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Jan 23, 2018, 07:02AM

Why You Shouldn't Think for Yourself

Relying on others is what makes us human.

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We love independent thinking. Culture heroes like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are celebrated for their contrarian and innovative genius; Hollywood heroes are encouraged to follow their dreams as the music swells, regardless of quibbling pragmatic detractors. And in politics, we sneer at partisan shills who take their cues from party talking points. Voters should be self-directed; they should carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each individual candidate, and make a determination on merit, regardless of R or D. Don't be one of the sheeple!

Everybody agrees—you should think for yourself. But do you really want to follow that herd? To be a truly independent thinker, maybe you have to think about the virtues of not thinking for yourself after all.

The ideal of thinking for yourself sounds appealing. Shouldn't you become informed about important issues, weigh the evidence, and make up your mind accordingly? Maybe in theory. But in practice, there are problems. Each person is only one person with one brain. It's impossible to be an expert on everything, or even on a small portion of everything. If you're knowledgeable about Syria, you're not necessarily also going to be knowledgeable on women's health care. If you understand the ins and outs of NAFTA, you won't necessarily be deeply knowledgeable about net neutrality. Chances are, like me, you’re not an expert on any of these things. And if you work a 50-hour week or more, you probably don't have the time or energy to study up on all these issues. You probably don't even have time to keep up with the latest stupid thing Trump did.

Even if you could research every subject intensely, doing so wouldn't necessarily lead you to good conclusions. Dedicated anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, and Charles Murray fans are very well-versed in their particular niche; they can cite figures and statistics all day long. Yet, someone with minimal knowledge who simply accepts the scientific consensus and the word of experts is actually infinitely better informed about each of these topics.

When you insist on listening only to yourself, you likely as not end up listening to a fool, conspiracy theorist or both. Most times, you're better off taking cues from people you trust and respect. Everyone I know who broadly agrees with me on political principles says getting rid of net neutrality is bad; I'm willing to accept that getting rid of net neutrality is bad. That's a perfectly reasonable way to make decisions.

In fact, this isn't just a reasonable way to make decisions; it's the only way to make decisions. Even experts rely on other experts; to be informed is to be informed by other people. Shakespeare listened to Marlowe; Einstein got ideas from Faraday; Bill Gates got money from his father. Humans are social creatures; we're apes that form nests like bees.

Other humans teach us language, how to use the toilet and why it's good to share. Other people teach us how to be people—and then we turn around and declare that it's a weakness to be shaped by other people. It's not very gracious.

Everybody learns and takes moral guidance from others. When people tell you that you should form opinions independently, that's other people telling you to form opinions independently. Your friends, neighbors, and even enemies make your brain; you're formed of bits and pieces of other people. People wail about call-out culture as if it's some form of mob rule—but the only rule we have is the mob one. Sometimes the mob is evil, and shouldn't be listened to—but those standards are set by some other, better mob. This isn't to say that all morality is relative. It's just that we learn how to be good from our communities and friends. So choose the people you associate with wisely—by, for example, looking with skepticism on people who say that ideally you would associate with no one.

For the most part, people de facto recognize that you can't really think for yourself, even when they pretend otherwise. When someone says, "Think for yourself!" they usually mean, "Listen to me, and not that other person!" If we really thought everyone should think for themselves, we'd all fall silent forever. So here's my conclusion: we should admit that letting other people think for us is good, and that contrarian daring individualism is both impossible and undesirable.

Discussion
  • Will your next installment be about how to deal with people in the group once they've deviated from the orthodoxy? Various shaming techniques, what names to call them, etc?

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  • You can write it yourself, Beck. Here you are, shaming me for not abiding by the orthodoxy of anti-orthodoxy, after all.

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  • I'm afraid that the orthodoxy of anti-orthodoxy is not a thing, much like the safety of danger is not a thing, but come on man, you've just laid down the recipe for groupthink and given it your seal of approval. This is a real self-indictment. Well, at least you admit it you do it  so I suppose you deserve credit for that.

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  • Actually it looks like Nicky beat Chris to the rebuttal. Me, I got too much shit to do to get involved, so y'all talk among yourselves.

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  • Of course the orthodoxy of anti-orthodoxy is a thing! You epitomize it! You constantly reiterate the same "independent thoughts" as everyone else. You nod along in dittohead fashion to embarrassing fools like Sam Harris who earnestly tells you to think for yourself. Counterculture conformity is a thing. You're inability to see the joke even when it's pointed out is kind of amazing.

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  • Now you're saying this was a joke, oh dour one, when you don't even have a sense of humor? That's a good one. So what was the funny part of it?

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  • A writer is actually admitting he doesn't think for himself. My spiritual kin, Lord Byron, would be aghast at these words. This is an implicit endorsement of the Fox News mentality, though the writer lacks the necessary self-awareness to even realize this. He talks about people who were informed by other people and inculdes Bill Gates receiving money from his dad as an example, which is a nonsequitor. His comparison of potty training with critical thought really sums up his dim mentality. Yes indeed, the toilet is the only place for this banal tripe.

