Critical Thinking (and why we need people who piss on sacred fires)

“Troublemakers make the world go round”

On the wall at Knowmads Business School, Amsterdam


I am afraid of experts. Gurus, leaders, people in white coats, specialists, doctors, directors, teachers. Hold on a second. I am not afraid of experts. As I type those words I realise I am not afraid of those people. I am afraid of me and you. I am afraid of the power we give to experts. I am afraid of our listening without questioning.


Some years ago when I was entering adulthood I attended a counsellor. I went because a guy in a white coat told me that he had “3 year olds who could handle their diagnosis better” than me. I thought if this doctor is telling me I am at fault then I must be. I went to a counsellor. She spent our sessions telling me how great I was and I spent 70 euro an hour to hear this. Well one thing (maybe the only thing) I took from this was one piece of advice she gave me. “Take two people you trust and ask them for advice.”


Well now this worked to a certain extent. I was entering adulthood and I felt dragged and pulled by every wave of advice, not knowing where to go and not knowing what I wanted. This advice gave me the agency to not listen. To say “thank you for your advice” and then to completely disregard it.


However even at that young age I knew there was something wrong with the advice. So I added my own clause. Take two people you trust and ask them for advice, and always trust them to be themselves. Now what do I mean by that?


Well I’ll give my sister Aisling as an example. Aisling is my older sister by five years. We were never that close as children but as we became adults we have grown to respect each other and our differences. She is one of my go-to people. If I want some straight-up, honest to goodness advice she is there. I talk to her and then she tells me what she thinks, a rare attribute.


Do I then listen and act as she would advise? Hell no! I listen but with the knowledge of her frame of reference. She is trained as an accountant, she is a good bit more conservative than me and she is a mother. And these are just three of the many frames that she sees the world through. I listen to get another perspective than mine. Sometimes I take on what she says, sometimes I don’t. But understanding her frames of reference helps me to make choices about what I do take on board.


So what’s the point? Blind faith terrifies me. The unquestioning belief in any process or person terrifies me.


I’ve had an amazing journey this last year on “Arts, Participation & Development” in C.I.T. One of the key parts to this course was working on critical thinking skills. There are so many good arguments out there for one thing or another it can be easy to get swept away. But we need to stop and ask ourselves a few questions


  • What frame of reference is this opinion/argument coming from?
  • What shapes this person’s world view?
  • Why do they want me to believe what they believe?
  • Who benefits from me changing my beliefs?


Oh there are probably tonnes more questions I should ask when I’m faced with polemic or propaganda but this is where I start.


What happens when we don’t ask questions? Here is a few trends I have noticed happening.


  • Putting people on pedestals
  • Black and White Thinking (or the absence of subtlety)
  • Herd behaviour
  • “Yes men” or women
  • A lack of dissent
  • Less voices being heard

The best teachers I have had have always made the point of saying that I should not take them too seriously. That they are fallible like I am. They have been open to learning and don’t believe they possess all the answers. They welcome questions and welcome being questioned on their practises. They don’t expect blind faith or ask me to trust in a process they wont explain. They don’t claim to be alchemists.


Why do we follow without questioning? I have a few ideas: It’s attractive to feel like we are on a mission, that we share a common goal or adversary. There is a sense of belonging, of community. Most importantly though, it’s easier. It’s just so much easier to hand our agency over to others, to let them decide. “They are the expert” after all and they know best.


But by following without question, we create monsters. Yes we, the followers, create monsters.


The other quality I think we need a bit more of in the world is irreverence. If anyone takes themselves too seriously we need to knock them down from their pedestal. If they are asking you to believe or to trust in the process without question, give them the finger. Shout “Boobies” at the top of your voice while all around people are shouting in unison. Press the red button. Piss on the sacred fire! And at any point if you take your role too seriously take joy when someone pisses on your sacred fire.


Orla Burke

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