negative crit

As more and more corruption at the highest levels of US government is uncovered and confirmed, the news is further polarizing Americans. We’ve read and listened with interest to the pundits assessing the value of the Mueller Report while awaiting further developments here in the Butcher Block Bunker. In reading the comments of the ‘amateur’ commentators on social media and seeing the pervasive assumption that the news from the Mueller investigation is a black-and-white, yes-or-no, binary issue, I’ve found myself wanting to return to a couple of the ideas about thinking that are put forward in William Golding’s essay “Thinking as a Hobby.” I commented on the essay in an earlier post. One of his most important points sometimes gets lost in all the noise. The lost point? That we are working together and not in competition with each other in the search for truth.

It is not enough to find the flaw in someone else’s argument (although that’s an important step in getting closer to the truth). We can’t simply pull the rug out from under someone’s belief system. Instead of saying ‘gotcha’ we should be playing ‘let’s see if we can do this better working together.’ We also need to have a better argument ourselves to replace the faulty one. Simply observing that a mistake in logic has occurred is not enough; such statements are divisive when what we need is cooperation. Don’t let your criticism become an exercise in negative fault-finding and destructive comments. Nothing will end the usefulness of a discussion faster. If the use of critical thinking techniques turns you into a Warrior for Righteousness who finds the fault in everything, you may want to rethink how you use critical thinking techniques.

Golding, in his essay, identifies three categories of thinking and makes the important point that most of us confuse an emotional response for thought, when in reality we are not thinking at all. We are instead in the grip of a strong emotional reaction and often have trouble getting free of our emotions or getting them in perspective. Another kind of thinking, according to Gibson, comes to us when we have learned a little about argument skills, enough to see flaws in everyone else’s arguments but not our own. This kind of thinking is typical of teenagers.  As they mature, their thought may eventually broaden into an authentic interest in what is true and what is not.

Not many schools teach critical thinking anymore, and if it does get taught the instructor usually sees it as an exercise in forensic debate tactics. This becomes particularly evident when teaching logic fallacies. A student taught the either/or fallacy, for example, will often unleash their new-found knowledge on the parents.

“Everything my father says is an either/or fallacy.”


And I go on to point out that not every proposal that offers only two options is misleading, it is only when those two options are being presented as the only two possible answers, when in fact a full range of possibilities exists between the two options offered.

“Do you want to go to college or do you want to dig ditches for the rest of your life?”

This was one of my father’s favorite questions. I tried to point out that there was a range of possible answers to the question “what do you want to do with your life,” but Dad managed to narrow it down to just two and ignore my broader point.

“I taught you everything I know,” he would say. “And you don’t know nothing.”

If it isn’t constructive, don’t say it.*  Here are a few strategies the can help defuse polarization:

Be sure everyone else involved knows you have an authentic interest in what is under discussion. 

*Turn your criticisms into questions.

Ask if the argument can be made stronger.

Encourage others to assess the argument with you.

Be a collaborator who wants to find the best reasons/arguments

and not a show-off playing “GOTCHA!”

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.