#58: Question Everything; But Also Yourself

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

It is important to not take everything for granted. The dangers of authoritarianism are always real, and simple answers to complex questions should never satisfy the curious mind. There is a reason dictatorships always want to limit free speech and even thinking itself, and any attempts at limiting free thought and free expression need to be countered.

The biggest advances in human thought and endeavors have been made by those who were willing to question the status, quo, to think outside the box, to deviate from dogma. The institutionalization of this questioning is called science. Sure, science has an orthodoxy, but it encourages questioning the very orthodoxy it allegedly protects. It is not perfect, but its methodology encourages and is built on curiosity. Still, sometimes it needs outside thinkers to make advances, and that has routinely happened.

The arts, as well, thrives on newness, on deviating from known patterns, on surprising new ways of interrogating human existence. Wherever the arts and the sciences are thriving, society will be healthy, and the very act of questioning everything that exists is welcome as a necessity.

If you question everything though, you also need to question yourself. There will be many situations in your life during which you may see yourself as the only one that knows the answer, or that there are only a very few that think like you, and that the majority of society is set against you. These moments can happen. I grew up in a brutal dictatorship, and I know how that feels. But you learn that oppression can be overcome, even if it takes forever. You also learn that, despite all the efforts of a dictatorship not to have you express yourself, you are not alone. Most people who live under an oppressive system know that, and they will find little ways of resisting and pretending to conform. Even in the worst of societies, be it Nazism, Communism, religious extremism, or any other totalitarian attempt to control the way you think and feel, even in those systems, you will know that even the oppressors know that this is wrong.

If you do not live in such a system, but you still believe that you do, this is a tough spot to be in. You will feel that everyone is against you. Your allies seem to be fewer than you think. Your friends and family will seemingly be against you. You are the only one to see the truth, and you see only a tiny proportion of society willing to share your point of view. You can still be right in your suspicions. But you will need to question yourself. Nobody is an expert in everything, and if you feel especially vulnerable, your judgement may not be leading you down the right path all the time.

Question yourself. Sometimes, you are headed in the right direction while everybody is heading the other way. That can surely happen. But there is also the possibility that everyone is heading in the right way, and you just took a wrong turn and are driving on the wrong lane against traffic. There is such a thing as paranoia, and to quote Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but sometimes, our drive to question everything can make us become unable to trust that when almost everyone around you disagrees with you, you might not be the rebel, but you might actually be wrong. Recognizing that is the truly revolutionary act. We all can be wrong sometimes. Only the truly free thinkers can recognize that about themselves.

Only if we truly think freely, and truly question everything, will we be able to communicate nuances, problems that others are not recognizing or unwilling to discuss. Things are never black and white, they are always shades of grey. Just because one problem may dominate society does not mean that that problem does not need to be addressed in nuanced ways, neither have all other problems gone away. Staying in conversation with others means that your voice will get heard on the issues you care about. Setting yourself against everyone means that eventually, you will be ignored even when it matters the most. If you follow Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving, it is not about questioning everything at all: it is about loving everything, and caring deeply enough to affect positive change.

#39: Free Speech is Absolute

The dividing line between a just society and barbarism is whether free speech is valued or not. With “free speech” I mean any speech, no matter how offensive. With protected, I mean that the only answer to speech you do not like shall be counter-speech. The truth will win out in an equal, peaceful, respectful exchange of ideas.

  • Equal, because we are all living beings on this planet, and in a dialogic situation, equality of discourse needs to be maintained by fostering equity. Free societies understand this principle – we will all be different, but in our most impactful moment of speech, our vote, we are all (ideally) the same.
  • Peaceful, because only an attitude of peacefulness will allow you to listen to somebody else, and also to your true self. Peace is non-aggression, love, true freedom, true strength; only by being at peace can you achieve it. Peace is absolute also: you are only peaceful if you talk in a soft voice, allow for rational arguments be exchanged, do not hurt other beings or things. Be the peace you seek.
  • Respectful, because you cannot pretend to be all-knowing, and need to realize that someone else may hold a different piece of the truth that you may disagree with, but it may still be true.
  • Exchange means that speech flows from person to person after each has been given ample time to make the best argument possible for their case. It also means that you should not mistake a person’s utterances for their true and steadfast opinion; it may just be an argument that needs to be discussed, whether heartfelt or not; also, people’s opinions change over time depending on the availability of convincing facts and interpretations.

Only week societies shut out other people for expressing ideas, holding beliefs, or for simply being obstinate to what may be considered acceptable or correct opinion. Strong societies relish the open exchange of ideas, right or wrong, offensive or inoffensive, in order to correctly gauge the political and cultural imaginary of the state, and to design policy accordingly, democratically, representatively, cautiously, and sustainably.

