Lalith Gunaratne, CACOR member, considers Feelings, Illusions and Critical Thinking: Lessons from Brexit and Trump
I could not dig; I dared not rob:
Therefore I lied to please the mob.
Now all my lies are proved untrue
And I must face the men I slew.
What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young? – Rudyard Kipling
Kipling’s poem Dead Statesman amply describes Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson “defrauding the young” in propagating Brexit in the United Kingdom and then running for cover when they won.
The surprising outcome of Brexit based on emotions rather than logic is evidence of yet another example of why we have to be educated differently – contemplative, reflective, inquiry based, with mindfulness so we learn about self first – our own strengths and weaknesses – and then to be inquiring – think critically, to complement the analytical and logical. This way, we may take a holistic approach to the rights and responsibilities the universal franchise gives us in a democratic world.
In the UK – it was a shock to many who realized they had just left the European Union, then to experience cognitive dissonance – the buyer’s remorse with the choice they made. This ill conceived referendum showed how vulnerable we are, when we let our emotions of frustration, fear and insecurity dominate and not think deeply and critically about important decisions that impact so many in an interconnected world.
So, what do we learn from Bexit?
The key here is whether everyone who exercised their right had all the information or did they get duped by spin and their own emotional biases?.
Is it a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries where we have been educated somewhat, but not quite and then we have the media?. As a result we know a little about a lot and when it comes to the crunch, our emotions get the better of us.
This is why, even with a small critical mass of supporters, sociopaths and psychopaths like Pol Pot, Hitler, the apartheid leaders in South Africa, and leaders of DAESH (ISIS), Farage, Le Pen and the Trumps of today – gain so much power and momentum to possibly do horrendous deeds to humanity.
They seem to prey on the vulnerable, who hand over their power under the delusion that these leaders will save them, from whatever “evil” they lay blame on – immigrants, Islam, infidels – even if the perceived threats are real or not.
This article is not to condemn the likes of Farage and Trump, as none of this is black and white. Part of their diverse following likes their “disrupter” politics that challenge the status quo – the establishment – corporate and Wall Street driven republican and democrat emperors who are being shown without their clothes.
My purpose is to inquire into how well, we the people, can differentiate their good vs not so good assertions and policies, to find a balance, to think for ourselves and make informed decisions on extremely important issues that face us today for our sustenance, resilience, peace and harmony as a world.
Our vulnerability emerges from emotional biases embedded in us, as significant people and influences – our parents, grandparents, teachers, religions, political leaders, culture, the media and the movies – have shaped our thinking, our worldview, which form our mental models.
However, as our brains grow and our capacity to think and reason evolves from the child mind to the adult mind, we have the mental capacity to move away from being self-centered and emotional – to expand awareness to higher order learning to become more rational, so we adapt to changing society and surroundings.
Yet, the human mind is averse to change – we cling to how things were – culture, religion, language, familiar surroundings – as an anchor, even though, every second, every day, with time we take a step towards our demise.
This reality of inevitable change and death manifests suffering that leads to our fears and vulnerability. This is why it is crucial to take control of our wild and ruminating mind through the inner work of reflection, contemplation and mindfulness practices, as then we may quiet the mind to gain the wisdom and accept nature’s impermanence.
If we do not take control of our runaway mind, we depend on the outer world, the five senses seeking external solutions for our problems and challenges and not take personal responsibility. Many adults then remain in the child mind, dependent on “experts”, political leaders or the media and make decisions based on superficial knowledge.
This is why so many took a high profile campaign such as Boris Johnson’s Brexit bus boasting – “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead”, seriously without asking questions for deeper clarity.
Nick Cohen wrote after the fact in his Guardian article – There are liars and then there’s Boris Johnson and Micheal Gove (June 25th, 2016);
Never has a revolution in Britain’s position in the world been advocated with such carelessness. The Leave campaign has no plan.
Our Unconscious Incompetence
The trouble is that most of us do not realize that we do not know – unconscious incompetence.
Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University attribute this to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize our own ineptitude to evaluate our own ability accurately. Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which many of us suffer an illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing our ability to be much higher than it really is.
Their research shows the scope of our ignorance is often invisible to us. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises due to lack of expertise and knowledge, often hiding in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer.
So, we take hard stands on serious issues without considering the complexities, the web of interconnections and implications on the whole system – often driven by our emotions.
These result in many delusions that we are seeing in seemingly educated and well informed people as they support Donald Trump or the Brexit leavers who are now having second thoughts.
According to David Dunning in his article The Psychological Quirk that Explains Why you Love Donald Trump in Politico Magazine (May 25th 2016);
In voters, lack of expertise would be lamentable but perhaps not so worrisome if people had some sense of how imperfect their civic knowledge is. If they did, they could repair it. But the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests that some voters, especially those facing significant distress in their life, might like some of what they hear from Trump, but they do not know enough to hold him accountable for the serious gaffes he makes. They fail to recognize those gaffes as missteps.
That is really dangerous, as Hitler’s supporters did the same. Hitler’s architect and minister of armaments, Albert Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich gives a chilling account of how ordinary people went with the flow to do horrible things or stand by as they happened.
His reflections on his personal struggle shows how easy it is to get swayed to aid and abet, even genocide, in the self interest of what he thought of was good work as he focussed on his duties in return for acceptance, praise, recognition and privilege.
This why we have to become aware of;
- Misinformed political participants who can be so confident in their knowledge to support the worst tyrant without realizing so, with the expectation that they will have some gain.
- The intellectual inability to grasp complex policies and the inability to recognize our own lack of that ability – this causes delusion.
- Leaders pandering to those deluded masses who are misinformed and misguided to reinforce them to keep them on a hook
- How leaders use bravado as a means of keeping supporter interest and focus them away from the reality.
Donald Trump is a master at this.
The Importance of Critical Thinking
It is also interesting at a time when the education system is focussing on critical thinking, young people are actually thinking critically, judging by Bernie Sander’s supporters and the UK percentage of the young that voted to stay.
According to the 21st Century Lexicon, critical thinking is, “the mental process of actively and skilfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion.”
It requires us to be reflective to interpret what we see and hear based on our own skills, attitude and most importantly, our biases and prejudices. Knowing of the Dunning-Kruger effect makes it even more important for us to be aware of those, especially the emotional biases that railroad us into making bad choices.
Critical thinking involves the mind, hence being mindful and present helps us to recognize what is intended to mislead, to listen to eloquence without being carried away, and learning to live a life of inquiry. A habit of asking “why” a few times helps to get to the root cause and test what we are hearing and believe is really true.
Being mindful and aware, helps control our own emotional biases, to view our own and other’s beliefs with detachment, so we can become rational and logical to judge issues on their merits by ascertaining relevant facts and weighing the arguments – usually, for or against.
Being mindful and aware also helps us to put a mirror on ourselves to become habitual to question assumptions.
George Bernard Shaw, speaking on critical thinking, advises to us to learn not to be credulous, to apply constructive doubt in order to test un-examined beliefs, and resist the notion that some authority, a great philosopher or a leader perhaps, has captured the whole truth.
Finally, I end this inquiry with The Buddha’s Kalama Sutta who also gave us some sound advice 2600 years ago;
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.
Do not believe anything because it is spoken by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books.
Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.
…But by observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it”
Wednesday, 27 July 2016
By Lalith Gunaratne