid of humanity. And when you have a scapegoat who’s not even human, the only sane, rational, and good answer is to completely stomp them out.

If you’ve ever wondered what can drive somebody to get really violent over a difference of political opinion, well, here’s part of the answer.

Being right feels good. This explains the asinine “We’re on the right side of history!” argument political terrorists use to punish those who disagree, because they’re obviously on the wrong side of history, and wrong is bad and needs to be exterminated.

The answer isn’t to be full of constant self-doubt and hold nothing ever to be true. This is a different kind of plague, one that we see writ large in the majority of modern European societies. They have questioned everything about themselves to the point of bottomless self-loathing; they don’t even believe their own societies should exist anymore, and are acting accordingly.

And let me tell you, I’m sure all of them think they’re the freest of free thinkers who ever freely thought.

And they’re right. They can probably explain to you how they reached their conclusions.

This, I think, is the distinction between “free thinkers” and “not free thinkers”–if you insist on using this terminology. Not whether the person agrees with you, but whether you can actually explain how you reached a conclusion and why.

Criticizing someone for believing Point X because “They heard it from Bill Maher!” or “Rush Limbaugh said so!” is fine and good . . . .but why do you hold the opposite view?

  • “Those dumbass Christians believe whatever’s in their book!”
  • “Yes, I take every single thing Richard Dawkins says on face value; what of it?”

Do you see where I’m going here?

True confidence in one’s cognitive abilities and beliefs, much like true self-esteem, comes from actually doing something. Swallowing something hook, line, and sinker from a source you trust is a trap everybody falls into. You are no better than the other person in that regard. What separates the “free thinkers” from the rest is digging deeper.

While we’re at it, isn’t “free thinker” just a snazzier sounding euphemism for “critical thinker”? Questioning where information is coming from, going to the primary source, being aware of one’s own biases just as much as one is aware of another’s . . . .aren’t these the kind of things they used to teach in high school and college?

Chances are, none of us are “free thinkers” the way we think the expression connotes. It’s used as yet another smug way to exert superiority over people we disagree with, but it’s not only foolish under critical examination, but also counterproductive in that it can absolve you of actually having to intellectually back up your own points.

After all, if only a free thinker can come to the conclusion that you did, who cares how you got there? It’s the other guy who’s evil and bad and wrong and needs to be snuffed out . . . you see where I’m going with this.

The recursion level is nearly off the charts.

I mean, for God’s sake, you’re better off defending your beliefs based on their empirically verifiable outcomes more than anything else. Present evidence, and leave it up to the recipient to believe it or not. Debate, discussion, and argument aren’t easy things. Human beings should always seek to refine and improve their understanding of everything, and be willing to admit when they’re wrong as new evidence comes to light.

You don’t have to repudiate some or all of what you believe, but you shouldn’t crack in the face of an intellectual challenge. That’s not “free thinking,” that’s being a “snowflake,” another term that has been overused to the point of parody.

It is possible to point out flaws and inconsistencies in certain viewpoints and how they’re arrived at (true believers in communism, for an easy example, as are those Republican and libertarian establishment types who insist in the face of their own data, that open borders and rapid, unchecked low-skilled immigration into the United States somehow improves our economy and benefits the economic well-being of the lower- and middle-classes. But I digress). It’s another to issue a blanket dismissal of certain viewpoints and how they’re arrived at because you’re a “free thinker” and they’re not.

Want to think freely? Be aware of your own biases and blind spots and adjust your thinking accordingly. Do this, and you’ll be ahead of 99 percent of the game.


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