Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions

An Ongoing Conversation between Joe Seipel and Me

An Ongoing Conversation between Joe Seipel and Me

1. Will our cognitive tendencies permit us to benefit from generalizations and yet rely on them with skepticism?

2. Is the willingness to label ourselves as belonging to a group both a positive step in the direction of identity creation and a risky separation from those outside the group?

3. Is labeling others as golfers, Republicans, or comedians illuminating or destructive of understanding?

I find it annoying when others say "well that is just a generalization."  That comment can be a wise warning that there is a huge range of possibilities excluded by reliance on "most" statements. But in my experience the comment is more commonly a celebration of the particular or the idiosyncratic. Used in this latter fashion, a generalization is seen as an enemy of careful thought.

Generalizations can certainly be weaker or stronger, but the idea that a careful delimiting of the attributes of a group or a behavior such that we can assert something about most members of the group or instances of the behavior is a major accomplishment. If what I am saying here seems confused, that impression stems from my being hugely ambivalent about generalizations when I form them and when I hear them.

Joe and I have been discussing this ambivalence in the context of thinking about the labels we attach to others and to ourselves. A label itself presumably represents a generalization. When we say we are Seattle Seahawk fans, most of us will at minimum be somewhat saddened when the Seahawks lose a football game. 

We attach these labels to ourselves in partial fulfillment of our affiliative urge. Belong to certain groups, and you can achieve things that would quite literally be impossible if attempted individually. But once we self-identify as a group member, can our minds permit us to see the strengths and harken to the arguments of those who are indifferent toward or oppositional to our group? Do labels/generalizations serve as fences or silos to encourage our native belief perseverance and confirmation bias?

Do labels and groups in general, as natural as they are, build barriers to the resolution of any problem requiring communal interaction? Can groups transcend their internal bonding to tackle common problems? Is the implication of these questions an important critique of generalizing tendencies of all kinds? Do our minds rush to the truth represented by what describes "most members" in the generalization with only a rare backward glance at the other?

Does not group membership exacerbate the problem George Orwell identifies that "we are all capable of believing things which we know at some level to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right all along."? What solace to have members of my clan, tribe, group, or team affirm that I had been right all along.

Regardless of the effects of labeling, joining groups, or forming classifications, we are going to continue these generalizing tendencies. But are there internal checklists that can allow us to struggle against these dangers?

If we were to build such a checklist we would start with the following:

  1. Reflect about the wisdom of the Greeks in elevating moderation to a central role in their values scheme. See labels as being porous and thin, indicative of partial identity, but not totalizing concepts  representing the essence of a person or behavior. Yes, we are libertarians or Swedes, or soldiers.  But each of us has multiple allegiances and at our most reflective, we know full well that the people outside of our group possess insight.
  2. Force yourself to celebrate difference,at least to some extent. Even inside your clan there are doubtlessly huge variations. Some libertarians see pharmacists as the enemy of liberty; other libertarians are pharmacists. Generalizations have various degrees of elasticity.  Recognizing that range of "belonging" should challenge the tendency to be smug about the superiority of any particular variant you represent even when that variant is dominant in the larger group.

What would you add to Joe's and my list?  Do you see the problem as non-existent?

1. Is resistance to group identity hopeless? Consistent with Socratic urging to be a "citizen of the world"?

2. Do people put their minds to sleep when they label themselves because they must realize that the label has dimensions that they do not honor?  Or are they simply willing to pay that price because the group promises action that as individuals they could not dream of achieving?




AuthorM Neil Browne