On Critical Thinking

We talk about critical thinking, and in an ultimate irony fail to think critically about what we are saying. At university critical thinking is supposedly one of those skills we are meant to inculcate in ourselves (or that we magically end up with around the same time as we are awarded a diploma on a stage). It conjures vague notions of analysing spreadsheets, debating someone, perhaps being able to disagree with something written on the pages of a foreign affairs journal.

But critical thinking it is to think critically. That is, like a critic. What exactly is a critic? And why should we think like one?

Daniel Mendelson in The New Yorker:

“By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.”

For all criticism is based on that equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.”

To think critically, then, is to make the world around us mean something, to us. It is to not simply take your neighbour’s opinion, or your college professor’s, but to develop your own knowledge and taste sufficiently so that everything—whether a piece of furniture or a new movie or a forcefully presented opinion—has meaning to you through your own lenses. It’s basically nothing short of being an individual. That’s why we aim so intently for it—and why we keep improving our critical faculties our whole lives.

A Video About Cycling (and Life)

I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.

So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?

Drivers and Cyclists, Us and Them

I hate the pervasive driver-cyclist antagonism. Too often each group dehumanises the other to the extent that safety is made an even bigger problem.

The reality is most cyclists are also drivers, and most do their best not to hold up drivers and to ride with respect for cars; likewise, most drivers have at some point or other ridden a bike on the road and respect cyclists who do so regularly.

But of course the problem comes when one group gets so far into group mentality that the other becomes “them”—not really people, but a faceless group who get in “my” way. And this can happen on both sides of the equation. I’ve seen groups of cyclists ride as if they were the only people on the road, holding up cars for kilometres of road even when they could’ve let drivers pass. When the cars honked their horns, the cyclists moved out further into the road and rode slower. To them, the cars behind could have been driverless; group mentality made it seem as though it was just the “other” trying to get in their way.

And too often I’ve seen drivers drive recklessly nearby cyclists, especially when passing. Some drivers try to pretend as though there were not any cyclist on the road.

Just the other day I was riding up a hill here in Singapore, sticking as close to the side of the road as possible, when a van drove past me as if I hadn’t existed. I was swiped on the shoulder by the van’s mirror and almost knocked off. When I caught up with the van at the next traffic lights (to the driver’s dismay, since he hadn’t bothered to stop) he smiled maliciously and said, “That’s why you don’t ride your bike on the road.” Never mind that he was my only danger.

It was as though he were not speaking to a human. He had so forgotten that I am someone who also drives a car, who also has a family, who also has years ahead of me that all he could focus on was the fact that I might’ve got in his way. What was stranger than being hit by the mirror (which shook me and bruised but ultimately was not a big deal) was hearing the driver speak to me in tones one might speak to a tree that has fallen across the road.

Like I said, I hate driver-cyclist antagonism. I hate the articles local newspapers come out with once a month or so on the subject, which stir up those antagonisms further. I’m both a driver and a cyclist, just like most drivers at some point ride their bike and most cyclist at some point drive a car. To dehumanise is literally to forget that one is human, and that is the greatest danger of all—it is what leads to a cycle of maliciousness, because all one begins to see are two groups, one of which I’m in and the other which I’m not.

Whether you’re behind the wheel or in the saddle, realise that in an hour’s time the person in your way themselves might be driving a car or riding their bike. We’re all rarely as static as simple labels like to make us out to be. If only that were easier to remember.

And what I thought, after that van sped away from me, was that it is not so far a step from the phoney war between drivers and cyclists and the more real, far more dangerous antagonisms like those across the United States and Europe at present.

What to do when confronted with two pieces of contradictory advice?

One perspective on writing says to give everything you have, right away; to not hold anything back for later, because more will always come, and you need to use what you have right now.

Another perspective says to keep your best for when the timing is right; when you have the right medium or platform, when the right people will be able to read what you have to say. To let it go before then is to waste it.

