The Capacity for Shock

One of the first things I read following the 2016 election was an article called Autocracy: Rules for Survival. It’s a great, short read. And it introduced me to Masha Gessen’s terrific writing. I especially like her piece on Arguing the Truth.

One of the rules for survival has to do with maintaining the capacity for shock. This means that when horrible things happen it’s still possible to gawk in disbelief instead of sigh, shrug, and accept what’s happening as a new normal.

And ideally, the shock/disbelief is generative of some other action.

But acting on the basis of shock or disbelief requires first the capacity for both. And in an environment marked by a proliferation of shocking things, what are methods/tools that can be used to undermine the law of diminishing returns? In other words, how do we make sure that we don’t lose our capacity for shock through repeated exposure to shock?

On Critical Thinking Skills

I saw a Tweet the other day that said something along the lines of “If only people had critical thinking skills, we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

I disagree.

Critical thinking skills interact with other things like world views, personal philosophies, religious beliefs, etc., and all of these things influence how critical thinking skills are deployed. Thus, I can deploy them to argue for marginalization or oppression. Or I can deploy them to argue that marginalization and oppression are not occurring somewhere where they are (and have been occurring) for many many many years, like American public schools (cf. The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the Mis-Education of the Negro).

This means that focusing on critical thinking skills as a kind of magic bullet to get us out of the current predicament is by itself a dead end.

This does not mean that critical thinking skills have no important role to play. They do.

Here’s an example of how they do: I suspect that critical thinking skills enable me to notice that children’s books generally feature male protagonists. The mouse in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is a dude. Corduroy (the bear with green overalls) is a boy.

These are just a couple examples. There are many others. So many in fact that some of my friends’ children have taken to identifying characters as male even if there is no gender assignment made in the book and there is no obvious way (e.g. blue or pink clothes, masculine/feminine features) to make this assignment.

Critical thinking skills can help clarify that we actively design future generations’ world views simply by reading to them at bedtime. And yet at the same time these thinking skills are shaped by world views.

Critical thinking skills can be effective tools for good, but they have to come from a standpoint that values a particular meaning of good (e.g. diversity, equality, care, etc.).

Absent those values, then I’m afraid critical thinking skills will be no more useful than anything else we might have at our disposal..