Please visit Thinking Skills for the Digital Generation by Athreya and Mouza at Springer.com

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Chapter 2: Part 1. Thinking on your own


Dear Asha, Ajay,Ravi and Ariana,

In my first letter I said that the next three essays will be what I wrote in 2003 when I was visiting Italy. Well, I changed my mind, like grand fathers and grand mothers tend to do. I went back and read those essays. I need to think more deeply about the ideas expressed in those essays. They also need editing. Therefore, I decided to follow the main theme of this blog, namely “How to Think” for yourself.

Almost 50 years back, I was visiting St.Louis, MO. On the day of my visit, a few satisfied customers gave a send-off party to an elderly gentleman who ran a newspaper stand at a street corner or a train-station, I do not remember which. At that time, the gentleman was reported to have said: “With so much news on paper and radio, when do people have time to think?” This statement is more applicable now than ever before.

In his introduction to a book on “Battle for the Mind”, William Sargant, a Professor of Psychiatry, who had worked with survivors of the bombings of London during World War II, said: “Politicians, priests and psychiatrists often face the same problem: how to find the most rapid and permanent means of changing a man’s belief”. This book was written in 1957. If we add to this list media experts, tele-evangelists and advertisement psychologists, it becomes urgent to learn how others “battle for our minds” and influence us. It is imperative that we learn to think for ourselves before we get “scripted” for life.

The influence of media on children has been of great concern to the health professionals. There are definite connections between time spent on TV and video games and changes in physical and mental health habits. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the WHO recommend educating the children on Media Awareness, so they learn how not to get hooked by advertisements and how to choose good health habits. The effect of media on adults is no less significant. (see my earlier postings on Media Awareness)

In a free market economy, commercial groups will try to sell goods which we may or may not need. Even if there is no need, someone will create a “need” in our minds, if we let them.

Politicians will try to sell their ideas. We do want them to explain what their position is and why, so we can decide for ourselves. Unfortunately however, politicians treat us as if we have no intelligence of our own. Instead of appealing to our reason, politicians use public relation experts, “wordsmiths” and media consultants. One such so-called “word sculptor” has written a book called “Words that work: It’s not what you say, It’s what people hear”.

We all know how perceptions change if we hear the word “death tax” in place of “inheritance tax” or “affirmative action “ instead of “racial preference”. These words are the creations of “word sculptors” to stir up emotions and scuttle discussions. Emotionally charged words and advertising techniques are used to send us subliminal messages and “sell” weak arguments. (You may wish to read a book with the title “Language in Thought and Action by S I Hayakawa to get an introduction to the subject of Semantics)

Indeed, Mr. Newt Gingrich is alleged to have prepared a special document in 1992 with two lists of words to be used by the members of the Republican Party! Items from one list were to be always associated with members of the Republican party and items from the other list to be associated with members of the Democratic party. Is it any wonder that we have polarization? Is it not our responsibility to prevent “word sculptors” from brain-washing or manipulating our perceptions?

In a free society, politicians influence the public in subtle and “democratic” ways. In an autocratic society, ideas and ideologies will be forced on the people.

Religion has played this game of “Battle for the mind” the longest. I am not talking about our personal religion and spirituality. I am talking about organized religions. What organized religions do is to play on our emotions, particularly fears of the unknown and manipulate us into committing sins they themselves condemn and “force” or coerce us to believe in improbabilities.

For all of these reasons, it is important that all of us to learn how to think for ourselves in this era of information overload and mass media.

Information on any subject and in any language is easily available over the internet. A whole lot of information is hurled at us by salesman, politicians, pharmaceuticals, beer makers, preachers of every faith and denomination, without our asking. Unless we learn how to filter, how to organize and make sense of the available information and how to think on our own, we will be conditioned, scripted and manipulated by others.

There is plenty of good information, bad information, wrong information and dangerous information in the cyberspace. Collecting information has become easy at the click of a “mouse”. What do you do with it? How do you make use of the information effectively? How does one think? What does one need, to think better? What are the blocks to clear thinking? How does one think how to think?

Time to think, and tools to think with are the answers to these questions.

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