It occurred to me a while back that one very simple issue is responsible for much of the crisis of our age. No question, that crisis has plenty of causes, some of them recent, some of them much less so; to get a clear understanding of the way that modern industrial civilization has backed itself into a corner from which the only exit leads straight down, it’s necessary to trace patterns of belief and action that go back to the early days of the industrial revolution, to the rise of mechanistic philosophy at the end of the Renaissance, or all the way back to the rejection of the Pagan gods and goddesses of Nature by newly minted prophetic religions obsessed by the glittering dream of a perfect otherworld on the far side of death.
All these are relevant, and indeed important. Yet it’s not always necessary to understand a problem in all its intricacies to come up with a viable solution. People were breeding plants and animals to get inheritable characteristics they wanted millennia before anybody had the least idea what DNA is, and Isaac Newton in his Principia Mathematica famously refused to discuss the reasons why gravity worked the way it did. “I frame no hypotheses,” he wrote, and that act of self-limitation was essential to his triumph, allowing him to focus entirely on the mathematics of how gravity functions without being distracted by the then-insoluble question of why.
In the same way, plenty of things that could have been done to head off the coming of our present planetary crisis required no particular grasp of the historical complexities that got us into the mess we’re in. Reasonable people, watching the steady drawdown of irreplaceable natural resources and the equally steady buildup of the toxic waste products of industry, could have determined from those facts alone that the inevitable consequence of policies that fostered such habits was the decline and fall of industrial civilization. In point of fact, there were people who did this. What’s more, they went on to propose policies that could have prevented the crises we now face, had they been adopted back when our consumption of resources was much less extravagant and the biosphere was much less poisoned than it has since become.
Even today, when so many of those possibilities have gone whistling down the wind to wherever might-have-beens spend their golden years, there’s still quite a bit that could still be done to make the twilight years of the industrial age less traumatic and guarantee our descendants a less ravaged planet on which to build the societies that will rise out of our ruins. The fact remains that next to nothing of the sort is being done. Quite the contrary, straight across the spectrum from the supposedly radical left to the supposedly radical right, every political party, power center, and pressure group in the industrial world rejects all of the options that might actually help, and embraces one or another minor variation on the policies that got us here in the first place.
Nor, it probably has to be said, are they ramming these dysfunctional policies down the throats of a restive populace. No, the people are clamoring for exactly those policies that guarantee them and their descendants a shorter, harsher, and more impoverished existence on a planet in chaos. What’s more, as the signs of industrial civilization’s terminal crisis build around us—as the planetary climate spins further and further into unexplored and dangerous territory, as infrastructure and economies crack under pressures they were never designed to bear, as the once-vital institutions of representative democracy hang limp as autumn scarecrows against a darkening sky—the only responses that most people are willing to consider amount to doubling down on the very mistakes that brought about the crisis.
If we deserved our self-assigned scientific name—Homo sapiens, “wise human”—that arguably would not have happened. The question is why a species with the tolerably impressive intellectual capacities we’ve got has done such a bad job of applying those capacities in the face of civilization-ending threats. Here again, it would be possible to spend a long time talking about the complex historical processes that got us in this mess, and that’s a conversation worth having, but right now I’d like to suggest a different theme. Newton’s example is relevant here: instead of getting caught up in the why of the crisis of our age, let’s talk about the how—about what specifically has gone wrong and what potentially might be done about it.
From this perspective, our problem can be phrased very precisely: the vast majority of people in today’s industrial world have never learned how to think.
It’s crucial in this context to realize that thinking is a skill, or more precisely a complex set of skills, and not some kind of innate ability that pops into being the moment we need it. Every human being with something approximating a normal central nervous system has the capacity to think, but that capacity has to be developed by education and regular practice, or it never ripens into activity. It’s as though, by some act of God or Congress, each of us received a brand new bicycle on our seventh birthday: the bicycle brings with it the capacity to be ridden, but turning that capacity into a reality takes experience, and can be greatly accelerated by a few helpful lessons from someone who already knows the trick of riding a bike.
There’s another factor that has to be considered here, though. Imagine that in response to the act of God or Congress just mentioned, the auto industry or some other malign power set out to frustrate the intention behind the act by teaching people things that would keep them from being able to ride bicycles competently. Imagine, for example, an ad campaign meant to convince people that the only thing they can do with a bicycle is drag it behind them. To the extent that such an ad campaign caught on, the auto industry might even be able to convince people to get angry and defensive if anybody questions their habit of dragging their bikes behind them, and to respond with hostility to any alternative suggestion.
That’s more or less the situation we’re in now. It so happens that there are certain common habits in today’s society that make it difficult to learn how to think. They’re best unpacked one at a time, and so I’m going to talk about one of them today, and leave the others for future posts. The habit I have in mind is the pervasive use of thoughtstoppers.
A thoughtstopper is exactly what the term suggests: a word, phrase, or short sentence that keeps people from thinking. A good thoughtstopper is brief, crisp, memorable, and packed with strong emotion. It’s also either absurd, self-contradictory, or irrelevant to the subject to which it’s meant to apply, so that any attempt you might make to reason about it will land you in perplexity. The perplexity won’t do the trick by itself, and neither will the strong emotion; it’s the combination of the two that lets a thoughtstopper throw a monkey wrench in the works of the user’s mind.
