Intellectual Fairness

All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome.
~ George Orwell

The real beauty of the above quote —and almost everything penned by Orwell— derives from the undeniable fairness inherent in his critique of political language. Intellectual fairness or critical thinking —as I will henceforth refer to it— has never been more out of vogue and more desperately needed than it is today. Amid all the tumult around us, it is tempting to think that the current political and social divisions are the result of a pernicious “other”: a conspiratorial, amorphous group of enemies impeding progress at every turn. Subjected to the maddening din of political sound-bites, and the fervent reposts of hastily produced opinion pieces passed off as “Truth”, it is understandable that many believe society to be irreparably torn asunder. But as Orwell makes clear, the problem with our powers of perception derives from the language that informs it. Language shapes thought, and if we are not diligent in our critical thinking we allow ourselves to accept many forms of illogic. What is the solution? How do we make ourselves into critical thinkers capable of sussing out the purposely manipulative speech promulgated from every corner of political discourse: Left, Right, and Center? Like all problems, the first step is learning how to recognize the problem. To this end, senior English students have just finished reading Orwell’s prophetic classic 1984.

That my students were able to discuss the complex ideas presented in the novel with verve and insight did not surprise me; I expected as much. What impressed me most was the political astuteness displayed in their essays where they identified and analyzed contemporary examples of what Orwell referred to as doublethink: the acceptance of or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination. While it is easy to identify the inherent illogic and manipulative language of those with whom we disagree, it takes a far more critical mind to discern and point out the same phenomenon occurring in the discourse among “our team” – whoever that happens to be. Many students took up the extra challenge of looking for rhetorical and cognitive dissonance within their own digital milieus. The results, for some, were enlightening. Many students were quick to realize the unsettling implications of all the doublethink swirling around them: most of what we hear and read simply is, at best, comprised of half or distorted truths, and, at worst, rhetorically false. Many students concluded that only through thoughtful reflection on an idea, and the language used to express it, can one hope to discern truth from falsehood; sincerity from cynical manipulation.

One of the most insightful, if somewhat humorous, examples came from a student who illuminated the doublethink inherent in a common refrain issued by well-meaning adults who in the same breath will, without a hint of irony, exclaim: Follow your dreams…but get a “practical” job. I had to laugh. Touché Juan! Orwell would be proud. And so am I.

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