Only if everyone has a voice, and knows their voice will be taken seriously, and they will not be harmed for voicing it, will they be in a state of mind to listen to your arguments, if you have some, and give you a change to convince them otherwise. Or, you may be convinced by them. And so it will go, in an eternal circle of discourse; true democracy; true humanity; true utopia. (I think Habermas may be sighing somewhere).

The path of disallowing free speech, even in increments, and even if it starts with just a few things that are somehow seen as “offensive” by the few or the many, will lead further and further down the road, where new categories of offensiveness will be invented, and as a result, all speech will become unfree. The logical end point of the banning of speech has many names: Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, in fact all Socialist/Communist states, especially currently the so-called “People’s Republic” of China. In such countries, there cannot be any criticism of injustice, intolerance, inequity, inequality, inhumanity.

Those of us in the West fighting against what we see as injustice should never look to become like that, but the road is very slippery. The fight for freedom and improvement cannot be won by curtailing the freedoms and limiting the paths to improvement of those you disagree with. Freedom of Speech is always the Freedom of the Speech of those we clearly disagree with – otherwise, we would need no such commandment.

But in its wisdom, all of democracy, all of justice, all of peace-building work is contained within the demand that freedom of speech must always be absolute.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#22: There Are No “Alternative” News Sources

The dissatisfaction with “established” news sources is real. There has been a worrying trend in media towards heavy editorializing, partisan bias, and selective reporting. All this is happening in newspapers and television news, also online.

But the answer to that problem is not to gravitate to “alternative” news sources which would see all these problems compounded at a much higher degree.

The answer to problematic media is to diversify your media intake, but also to make sure not to select even less reliable news sources. Either something is news or it is not. There is no “alternative” news, just as there are not “alternative” facts. There can be different interpretations of the same news and facts, just as much as media can have selection bias.

Ideally, selection bias can be overcome by indeed looking at news from different angles, and by maintaining all-out skepticism. Selection bias is nothing new, and has been a regrettable feature of newspapers for ever. You know that if you gravitate to a more liberal agenda, then the New York Times and the Washington Post are for you; and if you are on the more conservative side, it’s the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times. Same with television, and with internet news.

Most problematic, however, are state media run by dictatorships. Russia Today, Ruptly, Sputnik, Al Jazeera, the Global Times, etc., may sometimes indeed carry legitimate stories, but they will not criticize the regimes in their own countries, and try to spread biased Soviet-style disinformation about the West. Regrettably, some of these sources of “news” are becoming more popular amongst Western youth who prefer critical reporting about their own countries – which is ok, but you will need to keep this in perspective. Soviet-style sedition campaigns work by eroding trust in Western democracy and making dictatorships sound more appealing in contrast.

There is not the “one news source” that explains everything. This is when we enter the realm of conspiracy theories and “alternative” news. The internet may make illegitimate content seem legitimate very easily, but again, diversification is the key here. Despite all the problems with established media, there is no alternative to solid and competitive journalism, everything else is just someone’s private opinion.

#21: Media: Don’t Tell People What To Think

Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.

Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.

Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.

The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:

  1. Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
  2. Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
  3. Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
  4. Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
  5. Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.

News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.

This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!

You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.

The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.

The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.

We have a long way to go still, it seems.

#4: How We Win

We can only win – in the long run – by setting a better example. We cannot aim to play the game the enemy is playing, we cannot criticize or condemn criminal behavior and then behave the same way, or in a way that can be seen the same whether we like it or not. If we cannot – in the Kantian sense – make the way we live an example for others, then we cannot expect others to follow our lead.

Peace brings peace, war brings war. It’s not that easy, sadly, as sometimes the wrong peace can allow for war, and the right war can create peace. Nothing is quite easy. Pacifism is not always the answer.

Yet it is how we do things that matters. How war is declared, waged, and ended, that’s the key. How peace is waged matters just as much.

If we are seeing ourselves on the side of reason and truth and justice and the best possible way forward for all of humanity, then we need to live these standards in the ways we are doing what we do.

Only then can we keep the moral high ground. Only then can we win hearts and minds, ours and those of the former enemy. Needing an enemy is not civilized behavior.

post scriptum

I have written this after the assassination of an Iranian general who has, by all we know, been involved in fostering non-peaceful causes, to say it mildly. He surely was not an innocent person, and yet, are such executions by drone really what communicates the best course of action? Similarly, are threats of retaliation by an Iranian government that has already promoted terror and war in the region the response of a party that would similarly seek peace? The above written text should apply to all. Let’s see – who will seriously be able to commit to peace? Let us pray, probably.