Why do you think that?
22 October 2018 11:48
When was the last time someone asked you what you thought about something? – What do you think about Brexit? What did you think about Theresa May’s dancing? (Personally, I loved it). What did you think about that exhibition? What do you think about Trump? – We’re asked all the time what we think, but rarely are we asked why we think what we think.
I became aware of this about 12 years ago when I came out as Tory. It was the first time in my life I really had to think about why I thought something, because it had had no visible roots in my upbringing and surroundings. I was raised by bohemian and not very political (although strongly anti-Conservative) architect parents in Shoreditch, and went to Camden School for Girls – a notorious hotbed of the dependable Left.
I wasn’t aware of a single member of my family that voted Conservative (I have since sniffed out a couple and suspect a few more supressed ones). To self-identify to my loved ones as Conservative was a big deal. It took me a year. I was politically-engaged from a young age and so when I was given the chance to do some relevant work experience aged 14 I seized the opportunity. By chance, the only connection I had was with the Liberal Democrat think tank CentreForum in Westminster – which suited the centre ground upon which I had settled at that time. So off I went. It was 2005.
During my work experience, I was sent over to the other side of the divide – the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange – to take notes at a talk. As I ascended the stairs in their offices, I snarled reflexively at all the Tories tap-tap-tapping away on their laptops, imagining they were conjuring up more wicked policies.
I arrived in the events room where the talk was to be given by one of the current crop of up-and-coming Conservative MPs – a certain George Osborne. He gave a speech to a room of about fifteen people on how not to spend Britain’s money: essentially, a very amusing and highly persuasive dismantling of Chancellor Gordon Brown. Towards the end of Osborne’s speech, I, sitting firmly between two of my CentreForum colleagues, started to panic. ‘Oh, God,’ I thought. ‘I actually agree with everything this man is saying’. I came away from the event befuddled. How could I agree with a Tory? A Tory for Christ’s sake! This was not in the script. This was not the trajectory I was supposed to be following.
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To try and understand this most bewildering turn of events, I began my own discreet investigations. At school, my political education to date had been limited to say the least – studying World War II for GCSE History did not exactly leave me with a Ciceronian command of public life. So that summer holiday, I picked up John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher and continued my explorations with a string of books covering the history of political parties and thought in the UK since the 17th Century, in an attempt to understand the thickets and ideological roots that lay under contemporary politics.
Thus, was I cordially introduced to such figures as Disraeli and Lord Woolton – and things started to make sense. About a year after my work experience, I was ready to take the plunge. One evening, I sat my parents down at the kitchen table and said: ‘Mummy and Daddy, I’ve got something to tell you.’ Pause. ‘I think I am a Conservative.’ I will never forget their reaction. They roared with laughter and finding the whole thing so amusing that they told everyone (much to the disdain of some family members who sought to dismiss it as merely ‘a phase’).
I tell this story because, at a young age, I was essentially compelled to undergo an unusually systematic and intense process of contemplation and internal dialogue about what I believed and, crucially, why. I also had my first taste of political tribalism from the often-pejorative reactions of those around me to my newly-disclosed political beliefs.
Because it wasn’t exactly easy being a Tory in a left-wing school. My senior prefect campaign posters were covered with ‘Tory Slut’ graffiti, among other charming slogans, and I was berated both in jest and sincerity. Amusingly, a few other girls at the school came out to me as Conservative in private, thanking me for allowing them to be ok with it too (Typical exchange: Girl (furtively): ‘Hey Dolly, can I speak to you?’. Me: ‘Of course. What’s up?’ Girl [almost whispering as we walked out of a Politics A level class]: ‘I just wanted to say…I’m actually Conservative too! Thank you for being so open about it all.’ Me: ‘Well – at least that makes two of us now, eh?’ We were the Tory underground).
In retrospect, I am – paradoxically – very grateful for all the judgment and disapproval to which I was subjected at the time. I feel it stiffened my courage and strengthened my hitherto-untested convictions. In our echo chambers and social silos, we tend to surround ourselves with likeminded people (or at least those we assume to be likeminded).
These affinity groups and comfort zones can inhibit us from building, fireproofing and refining our own ideas. Whether we vote a certain way because our parents do, or we adopt certain opinions because those around us hold them, or we believe in something because we were raised that way, conscious and unconscious conformity is etched into every layer of society. We are, though we like to think otherwise, a herd species.
One of the worst possible areas of discourse for such reflex conformity is politics. It is now a common reflection that British politics is becoming increasingly tribal – driven by polarisation, dogma, vitriol and even murderous violence in the tragic case of Jo Cox. A principal cause of this, of course, has been the rise of social media, which bombards us with misinformation, fake news and phony narratives – while affording malevolent users with the perfect platform to name, shame, harass and attack others, without having to engage in a meaningful conversation or debate. The attacker can simply switch off.
Now take a moment to imagine someone behaving in the same way in a regular, real-life conversation. Other than in the most exceptional circumstances, it doesn’t ring true, does it? The digital sphere is (as neuroscientists attest) a terrible place to air different perspectives, conduct good natured-debates, form mature opinions and challenge entrenched views.
