If there was one great challenge facing humanity today, what would it be? And why do you think it’s the greatest challenge?
You could get many answers to this question, depending on the people you polled, how you worded the question for Google, or how you presented the question to the people you polled. Major poll sites like Gallup and Pew Research, for instance, segment the questions by country, topic, year, and even religious affiliation, depending on the question.
But this begs a more significant question. If you take away all the external identifiers we use to divide ourselves, like cultural heritage, religion, race, gender, country of origin, or political ideology, what are your own opinions on anything?
What would you say? If you cannot answer that without referring to any of the external identifiers, then you have just answered the question.
The most important issue is your ability to think independently without categorizing yourself, consulting a poll, scrolling through social media, or, worse yet, allowing someone else to determine what you should believe. If you only form opinions based upon external factors (like appearance, culture, social standing, etc) then are your opinions really your own? Or do you hold them because you think you must because you identify a particular way?
Your ability to think independently is a marker of your freedom.
What qualifies you to live your own life as you choose to live it?
If you claim anything other than that you are an individual with individual needs, thoughts, desires, and dreams, then you need to go read Anthem again. You are not the same as whatever group with whom you identify. And others cannot decide for you what you should do with your life.
Or what thoughts you should think, or what feelings you should feel. You should be free to disagree with the mainstream and be your own person, even if you’re wrong. But especially if you are right.
But what if you are wrong?
When does independent thought become dangerous and isn’t it better to stop someone before they think incorrectly? Well, I don’t think two wrong ideas make a good idea, however you try to justify it.
Free societies only work when there is freedom of ideas, even when the ideas are really terribly stupid. For instance, there’s an idea where I live right now that the county should purchase back water-front properties that have suffered damage because of beach erosion. That is a dumb idea.
Why should the state compensate multi-millionaires for the property they purchased knowing full well what the risks were? It’s immoral, considering you’re using tax dollars from every walk of life to bail out the people who least need the help.
But does that mean we should outlaw and censor all such ideas? No. You need dumb ideas every now and again. It keeps a level of humility in everything.
That, and it makes for great pundit fodder.
The right to think your own thoughts.
How much should we allow people to express their own thoughts, even if we don’t disagree with them? Utopian fiction says one thing. Dystopian fiction shows us a completely different picture. Neither provides a good solution because both require a loss of personal freedom. A mandatory loss of personal freedom.
And no person may compel anyone to give them something if the other person isn’t willing to give it. They can try, but they would be little better than Adolf Hitler. Or Josef Stalin. Murders force the life out of another person. Theives force others to give up ownership of something. Rapists and frauds force consent and dignity, sometimes more.
Doesn’t sound so good now, does it?
Of course, if you claim you don’t want to choose how to live your life, or that people should only choose certain things, then I am so terribly sorry because you’ve already lost. And you’ve lost so badly, I don’t even know if a single blog post is enough to convince you otherwise. Because it means you’ve lost even your most basic identity and your freedom.
The bars are in place and you don’t even know it. And that is true whether the bars are there because of ideology, religion, or ignorance. Or because you are so occupied with your external identifiers that you can’t see past any of them.
Worse still, you are every bit as bigoted as the free-thinkers who express wrong ideas or ideologies. Think I’m wrong on that one? Ok, test me. Take that statement and apply it to Puritan New England. Apply it to the Yugoslav Wars. Does limiting people based on their beliefs actually work?
Spoiler Alert: It never does without significant and abhorrent bloodshed, torture, and murder. Auschwitz stands as a testament to that, as does the Coliseum.
Learning to discriminate and discern isn’t learning to be bigoted, it’s learning to use your mind.
Discrimination and discernment are closely related. Learning to discriminate is learning to pick out differences. Discernment is the ability to weigh both sides of an argument and make a choice of either going one way, the other way or forging a middle way. In both cases, it’s learning how to make a choice and formulate an opinion.
This is crucial because the issues facing the world today like abortion, like climate change, like political freedom, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, all have nuances. There are very few issues that are clear-cut black-and-white decisions. This means that unless you are able to discern between all the different threads of an issue, you will not have a lot of success in forming your own stance.
What’s the difference between two shooters when one shoots a murderer and the other shoots up a church or a classroom? What’s the difference between Guy Fawkes who we celebrate, and Timothy McVeigh who we revile? These are perhaps overly simplified, but if you take my meaning, just think about the implications for a minute.
If you can’t discriminate or discern, you are easier to control, particularly if it means you can only see the world right in front of you without any care or concern for the past or the future. After all, if a person’s mind is only on the present without a firm grasp of the past or a goal for the future, you can persuade them of all sorts of things.
You can persuade them to, say, eat Tide Pods, give up their freedoms, or persecute other people.
You can even convince them that mass murder is a good idea.
Taking back your freedom of thought and making it count.
If you’ve read through this and realized that you really don’t have ideas that are strictly your own viewpoint, then there is a way to fix it. The first is to make the decision that you want your freedom. Without that, then you might as well go back to doomscrolling social media.
When you have made that decision, then the real work begins because you have to train yourself out of some terrible habits. When you see the news or read an online article, challenge yourself to find at least one other viewpoint from a reliable news source. Yes, I know that’s a challenge in itself, but pick something.
Do the same for any topic you research. Find opposing viewpoints and challenge yourself to really think about both arguments. Challenge yourself to find a third option, if there is any.
Another tip? Use the freewriting technique. It’s an excellent way of working through your thoughts and emotions on anything. And it’s good writing practice to boot. Or, you can start a journal to increase your self-knowledge and ask yourself some fundamental questions like Marcus Aurelius did.
Finally, make sure you are reading more than clickbait articles every day. Challenge yourself to read outside of your comfort zone, and read a really long novel as a side project. Not necessarily War and Peace, mind you, but something you wouldn’t normally pick, whether that’s an Alexandre Dumas adventure story, a Jane Austen novel, or a medieval romance.
The more you exercise your brain to do something other than consume digital content, the better off you’ll be both in your mental skills and in your mental health.
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