Let’s look at some examples to see how this works. One commonly used thoughtstopper that found its way onto the comment pages of this blog a few weeks ago makes a good starting place. The context was a discussion of the problems with unrestricted immigration from nonindustrial countries to industrial countries, and one of the commenters dismissed all such problems out of hand by saying “I believe in people.”
You must admit that in that context, this is a distinctly odd utterance. I suppose that the logical response would be something on the order of “Why, I believe in people too; in fact, I’ve seen them repeatedly, so I know they exist.” Respond that way to somebody who says “I believe in people,” though, and you can count on getting a baffled or irritated response from the speaker. It’s clear that this statement—though it resembles in form such utterances as “I believe in UFOs” and “I believe in Santa Claus”—does not resemble them in meaning.
Translate that utterance in terms of its actual usage, by contrast, and it works out to something like this: “I prefer to feel warm fuzzy emotions about the abstract concept ‘people’.” Translated that baldly, though, it loses its force as a thoughtstopper, since others would be perfectly within their rights to say, “Fine, but why should your preference in emotional states be the basis of public policy?”—or, worse still, “Fine, but what about the people who are losing their livelihoods and being driven into destitution because of the public policies you prefer? Why should your feelings count more than their survival?” That’s why a thoughtstopper has to embody the absurdity, contradiction, or irrelevance mentioned earlier—it serves as protective camouflage for the emotional payload.
A great many other thoughtstoppers get their results by means of the same strategy. Consider that classic example, “Love is the answer.” (This one is especially common in American popular spirituality—in my experience, both the liberal end of Christianity and the New Age movement use it relentlessly.) Again, a logical response might be “Okay, what’s the question?” If you get the bog-standard comeback—“Love is the answer to every question”—you have my permission to make fun of it. “What’s the standard excuse for staying in really dysfunctional relationships?” and “What do religious zealots inevitably talk about while they’re tying you to the stake?” are two of the obvious questions for which love is the answer; I encourage my readers to come up with examples of their own.
Taxonomy, the art and science of giving useful names to relevant categories, is as necessary here as elsewhere. We can therefore assign “I believe in people,” “love is the answer,” and other thoughtstoppers of the same general type to the category of Vacuous Belches. A Vacuous Belch combines an absurd, contradictory, or irrelevant utterance with a warm cozy emotional state. It has exactly the same emotional content as the belch of contentment you’ll hear after a good Thanksgiving dinner, or some similarly over-the-top dining experience. It stops thought by replacing it with vague pleasant feelings.
The opposite of a Vacuous Belch is a Vacuous Shriek. Vacuous Shrieks replace the warm fuzzy emotional state with a cold prickly emotional state. Where Vacuous Belches are usually short declarative sentences, Vacuous Shrieks are usually single words—I’m not sure why this is, but it’s quite consistent—and they stop thought by replacing it with hatred, loathing, and fear. A good Vacuous Shriek combines irrelevance and hatred into the kind of hefty epithet that can be flung at someone like a brick.
Consider the way that the word “Communist” was deployed as a Vacuous Shriek by the American right from the Palmer Raids in 1919 straight through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in some circles, beyond. It was standard practice, for example, for right-wing speakers in the 1960s to insist that Rev. Martin Luther King was a Communist. In any but a purely thoughtstopping sense, this was impressively absurd, as Martin Luther King was no more a Communist than Lady Gaga is the Tsar Of All The Russias.
Communism was (and is) a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy expounded at vast length in the writings of Karl Marx and his epigones, and it takes only the most basic familiarity with King’s writings and speeches to identify him as a Christian Social Democrat of the classic sort, which is not at all the same thing. The identification of King as a Communist, though, was not meant in any but a purely thoughtstopping sense. It was deployed to keep people from thinking about King and, more to the point, about the things he was saying about race and economics in mid-20th century America.
In exactly the same way, it’s absurd, in any but a purely thoughtstopping sense, to insist that Donald Trump is a fascist. Fascism, like Communism, is a specific, tightly defined political and economic philosophy, and though it never produced the mass of literature that the Communist movement did, it’s not at all hard to look up what exactly Fascism was, what specific economic policies it pursued, and so on. Do that and you’ll find that Donald Trump is not a fascist; he’s an authoritarian populist of the classic sort, which is not at all the same thing.
Please note that saying “Donald Trump is not a fascist” does not equate to saying that he’s a good president, or for that matter a good person. There are ample grounds on which Trump, his administration, his policies, and so on can quite reasonably be criticized, and criticized in very harsh terms indeed. The difficulty with any such critique is that it’s hard to develop it very far without having to talk about the core reason why he won the 2016 election, which has to do with the unmentionable relationship between social class and economic power in early 21st-century America. Since a good many people leading the hue and cry against him do not want to talk about such things, a Vacuous Shriek makes a good distraction.
Vacuous Belches and Vacuous Shrieks aren’t the only kinds of thoughtstoppers in circulation, though they’re among the most common. Another that’s nearly as common is the One-Way Street. A One-Way Street takes the form of a general observation, vague to the point of irrelevance, which looks like it applies to both sides of an argument but only applies to one.