Some of the outcomes are bizarre. I find that many instinctively-Labour friends of mine are now more afraid to engage in debate with members of their own tribe – which has become glassy-eyed with Corbynite kool-aid – than they are with me, and with others who are right-of-centre. Even the Labour MP, Kate Hoey, whom I stood against in Vauxhall in last year’s general election, received considerably more abuse from her own party for her views than I did from her notional supporters.
All of which begs a question: how can we prevent this ugly tribalism from thwarting the civilised impulse to inquire, and to nurture a society in which freedom to think, express, question, change opinion and continue learning is the norm rather than the bold exception? How do we protect what Habermas has called the ‘public sphere’?
My ‘history husband’ (i.e. the historical figure to whom I feel intellectually wedded) is John Stuart Mill. An admirably strong champion of remorseless debate and discussion in the pursuit of true wisdom, he warned of what he felt was the worst social evil: the ‘tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’.
Mill argued that the only way a person can know the whole of a subject and be sure of their opinions is by ‘hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind’. It is solely by ‘correcting and completing’ one’s own opinion, by ‘collating it with those of others’, and – crucially – not ignoring any propositions that might challenge, test or shed light on the issue at hand, that one can reach a trustworthy conclusion.
Of contrary ideas, he said: ‘it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion’. Until we understand why we think something or why someone else thinks a different thing, our convictions are not fully mature: we remain intellectually infantilised, confusing certainty with cosseted ignorance. This, sad to say, is becoming an increasingly common form of bogus ‘safety’ – especially, though not exclusively, on US campuses. The realm of the sayable is being closed down in the name of pre-empting ‘offense’.
As the CNN commentator and Democrat, Van Jones, has said of modern student life: ‘I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong… I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym’.
Questions have the power to ignite or to impede deep thinking and the quest for truth. One of the earliest philosophers to insist that truth exists and is knowable and discoverable was ‘The Thoughtfather’ Socrates. The Socratic dialogue, which involves asking question after question after question, seeks to deconstruct opinions to reveal their contradictions and inadequacies. Once an opinion has been comprehensively dismantled – to the point that the only answer remaining is ‘I don’t know’ – the pupil is finally ‘teachable’ and can begin rebuilding his or her opinions based on systematic and truthful foundations.
In an age in which we are bombarded by information on a second-by-second basis, and political tribalism coaxes us into intellectual stockades, it can be extremely difficult to know what we think – let alone why we think it. But this is precisely why the teachings of Socrates and Mill are more important than ever.
Try this thought-experiment: select an opinion that you hold. Perhaps a political or religious belief, something you believe about a different culture; or perhaps your view on a contentious issue such as abortion or gun control. Now ask yourself why you think what you think about that question. Describe to yourself the emotional response you experience when thinking about it. Why do you care? Where do you think that your opinion came from? Have you ever tried to view the issue from a variety of different perspectives? Did you conduct any form of research before you reached your conclusion? Did you adopt the opinion from someone you admire, trust or aspire towards? Do you find yourself thinking smugly that – in fact – there is no real debate, that history has a direction and that you are conveniently on the right side?
Welcome to my shower-time thoughts. I like to select random issues I have discussed or thought about during the week and run through this procedure, gently unpicking aspects of my opinion. Testing them against others. Getting the measure of hostile arguments. Imagining what I would say if I was in a different position. Challenging myself all the time. (I recently shifted my position on the permissible abortion limit after a series of uncomfortable but rewarding reflections upon my existing views – informed by a conversation with a Cambridge student whose brother is alive even though he was born at 23 weeks, a week before the present limit of 24.)
Ask yourself, too, about your priorities. Education? The environment? Housing? The legalisation of drugs? Why do these issues matter more to you than others? As Mill said: ‘there are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realised until personal experience has brought it home.’ So often, what we take to be rigorous intellectual positions are merely the scars and badges of what is fashionably called ‘lived experience’.
In practice, it is unrealistic to apply, in every single case, the rigorous conditions that Mill discusses in On Liberty to every single opinion we hold. Life isn’t like that. But what we can do, as a habit of self-improvement and a civic task, is to make a conscious effort to ask why we think as we do, especially when our opinion leads us to judge or stigmatised others before knowing them. And we shouldn’t be satisfied with our first answer – which may well be self-serving or self-deluding. We should keep excavating the basis of our beliefs until we reach the magma of our deepest ideas.
To be honest, we don’t even need the models of Socrates, Plato and Mill, inspiring as they are. The most authentic and remorseless champions of ‘why’ are children. The raw, unadulterated, naïve, relentlessly curious, and rarely belligerent mindset of a child is probably the most precious aspect of humanity that we lose as we move into adulthood. If you ever listen to a child ask ‘why?’ you realise – as if an epiphany – that you can keep asking ‘why?’ for a lifetime. If, that is, you make the conscious decision to do so.
Can this be irritating to those who are looking for a quiet life and a comfortable passage through the years? Most assuredly. But seeking the deepest roots of beliefs is an increasingly important task in our hyper-connected, pluralist society of numberless voices. The fact of disagreement is easily-established. The real question is: what lies at the heart of the beliefs, judgements and convictions that unite, separate and define us.
So I ask you now: why do you think that?