Critical thinking and challenging others works is not being rude or being unnecessarily critical. To think critically is not to be a killjoy or whine about a subject in an opinionated fashion. To think critically is to challenge ideas by seeking out arguments from multiple sources and to consider the weight of an issue, given its implications for individuals, for society and for practical implementation. It’s amazing how this last element – practical implementation, encompassing applied research, change management and tactical execution – is omitted from academic research, while mass communication and pseudo ‘journalism’ is dominated by opinion and press releases masquerading as ‘news’.
I try to be a critical thinker. I read around subjects I write about (probably for several hours more than I need to), and I actively seek out arguments against my own beliefs. I ignore trite and obviously poorly researched material, but I do seek out a variety of perspectives on subjects that attract my interest, and I seek to build a case for whatever argument I pursue. I don’t always get it right, but I try.
But I feel like I’m increasingly lonely in this endeavour. From all sides – academic research, public intellectualism and mass/popular communication – I seem to be surrounded with content that lacks either critical thinking or any kind of relationship with reality, or both. Worse, audiences for arguments (popular press, public debate or academic research publications) are accepting this obfuscation of issues in the interests of being polite.
For goodness sake people, wake up. You don’t have to be unswervingly pleasant to people all the time. You don’t have accept something just because it’s in print. You don’t have to nod sagely at the conceptually brilliant, but practically absurd twitterings of some university professor or public thinker. You can challenge people. If they do have any relationship with reality you will ultimately help them. You may not give them an ideological transplant but you will provide them with another argument they can counter.
Of course, the skill is in aggregating resources that will support your challenge. There’s no point whining about something without having evidence to support a case. If you fail to build a case, you become as irrelevant as the thing you hope to critique. And there’s also no point in making grand statements about the future or grand plans that fail to acknowledge either human behaviour or practicalities of implementation. If you are babbling on about better futures, then you need to be able to have evidence of how it can be executed, and you need to have a history of dealing with the real world. But if you do build a useful case, and if you do have generalisable findings, as well as relationships with industry and governance, then you have the chance to facilitate change. That can only be good for everyone.
So to reiterate: being critical is not being nasty. It’s being useful.