Here’s an example: “Minds are like parachutes, they function only when open.” Your mileage may vary, but every single time I’ve seen that thoughtstopper used in argument, it functions as a demand that one side should have an open mind so the other side doesn’t have to. I’m thinking here especially of a conversation I had in Ashland, Oregon, back in 2007, with an acquaintance who wanted investors for a real estate scheme and was using the rhetoric of Rhonda Byrne’s meretricious New Age screed The Secret to push it. When I expressed a lack of enthusiasm for throwing money down that particular speculative rathole, and noted where that kind of bubble logic inevitably leads, I got the thoughtstopper just noted in response.
I’m not normally very good at snappy comebacks; far more often I suffer from what the French call esprit d’escalier or “staircase wit,” the sudden crisp rejoinder that comes to you when you’re climbing the staircase back to your apartment, far too late to affect the conversation. This once, though, I snapped back, “No, minds are like ovens. If you leave them open all the time, everything comes out half baked.” It ended the conversation, which was what I was after. In retrospect, though—esprit d’escalier again—I wish I’d pointed out that if an open mind is a good thing, maybe his should have been open to the possibility that he was wrong.
There are plenty of other One-Way Streets in use. Consider that utterly standard response to any attempt to talk about the problems facing industrial civilization, “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something.” Indeed “they” might, and it’s perfectly possible that what “they’ll” think of is yet another reason why we’re going the way of Nineveh and Tyre. The underlying logic, or rather illogic, of this thoughtstopper is the logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance: it’s impossible to tell whether I’m wrong or right, therefore I’m right. Stated thus baldly, it’s clearly nonsense; its value as a thoughtstopper depends on the bad logic never coming to the surface.
Yet another kind of thoughtstopper, which has seen use recently on the comments page of this blog, is the Undefinition. An Undefinition is the insistence that some issue or other can only be discussed if all participants use a label for it that predefines the outcome of the discussion, by erasing all the points that matter to people on one side of the debate.
The specific example I have in mind came out during a conversation about the downsides of modern biotechnology. One of the participants insisted that the supposedly scary term “biotech” shouldn’t be used—no, we should all be forced to say “being really effective about making things using fermentation” instead.
Those of my readers who haven’t been following recent controversies about biotechnology may want to know that many important practical applications of that technology are exactly what the Undefinition describes; that is, creating single-celled organisms that excrete useful substances the way that yeasts excrete alcohol and carbon dioxide. That’s not the dimension of biotech that concerns most critics, though. They’re concerned, rather, with the manufacture of organisms that aren’t safely confined to fermentation vessels—for example, the various GMO crops that are being dumped into the biosphere and the food supply without benefit of safety testing and without a thought for the potential consequences.
That’s the issue that most critics of biotechnology are talking about. Redefining the terms of the conversation so that this issue doesn’t exist, and the relatively safe and uncontroversial end of the biotech spectrum is the only thing about which discussion is permitted, is an elegant way of making sure that the hard and necessary questions don’t get asked—and that, again, is the point of deploying a thoughtstopper.
Undefinitions are common these days in politics. Consider the way that the political correctness of the American left and the patriotic correctness of the American right get Undefined as “treating people decently,” on the one hand, and “love for your country” on the other. A great deal of the agenda pursued by each side is not part of the ostensible meaning of the Undefinition in question—that is to say, there are plenty of things that are part of political correctness as it’s actually practiced that have nothing to do with treating people decently, and plenty of things that are part of patriotic correctness as it’s actually practiced that have no connection whatsoever with love for one’s country. Since the purveyors of both these ideologies have no interest in seeing honest discussion of those things, in turn, the Undefinition serves the purpose of keeping that discussion at bay.
We could go on at quite a bit of length, but I think the point has been made. A great deal of what passes for thought these days consists of the deployment of thoughtstoppers of various kinds, and the habit of deploying them to avoid thinking about unpleasant subjects—for example, how we got into our present predicament, and what kind of changes we will have to make in our own lifestyles in order to cope constructively with the consequences—has played a significant role in putting meaningful change out of reach as our civilization blunders deeper and deeper into an unwelcome future.
Thus there’s a point in learning to recognize thoughtstoppers. Their function depends on going unnoticed. If you spot them in action, realize that they’re being used to prevent questions from being asked and issues from being raised, and refuse to play along, your chances of being able to think clearly about controversial issues have just gone up markedly—and, as suggested above, there are also significant potentials for entertainment in the process. Combine that with some of the other useful habits we’ll be discussing in future posts, and you may just be able to think your way through the mental traps with which the cognitive landscape of our time is so richly strewn.
Yet there’s a further dimension to this, as to all the skills of thinking we’ll be covering in upcoming posts. The thoughtstoppers that matter most aren’t the ones that other people use on us, but the ones we use to stop ourselves from thinking. The process of tracking those latter in their native habitat, identifying them, and learning to evade them is left as an exercise for the reader.
Teaser photo credit: By Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le penseur de la Porte de l’Enfer (musée Rodin), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24671002