Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden - 28/11/2017

Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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Thinking with others

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” reflected Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, “I was wrong about that.” Williams also felt pretty bad and even apologised to the American people upon hearing Donald Trump say he probably wouldn’t have become President if it hadn’t been for Twitter.

One of the Williams’ mistakes when creating Twitter was assuming that people think for themselves. We don’t. We think in the context of others, and not for their wellbeing but their acceptance. Thinking is inherently relational, our deep need to belong often drives us to take and hold political positions to bond with others—to be in the in-crowd—rather than to seek truth.

We think in the context of others, and not for their wellbeing but their acceptance

This deep need leaves us relying mostly on intuition well before reason kicks in. I’ve written before about social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work, who “likens the relationship between heart and mind as one between an elephant and its rider. Our heart is the elephant, powerful and strong; our mind the rider, desperately clinging on while trying to direct this most unwieldy of beasts…the rider matters, but only when the elephant already agrees.”

According to Haidt, these elephant-sized moral intuitions both bind and blind. “People bind themselves into political teams and that share moral narratives…once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.” Our arguments can tend to end up as “post hoc constructions made up on the fly” to justify our pre-existing position, subconsciously designed to secure our place in the team.

Thinking independently, even if it were possible, isn’t the answer

As we’ve seen in the States, this can cause a serious rift in a democracy and raise a significant barrier to genuine political engagement. Trump has made much of the “friend” and “enemy” distinctions, wrote columnist David Brooks, “exploiting liberalism’s thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on in-group/out-group rivalry.”

Thinking independently, even if it were possible, isn’t the answer. Thinking with others is. C.S. Lewis wrote that “one of the most dominant elements” in our lives “is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” The only way to resist the allure of the Inner Ring, Lewis claims, is not isolation, but membership in a community where diversity of ideas is necessary and belonging taken for granted, rather than a collective where conformity to certain ideas is necessary to belong

The only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to… a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted

Academic Alan Jacobs cites the motley crew of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad from Wind in the Willows as an example of what this membership should look like. They don’t seek to fundamentally change one another but instead relish their distinct contributions to the group. As Jacobs puts it, “the only real remedy for the dangers of false belonging is the true belonging to, true membership in, a fellowship of people who are not so much like-minded as like-hearted.”

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Kieran Madden

By Kieran Madden -

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