Thinking: It should make you think

ThatcherThis week I learnt about the passing of Baroness Thatcher via a joke on Facebook. Last year I learnt about Michael Winner in the same way and have been upset on at least five different occasions now to hear about Morgan Freeman. Following Winner’s death, reaction from all corners was nothing but honey-coated treacle set on a bed of golden syrup. The same courtesy was given to Morgan; then, great howls, quickly followed by anger when the internet realised it’d been had…yet again. When Morgan really does go we’re going to need video evidence and a coroner’s certificate before we’ll believe it’s true. That or perhaps a major wildlife documentary narrated by someone else.

As you may or may not have seen, the Iron Lady hasn’t received quite the same mawkish treatment. While in some quarters, there was a degree of bland eulogising, plenty of space has also been given to the adverse effects some of her policies and decisions had on other people’s lives. Angry, futile debates ensued, impromptu parties were held before things turned really nasty and people defriended one another on Facebook.

What bugged me, and the point of this article, was the lack of reasoning behind people’s arguments. If people know how to think, then the ‘what’ follows naturally. Calling Thatcher ‘divisive’ or ‘influential’ is a given. Whatever your opinion of her she remains a symbol of the eighties; up there with Wall Street, neon shoulder pads and getting punched in the face when I was ten by Jonathan Caine.

As soon as news of her death came through, those who loved her let everyone know it; while those who hated her did the same, at times with an effigy and bonfire crackling away in the background. Then the Thatcherites came back with what turned out to be the idiotic argument du jour; “you’re not old enough to remember when she was in power.” Obviously this is a dreadful argument and should be studiously ignored. But it took off. All of a sudden everyone was sharing these clever posters telling anyone under thirty that they weren’t allowed to voice opinions on Thatcher unless they were at least forty, had done a shift in a coalmine or visited the Falklands – preferably all three.

The idea that you’re not allowed to comment on things you weren’t around for means we can’t have opinions on most of human history. Whether or not Thatcher’s policies impact upon young people today doesn’t invalidate their right to learn about them and then voice informed opinions accordingly.

There’s also the dangerous implication that we shouldn’t have opinions on things which don’t directly affect us. Shockingly some of these rabble-rousers may have even been praising or complaining on behalf of others! The zero-altruism approach to opinion implies that only the selfish should be heard. Not ideal.

Sadly this happens fairly often. There seem to be fashionable, yet idiotic arguments which attach themselves to whatever the debate of the day is.

A few years back NZ legalised prostitution and the same thing happened. Everyone kept saying how it was ‘the world’s oldest profession’ and that it would always be around. Firstly nonsense. Surely the position of hunter-gatherer predates that of call-girl by at least an afternoon? Apart from anything else, how were the first customers paying? Secondly it’s just the wrong argument to be having. How old prostitution is has nothing to do with whether or not it should be legal. The easy way to show this is the old argument ad absurdum. Murder has also been around for a while; should we legalise this too? The answer is no, because it hurts people. Now you’re at the point at which you should have started the argument. Does prostitution, or whatever the thing you want to legalise, hurt people? This is at least a relevant question. And because it’s a trickier one, it was avoided.

Gay marriageAt the moment we’re all talking about gay marriage. I’ve heard people talking about gay sex not ‘being natural’ – as if naturalness has anything to do with our sex lives. Mother Nature may have made men and women fit together to produce offspring, but I don’t know that oral sex in an elevator, or your husband’s torture-porn habit was ever in her blueprint. For that matter, how much of what we do today in any sphere is conducted according to what’s ‘natural’? Why is natural (however you try to define this) necessarily good anyway? So much of civilisation has been about overcoming our natural desires in order to promote higher values. It’s perfectly natural to just be against people who don’t look, sound or think like you. Call me a progressive but I think we can do a lot better than this.

The last piece of nonsense reasoning I’ll mention here doesn’t even need an example to go with it and is possibly the easiest to disprove. This is when people defend their position by saying ‘I can’t be racist/homophobic etc, I have lots of gay, black, white, Australian friends.’ Firstly all it’s doing is saying ‘I can’t be bigoted because it wouldn’t be in my interests to be so.’ Well, how noble. Secondly it implies one can’t hold conflicting positions in life by spending time with people whose best interests they don’t always have at heart. If that held true men could argue ‘I can’t be sexist, after all I’m married.’ Oddly enough, I’ve not heard that one before.

