My assistant sorts the incoming mail into various categories, such as "critical mail," "fan mail," etc. But the so-called critical mail is seldom critical. It may be bombastic or vituperative or full of pop psychology, but it seldom presents a critical argument based on facts or logic.
Too many people today act as if no one can honestly disagree with them. If you have a difference of opinion with them, you are considered to be not merely in error but in sin. You are a racist, a homophobe or whatever the villain of the day happens to be.
Disagreements are inevitable whenever there are human beings but we seem to be in an era when the art of disagreeing is vanishing. That is a huge loss because out of disagreements have often come deeper understandings than either side had before confronting each other's arguments.
Even wacko ideas have led to progress, when dealt with critically, in terms of logic and evidence. Astrology led to astronomy. The medieval notion of turning lead into gold -- alchemy -- led to chemistry, from which have come everything from a wide range of industrial products and consumer goods to more productive agriculture and life-saving drugs.
Where an argument starts is far less important than where it finishes because the logic and evidence in between is crucial. Unfortunately, our educational system is not only failing to teach critical thinking, it is often itself a source of confused rhetoric and emotional venting in place of systematic reasoning.
It is hard to think of a stronger argument for teaching people to examine arguments critically than the tragic history of 20th century totalitarianism and its horrors in peace and war. Dictators often gained total power over a whole nation by their ability to arouse emotions and evade thought.
Watch old newsreels of Hitler and watch the adoring and enraptured look on the faces in his audience. Then read what he said and see if it makes any sense whatever. Yet he convinced others -- and himself -- that he had a great message and a great mission.
The same could be said of Lenin, of Mao, of Pol Pot, and of countless other despots, large and small, who brought devastation to the people they ruled. It is not even necessary to look solely at government leaders. Cult leader Jim Jones used the same ability to sway people's emotions and numb their brains to lead them ultimately to mass deaths in his Guiana compound.
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