"People allow their thinking to be colored by ‘logic and “intellectual stuff,’ which blurs the vision and deprives them of…clarity of thought…"

essays

Mary Azatian

In this essay, LACCD student and mom Mary Azatian attempts to define critical thinking and the bias that often causes us to fail to think critically: our “soft corners.”


Soft Corners

Thinking, everyone thinks, is an inherent trait in human beings and is what makes them different from other species. This common belief might be true to a great extent because human beings display their ability to think in a number of ways, as compared to other species on the planet. However, it would be more appropriate to say that it is critical thinking skills, not just thinking, that make human beings stand apart from the rest. What then is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is not to be confused with the ordinary thinking process. Critical thinking is more complex and deliberate than casual, everyday thinking. While the latter kind of thinking usually comes automatically to most human beings, critical thinking is a skill that needs to be developed and sharpened. In my evolution as a critical thinker over the years, through the process of education and persistent practice, I have come to realize that striving for a state of equanimity, learning to evaluate situations with clarity of thought and mind, without biases and soft corners for people and preferences, is what helps me to apply critical thinking to everyday situations and enhances my ability to uncover the truth. Over a period of time, our association with friends and acquaintances makes us develop a soft corner for them, so much so that regardless of what we might be told about a friend or acquaintance, about his or her efficacy or drawbacks, we continue to believe in the person the way we know him or her to be. But it is critical evaluation of facts alone that helps us see these people as they are.

An example of this phenomenon is as follows. Recently, I came across a lady who would drop off her kids at violin classes, and I gradually became acquainted with her on a comfortable conversational level. She came across as extremely loving, caring and considerate, a mother who adored her children. From her conversations, on several occasions, I gathered that she was an ideal parent who took great pains to bring up her children well and provide them with the best. So, it came to me as a shock when she was arrested on charges of child abuse one October morning. It took a long time for the news to sink in, for me to realize that her children, their wounds, their statements and her husband’s statements to the court and the press, could not all be false. I followed the court proceedings closely, and the growing evidence about the woman’s split personality, her dual character, challenged my belief, my preconceptions and my soft corner for her. It is then that I realized that critical thinking is much different from what we usually consider as thinking. I also realized that it is critical thinking alone that can help us to unveil the truth behind our preconceptions. But before we proceed further, it is important to understand what critical thinking really is, and how it is different from casual, everyday thinking.

Making a clear distinction between casual, everyday thinking and critical thinking is absolutely essential and the best place to start a discussion about critical thinking. Defining critical thinking, Robert H. Ennis states that critical thinking is reflective thinking that helps us decide what to believe and what to do (“Critical Thinking Community”). Thus, the thinking abilities that help us arrive at a conclusion about what is right or wrong, to decide what ought to be done, is referred to as critical thinking. Critical thinking involves complex thinking processes and a combination of several mental abilities and skills in the resolution of a particular problem. This requirement makes it evident that critical thinking is not something that comes naturally; it is something that requires the training of the mind. It is a habit that needs to be inculcated and developed from childhood. Critical thinking comes with discipline, practice, and self-training. Michael Scriven and Richard Paul define critical thinking as “an intellectually disciplined process” that involves “active and skillful conceptualization, application, analysis, synthesis, and/or evaluation of information” that we come across through observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication. This thinking process leads us to belief and action (“Critical Thinking Community”). This definition not only defines critical thinking, but also defines the abilities required in a critical thinker. In order to be able to think critically, it becomes imperative that the thinker be capable of clarity of thought, logical reasoning and fair-mindedness. All of these abilities come from self-discipline and a conscious effort to control one’s thoughts and monitor the decision-making processes of the mind.

In my progress as a critical thinker, I realized that only a person who can be objective can evaluate facts and evidence with clarity and be able to see the path that needs to be chosen. When resolving problems in our lives, we do analyze and synthesize information, but we do not do so with complete neutrality. We always have biases and a soft corner for someone or something that flavors our decision. The emotional response to situations and our predilections and biases regarding people, ideas, agencies and objects stops us from being good critical thinkers. We impose our personal ideas and impressions on a situation before we decide what to believe or not to believe, or decide what is right or wrong.

For instance, I am offended when someone criticizes my son’s artwork. Why? I’m offended because I am already biased toward his work. I already have a notion that it is good, I am further unwilling to accept the critique because I consider the person evaluating my son’s work to be as good as I am in his or her capabilities, or may on the contrary think otherwise, or even think that he or she is biased. These thoughts make my discerning mind and ego think negatively, and reject the critique, however appropriate it might be. In this situation, I do not think about the quality of the work my son turned in, or the appropriateness of the critique, but I simply react to who has critiqued his work. I fail to see things as they are. I am using my (limited) perception to evaluate the situation. I am allowing my soft corner for my son to color my decisions and respond to the situation, and letting my bias against the critic influence my actions.