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  • That's so funny. "I think for myself, just like Lord Byron!"// Bill Gates was a joke. And potty training as an essential step in the civilizing process has been discussed by Freud, among others.// the rote humorlessness of the "I think for myself!" crowd is not exactly unexpected, but it's still amusing.

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  • Beck, I'm trying to explain that *you* are a joke. Sheesh.

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  • Noah, izt's not really necessary to say much more than you're the one comparing political discourse to potty training.

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  • It's

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  • "You need to stick to everyday expected independent thoughts like me, and not make outlandish statements comparing potty training and political discourse. Stick to accepted independent thoughts, like I do!"

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  • Two year olds have to have everything explained to them, as in toilet training. You really have some argument. "We all should behave like two year olds."Yep, that's a winner.

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  • "So here’s my conclusion: we should admit that letting other people think for us is good, and that contrarian daring individualism is both impossible and undesirable." I held out for a while, but the discussion keeps going and I feel like I gotta ask … if that's your conclusion, did you reach it by thinking for yourself? If not, well, which other thinkers did you borrow from to write this essay? (And why didn't you mention them in the text?)

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  • Hey Matthew! It is nice to have a real question.// Of course, as I say in the piece, we don't actually ever come up with anything by ourselves we're all embedded in communities. That's so much the case that it's not always clear exactly who we've gotten our ideas from. (And since everything comes from somewhere else, tracing the lineage of every thought is probably a good deal too cumbersome to try to do for a short essay like this!) Maybe the most important person shaping my thought here is Stanley Hauerwas, who is a Christian theologian who talks a good bit about how communities teach us to be good people. But intersectional feminism, which talks about accountability to marginalized people, is an influence as well.

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  • Beck, two year olds are human beings. They're not different from us in that they "need to have things explained." They're different because they haven't had most things explained yet. Fewer people have told them what to do, so they've got less to go on. You're more adult because more people have taught you how to behave (though, obviously, there's still a ways to go.)

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  • This must be why your efforts at the keyboard are roughly equal in quality to your efforts straining on the potty. Thanks for finally clarifying that.

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  • I actually try to respond to your arguments, and in return you default to gutter insults.// It's somewhat frustrating, but that's what I get for participating in comments threads, I guess.

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  • Berlatsky: "Beck, I’m trying to explain that *you* are a joke. Sheesh." Berlatsky: "I actually try to respond to your arguments, and in return you default to gutter insults." All I have to do is quote your own words back to you to expose your dishonesty.

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  • Since you are not thinking for yourself Noah, let me help you out with a thought. "This article is beyond moronic" Now repeat until you can do better

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  • "to expose your dishonesty". Yes, you're fighting the true battle for truth and purity in a comments thread, Beck. We all admire your lonely war.// Texan, while I don't think for myself, I am careful about who I let think for me. That doesn't include belligerent anonymous dipshits such as yourself, I'm afraid.

  • Who told you to type that stupid insult? After all, we now know you are devoid of original thought.

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  • Mr. Berlatsky has a wonderful head of Jerry Garcia hair and wears exquisite lumberjack attire when appearing on TV. http://dailycaller.com/2014/09/22/tv-hair-of-the-day-noah-berlatksy-on-cnn/

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  • War? No, I just showed you're a liar.

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  • Childe declares, "Everyone should think for themselves; any mild idiosyncrasy in dress or hairstyle must be mocked. I see no contradiction."// Beck doesn't know what a "liar" is, which isn't all that original, alas.

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  • Texan, anonymous internet trolls are widely loathed. Everyone would approve fo that insult.

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  • anyway. apparently independent thinking involves increasingly juvenile and pointless insults on the comments thread of a small website. No one has ever engaged in this sort of behavior before, guys. You're really showing your independence from the mob.

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  • Okay, Noah, since you persist, I'll present this once again - Berlatsky: “Beck, I’m trying to explain that *you* are a joke. Sheesh.” Berlatsky: “I actually try to respond to your arguments, and in return you default to gutter insults.” All I have to do is quote your own words back to you to expose your dishonesty.

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  • I've been chewing over this essay, and while there's a lot that I agree with, I also think it's missing something. Sure, we're shaped by everyone around us, and all of our components came from somewhere else... but if there were truly no such thing as a new idea, then humanity would never progress. Clearly new ideas have to come from somewhere. The forces and materials that built our bodies, from genetics to muscle memory, all came from elsewhere... but the particular combination in which they're expressed in ourselves at this point in time is unique. It makes sense to me that the same thing would be true of our minds: we may contain a stew of other people's notions, but the particular way all of those things come together in you won't be quite the same as in anyone else.

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  • Hey ShifterCat! Well, I don't really believe in progress; that is, I don't think we're better than human beings in the past. Things go forward and back, but I'm reluctant to say they get *better*.// You do get technological advancement and new discoveries...but those as you say are generally built out of other people's insights, and often get stumbled on collectively, rather than individually (Darwin wasn't the only person who came up with evolution right when he came up with evolution, for example.)// Big scientific advances are among the *most* collaborative human endeavors in any case, I'd say. Einstein had know a lot from a lot of different people to come on the ideas he did (most of which were not entirely original in any case.)

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