People mostly base their positions on gut feelings, inclusion in a group or where they see themselves on a liberal-conservative spectrum for the topic in in question. They then scramble around, making up reasoning on the fly to support their position, rather than the other way around. For example if they’re a staunch conservative they’ll probably be against gay marriage because that’s what their group thinks, they heard an Old Testament passage and they’re allergic to brimstone. Conversely if they see themselves as a liberal then they’re happy to support it. They’ve also noticed that in recent years it’s become more fashionable to do so they’ve moved with the mob. At the risk of sounding like the sort of prat who liked bands before they were popular, I arrived and stayed at the gay equality position well before it was fashionable. This wasn’t due to the strong strain of gay running through my family tree; it’s just because it makes sense. I believe in and so applied Mr Mill’s harm principle; that we should be allowed to do whatever we wish so long as it doesn’t harm or restrict the freedom of others. It’s simple, extremely useful and can be applied an awful lot of the time. It’s certainly not the only piece of reasoning in the rationalist’s tool box but it’s a pretty good start.

If you just hold certain positions because it suits you, your allegiance to a group or because all right thinking people think this way, you’ll find your positions on matters drifting around according to prevailing tides. If you swallow your pride and learn how to think, you’ll be more consistent when it comes to what to think as well.

 

(Image of Margaret Thatcher  provided by Chris Collins of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation (Margaret Thatcher Foundation) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons)

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8 Comments

  1. There is a difference between everyone being entitled to an opinion and whether those opinions carry equal weight. If I walked into a debate on quantum mechanics and offered my views on the superiority of M-Theory, my opinion would lack weight versus Stephen Hawking doing the same thing.

    I suspect this is where people saying that others “can’t have an opinion” get confused. There is nothing to say that you can’t have an opinion on whatever you like, but that opinion should be judged on its supporting evidence and the analysis leading to your opinion.

    • Hi Gwynn
      Thanks for reading and the comment, which was spot on.
      With the example you’ve used I think it’s generally well acknowledged that differing opinions in highly specialised scientific areas don’t hold the same weight.
      I would like to see this same process (however sterile it might seem) applied in other areas, rather than the free-for-all situation we usually have where everyone’s right to an opinion can often take precedence over reason. This is especially so where prevailing opinion has great consequences for others – e.g. matters concerning human rights.

    • Absolutely. I’m often left wondering why anyone places stock in opinions based on religious rationale, much as we saw during the marriage equality debate. If the basis of an opinion lies with a fictional sky wizard of some variety, or a fictional adventure story from 2,000 years ago, then in my eyes that opinion already carries far less weight than any others, due to the lack of reason and credible evidence behind it.

      To paraphrase Judge Judy, “If it doesn’t make sense, it isn’t true.”

    • Or Hitchens the elder: “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

  2. Awesome article! Don’t forget ALF being another solid symbol of the 80s.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head Gwynn, opinion should be based on evidence, not assumption. I think Alex’s point is that not having experienced something first hand, doesn’t preclude you from having read/seen/viewed evidence. So you are still able to talk about it.

    • Agreed. And even if your evidence is scant, it’s the talking-about-it that’s important. That’s what’s honing the reasoning and the thinking.

    • Hi Igor
      Good point to bring up about evidence. One of the great things about using logic rather than emotion/ instinct/ whatever you want to call it, is that you actually require less evidence.

      I disagree slightly here, just on your last point. One of the points I was trying to make is that reasoning is a separate and very useful skill, distinct from the topic in question. This can be learnt through these discussions, but it’s easier if learnt separately. If we all just jump in and start talking based on our existing (and ever-changing) positions, experience, anecdotal evidence or feelings this leads to stalemates when we disagree and often to a honing of prejudice when we agree. Using the analogy of maths if nobody involved in the discussion can perform basic arithmetic it’s going to be tricky to come up with the right answer, no matter how much you talk it over. Sorry, brevity’s not my strong suit apparently!

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