As we continue to witness the slow-motion collapse of Western Civilization (or is the collapse, like the expansion of the universe, speeding up?) I’m reminded of an essay written by William Golding entitled “Thinking as a Hobby.” Golding was the author of a more famous piece called Lord of the Flies, a novel about a group of boys marooned on an island with no adult supervision. The resulting violence and chaos is about what one would expect from a group of boys left to their own devices.
In “Thinking,” Golding proposes that the ways people think fall into three general categories: people who mistake emotional reactions for thinking, people whose only contribution is destructive criticism, and people who ask what is true and then try to find out.
I’m afraid that what passes in public for “thinking” today is really no more than mistaking an emotional reaction for thought—or what Golding calls grade three thinking. Golding was a youth during World War II and recounts a conversation he had with an older, pious woman who was telling him that every one of those evil Germans should be shot. He thought he was quite clever to respond, “But all good Christians must love their enemies.”
Golding then goes on to explain that this woman gave him an important insight into grade three thinkers: the realization that he could not “dismiss lightly a mental process which for nine-tenths of the population is the nearest they will ever get to thought. They have immense solidarity. We had better respect them, for we are outnumbered and surrounded.” At this point in the essay, I usually picture a woman with a broom chasing young Golding down the street—as opposed to a lynch mob chasing him—but I think Golding’s point is that there isn’t much difference between the two. Most people are not thinking. They are feeling. And given the right circumstances, they will happily hang you.
Emotion is indispensable to making good decisions, but emotions are unreliable as a reflection of reality and, in fact, emotions are known to distort reality. That’s why our emotions need to be grounded in fact. On the other hand, we do also need reason, but logic alone usually fails to give a full hearing to the more human needs in our decision-making, qualities like compassion or prioritizing values. In other words, other things need to be taken into account besides just logic, besides just emotion.
For example, in the case of the convicted criminal and political hack Paul Manafort, I was stunned by the light sentence he was given in comparison to the recommended sentencing guidelines and the gravity of his misdeeds. On the other hand, Manafort is 70 years old. His age could have turned a lengthier punishment into a life sentence. I think life in prison does seem excessive, particularly in view of the many people who have committed crimes like bank fraud only to go on to run some of the biggest banks in the world. And that brings us to lots of questions, like which is worse—defrauding a bank or defrauding the electorate? How much punishment is enough? Enough to accomplish what?
Some commentators have argued that Americans are splitting into two groups, those who feel versus those who think. That may sound like the plot for a bad science fiction movie, but these kinds of fractures in the body politic have happened before with an end result that usually is not pretty. This was the brilliance of the Founding Fathers: to place the individual before the group, to protect individuals from over-bearing groups, to grant pre-eminence and sovereignty to individuals and not groups, to assign rights to individuals over groups.
I grew up during the 60s when the cultural mood of the moment placed heavy emphasis on feelings: the ‘validity’ of feelings, the greater ‘authenticity’ claimed for emotion. I also was taught how to use reason and that reason should sit on top of emotion as a damper on the more extreme emotions. And I learned that both approaches can be used to manipulate people into believing things that are not real. I’m made nervous by those who claim superiority for emotion just as much as by those who put rationality on top. The two must work together—but there’s no mathematical equation for how much of each is appropriate in a specific case. Emotion and reason are tools only and not ends in themselves, and like any tool they can be used well or poorly.
In other words, none of this is easy. Critical thought takes some effort, especially when we are in the grip of what feels like righteous indignation. It may well be the case that there are those among us who should be screamed at by the rest of us, but let’s avoid doing it just because it makes us feel good. Remember, “we are outnumbered and surrounded,” and people who are using prejudices to heat things up aren’t likely to react well to being told their view of the world is stupid.