It’s these times when faced with contradictory advice that you learn who you are, because you can’t hide behind by others’ well-meaning opinions. That advice may not be right for you and your circumstances anyway. Only when there are two opposed ideas are they essentially cancelled out, leaving you with your own decision for your own reasons.

Which way I answer the examples I’ve given here will show what type of writer I am. But there are times when the stakes are even higher; when the decision is about what type of person you are.

Perhaps that is why one should ultimately seek out advice. Not to listen to it, but to gather enough that it can all be ignored and one can actually decide for oneself, and to decide without ignorance.

This Is Cycling

“There is something bizarre, yet intoxicating, in the way cycling juxtaposes these little dramas of pain and suffering amid landscapes of sublime beauty. As Nietzsche wrote in “The Gay Science”, “what if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?”

The Economist’s new lifestyle magazine, 1843, published a piece by author and journalist Tom Vanderbilt on what it’s like getting into cycling. Titled “The Long and Winding Road”, the essay deals with midlife crises to start and moves on to how a sport can be so addictive. It’s stunningly written, and comes as close as anything I’ve ever read to capturing why cyclists put themselves through so much pain to repeatedly go up mountains.

Valls Calls Down Under: Another World Leader Woos the South Pacific

Which country wouldn’t want to be a Pacific nation these days? It was a sign of the times when Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, declared during a visit to New Zealand on May 1st that “I also come as a neighbour, as France is also a nation of the Pacific!” One could almost picture the notes his aides had prepared on the flight over, suggesting, one suspects, that Mr Valls emphasise France’s deep ties and connections to the Asia Pacific. His visit to New Caledonia, Australia and New Zealand comes at a time when many countries are dispatching leaders to the South Pacific to strengthen economic and political ties with friendly countries in the region.

France does indeed have colonial-era ties to the Pacific. New Caledonia, an archipelago roughly 1,000km from Australia’s eastern coast, remains a “special collectivity” of France. France also counts as possessions the islands collectively making up French Polynesia in the central South Pacific, as well as the tiny Wallis and Futuna. Yet this, too, is changing. Part of the reason for Mr Valls’ visit to the Pacific was to discuss with New Caledonia’s leaders details of the islands’ 2018 referendum on independence. As a vote nears, France looks to be seeking continued influence. While in Noumea, Mr Valls announced a $240 million loan to help Societe Le Nickel, a New Caledonian producer that has been struggling with low nickel prices.

But Mr Valls’ need to quite literally exclaim his country’s ties to the Pacific seemed to emphasise the insecurity behind the statement. He is not the first world leader to emphasise the ties. In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” As with France, the statement is not untruthful. But the circular logic in proclaiming a “new focus” with reference to a “fundamental truth” of history does show the urgency with which these pivots to the Pacific are being undertaken.

These declarations of Pacific identity may nevertheless help to give the impression of friendliness, which is useful for countries hoping to tap into economic opportunity in the Pacific. Much to Japan and Germany’s dismay, Australia announced on April 26th that it had chosen France to build its new fleet of submarines. The A$50 billion ($38 billion) contract was highly prized, and explains Mr Valls’ last minute addition of Australia to his Pacific tour.

Pacific countries seem to be rather enjoying the flirtation. The French leader’s visit gave John Key, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, an opportunity to make former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s case to be United Nations Secretary General, as well as argue for a long sought-after New Zealand-EU trade deal. Mr Valls may also have encountered Pranab Mukherjee, India’s President, on the tarmac in Wellington — Mr Mukherjee was calling on New Zealand’s political and business leaders, the first ever visit to the country by an Indian head of state. He, too, brought the possibility of some large cheques, announcing the agreement of direct flights between the two countries.

In the end, it is deals like that which mean countries are unlikely to pay much attention to the historical or geographic accuracy of claims to Pacific identity. In the world of global trade and security nothing is either true or false, but declaring makes it so. Mr Valls’ over-eager exclamation might have been worth it after all.