Saturday, June 10, 2000

Are you a clear thinker?

By A.J. Singh

DO you realise the extent to which emotion, prejudice and point of view may keep us from thinking clearly and arriving at sound conclusions?

The emotional attitude of people colours their words and actions. Those who are afraid of the unfamiliar, treat a foreigner with suspicion or contempt. Others are ready to pick up a readymade thought habit from their parents or associates, and never consider the basis of their judgement. Some are prone to the common error of basing an opinion on an isolated and perhaps unfavourable event. Their opinions then are no longer objective or impartial. These people have ceased to "think straight".


During wartime, extensive use is made of emotional language to arouse national pride and feelings of hate, for the enemy for without this it is difficult to hold the masses. Around many other subjects strong emotional attitudes exist, hence the difficulty of a non-emotional discussion on sex, family limitations, or religion. Indeed on any of these subjects, the discussion is likely to grow heated if cherished beliefs are challenged.

We are, in a way, all inhabitants of our own mental islands. "So many men so many worlds", as English writer Mathew Arnold aptly put it. Our judgements are, therefore, relative to a single standpoint and not absolute. We should bear this in mind when we are tempted to lay down the law about a situation in which we may not be in possession of all the facts. A better course would be to gather more facts, more opinions, and then reconsider the matter afresh.

Only by trying to look at problems in manner which discounts our own point of view can we escape this relativity. For example, a capitalist will naturally not be in favour of a capital levy. But if he is able to detach himself from his own circumstances and considers the economic good of the community as a whole, he may well think differently.

In quite unimportant things, we are all quite inclined to take our own customs as a frame of reference. A holiday-maker back home from a visit to Bangla Desh may tell you that the Bangla Deshies have bad table manners, when what he really means is that the Bangla Deshi table manners differ from ours.

Out of this failure to appreciate a different point of view, arise many a quarrel. On an international scale, a war, and on a domestic scale a feud. The neighbour who, in a moment of anger, chastised your dog for digging up his rose-growing-plot may be your enemy for life unless you appreciate his feelings of frustration and righteous indignation. Indeed you may both carry the emotions of the moment into a law court unless you decide to cool off and think clearly.

Western writers like Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw have done much to shake people out of their cherished mental habits. So often these habits are held on insecure foundations or traditional grounds. Generally we dislike being shocked or having our traditional beliefs challenged. Hence the belief of many people in censorship of books, plays and radio talks, which will protect them against shock.

We need, then, to cultivate a certain flexibility of the mind, and we should be grateful to an author who shakes us into trying out a new way of thinking. It is our own rigid thought habits which may prevent us from realising new truths.

Man alone is endowed with a rich and complicated brain structure able to give flexibility and adaptability to his behaviour. If he lets himself become a creature of habit, he becomes automatic and mechanical like the lower animals. To an audience aware of this, the man who prefaces his rather banal remarks by "I always say that" is not liable to be taken too seriously. Mentally he may be an automation.

Allied to static thought, habits are prejudices, which are opinions based on emotional or irrational grounds. The emotions lying behind a prejudice may be a relic of the emotional life of childhood. A child’s love for his father, for instance, may lead to an undue deference to authority. Conversely, reaction against his discipline may make a person unduly rebellious. The holder of a prejudice does not recognise the connection between emotion and prejudice. This is only apparent to an outsider. The prejudiced person believes he holds his prejudice on rational grounds. Hence the value of discussion, particularly when the participants are prepared to revise their opinions whenever their arguments are shown to be unsound.

Many slogans raised by one group of people against another or against an individual provide an example of a prejudice in action. Prejudice may be based on fear, jealousy in the economic and other spheres,or perhaps fear of rivalry by a newcomer. What is not realised is that people of many nations are able to move about the world more freely nowadays, and somehow we have to adjust ourselves to the new conditions if a workable degree of integration is to be reached.

The rational bolstering up of a belief held on irrational grounds has been called a "rationalisation", and it is surprising to what lengths human ingenuity will go to rationalise an unreasonable belief. Obviously this kind of unconscious self-deception is a formidable barrier to straight thinking.

A detached attitude of mind should be cultivated, and must be cultivated if we are to arrive at true conclusions on matters that touch us personally. The value of mental "fresh air" cannot be overestimated as a factor in clear thinking. Anything that provokes thought and discussion is to be welcomed. Above all, we can and must, do our best to detach ourselves from our own irrational motives that colour a firmly — held opinion. For it is only through clear thinking that sensible and right actions arise.