J.D. Salinger brings out this point about letting our soft corners for people, or our preconceptions about things, influence our decisions. These notions and personal biases color our thoughts so much that we are not able see things just the way they really are. In Salinger’s short story “Teddy,” the eponymous protagonist, a 10-year-old genius who is far mature than his years because of his critical thinking abilities, points out that “[t]he trouble is … most people don't want to see things the way they are” (Salinger 13). People allow their thinking to be colored by “logic and “intellectual stuff,” which blurs the vision and deprives them of the clarity of thought required to assess a situation. As a critical thinker then, I am learning to throw away these biases and the illogic of preconceived notions and labels. Salinger’s Teddy knows that eating the “apple” of labels and other preconceptions about people and things is what deprives us of clarity of thought, and he stresses that “this is my point—what you have to do is vomit it [logic] up if you want to see things as they really are” (13). I realize that a certain detachment from a situation is important to put things in an appropriate perspective, and facilitate better critical thinking.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to be completely overwhelmed by what we see and believe. Before I came to America, while I was still in my pre-teens, I believed that my culture and country were the most receptive and assimilative. I completely believed that there could be nothing better than what I had access to. It was only through exposure to America and the world beyond that I realized I was living in an intellectual cave, that what I believed was only partly true, that there existed a world, more beautiful and amazing, than what I had seen and known. My situation was very much like the prisoners in Plato’s allegorical cave, as described in his “Allegory of the Cave.” These prisoners are unable to see anything beyond what is directly in front of them. There, too, they see just the shadows of objects cast on a wall, and they think them to be true, give them names, and believe in them as the ultimate truth, without realizing that the truth is something entirely different. However, the good thing about the human mind is its capacity to learn and make amends. It has an inherent quality of receiving information and learning from experience, which helps it develop and progress. My realization that the world is much more magnificent, dynamic, and geographically huge came with the exposure to education, knowledge, information, and experience. I cannot help but agree with Socrates, in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” when he states:

[T]he power and capacity of learning exists in the soul already; and that just as the eye was unable to turn from darkness to light without the whole body, so too the instrument of knowledge can only by the movement of the whole soul be turned from the world of becoming into that of being, and learn by degrees to endure the sight of being, and of the brightest and best of being.

Further, as a critical thinker I realize that it is important to be a good communicator and to have adequate ability to define ideas, and use words appropriately to express thoughts. Part of critical thinking consists in articulating ideas, problems, and situations with clarity. It is important that we have the appropriate knowledge and vocabulary to understand and define these things. Reasoning and arguing about an issue may become invalid if we do not truly understand or define a situation. For instance, when Proposition 30 came up on the November ballot in 2012, I did not approve of it in the very beginning. I was very much against the idea of the wealthier people being taxed more. I thought it was “unfair.” In my limited understanding of the term “fair” as something that meant being equal for all, I kept arguing that it is inappropriate to tax the richer at a higher rate; why should they have to pay the penalty for being rich? However, only after delving into the problem at length and exploring the issue of wealth accumulation, corporate welfare and tax evasion, as well as the disparity between taxes paid by average Americans and the rich, did I realize that it was actually “fair” to have the wealthier pay a higher tax on their income. I felt like Plato’s Euthyphro, in the dialogue of the same name, who claimed that it was “piety” that demanded his father’s prosecution for murder, although he was not able to define piety or distinguish between piety and impiety. In this dialogue, Socrates tries to make Euthyphro see that he needs to know the meaning and implication of the word before he uses it as the basis of his argument. Socrates says to Euthyphro:

Tell me what is the nature of this idea, and then I shall have a standard to which I may look, and by which I may measure actions, whether yours or those of anyone else, and then I shall be able to say that such and such an action is pious, such another impious.

But Euthyphro, try as he might, is unable to come up with a clear definition of piety or standard. He is perplexed and lacks the clarity of mind that enables lucidity of thought, which facilitates refined perceptions of the greater picture. Thus, critical thinking requires having clear ideas and the ability to define terms, and assigning them universally applicable values, so that everyone understands them in the same way. Extensive reading that facilitates better understanding of words, ideas, and concepts, coupled with my ephemeral experiences that are usually (and consciously) followed by reflection and critical evaluation, are helping me to reach a stage where I can consciously use words to convey my thoughts convincingly.
In the last few years, I have reflected on my journey as a critical thinker, and I realize that I am becoming more and more conscious and aware of the workings of my mind. I am allowing myself to review, revise, and analyze minutely the decisions that I make. I am working toward acquiring more information and looking beyond the surface to understand things better. In the process, it is becoming increasingly clear that critical thinking alone will divest me of the fabricated, illusory world of concepts, notions, biases, and soft corners, and help me see clearly. In the movie The Matrix, which explores the idea of humans being trapped in a matrix unable to see reality, the character Morpheus gives another character a choice to see or not see the real world:

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you will wake up in your bed and believe what you want to believe. You take the red pill, you will stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Were I the character given this choice, I would unhesitatingly choose the red pill and explore the depths of reality. I would want to live consciously, to explore the matrix we are living in, so that I could be see reality and not live in a perpetual world of make believe.

As a person moving progressively toward my goal of becoming a good critical thinker, I believe I have come to a point where I am learning to be consciously aware of my thought processes. Through a continuous process of introspection, the diligent practice of critical thinking, which helps me to make informed decisions, I am trying to eliminate whatever fallacious thinking I am prone to committing. I am training my mind to critically evaluate a situation before coming to a conclusion, to rise above personal preferences and leave no soft corners. In this way, I can swallow the red pill and uncover reality, look at things as they are, and understand things for what they are.

Works Cited

  • "Defining Critical Thinking." The Critical Thinking Community. Foundation for Critical Thinking, n.d. Web. 27 Oct 2012.
  • Ennis, Robert H.. "Definition of Critical Thinking." Critical Thinking.Net. Criticalthinking.net, 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 27 Oct 2012.
  • Plato. "Euthyphro ." Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive. Web Atomics, 2009. Web. 14 Nov 2012.
  • ---. "The Allegory of the Cave." The History Guide: Lectures on Modern Intellectual History. The History Guide, 13 May 2004. Web. 12 Nov 2012.
    Salinger, J. "Teddy." My Own Resources. Miguelmllop, 08 Dec 2000. Web. 12 Nov 2012.
  • The Matrix. Dir. Larry and Andy Wachowski. Perf. Reeves Keanu, Laurence Fishburne, and Carrie-Anne Moss. Warner Bros, 1999. DVD.

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