Thinking critically is easier than you think, but it is rare. Professors, pastors, and politicians are not modeling what it means to think critically and it drives me crazy.  

Once in a while, I’m going to write to you, my reader, out of frustration.

Today is that day.

I am tired of being surrounded with lazy thinkers and I’d like to challenge you to do the leg work that is required to contend with culture.

Laura Bolin Carroll defines rhetoric as “the way we use images and language to persuade,” so let’s chat for a moment about how to be more persuasive and start thinking more critically about our culture.

No matter what kind of audience you write or speak for, this will increase your ability to think critically and in turn increase your credibility.

Your education, your reading, and all of your cultural consumption in general presents you with knowledge and allows you to negotiate ideas to form your own.

Thinking Critically - Stop Being a Lazy Thinker

The first step in writing or speaking persuasively is to understand the conversation that is already happening.

This is what Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein attempt to convince college freshmen: “the thesis or ‘I say’ moment of your text–should always be a response to the argument of others.”

We must read articles and books from every corner of the library to learn about different thinkers– some ancient, some modern, and some contemporary– in order to understand the preexisting conversation.

When you read these thinkers, watch these movies, and listen to our culture’s music, start holding the words in your hand, weigh them against your own ideas and the ideas of others, and then, and only then, decide where you stand in relation to them.

To do this, though, you need to really wrestle with their exact words. 

Not your mom’s words, not the latest Huffington Post headline, and certainly not the words you read on your Facebook friend’s comment.

We need to read primary sources. If you want to throw psychoanalysis under the bus, you better know your Freud. If you want to call evolution a theory, you better read your Darwin. 

To contend with any thinker, you need to read them. When you articulate your opposition, make sure you quote them exactly. This means reading their work or consuming their cultural product. Paraphrasing ideas can be effective, but there is real power in conveying the words of a person in the exact manner she wrote them.

Quoting your research, your reading, a movie, or a song when you write or speak accomplishes three things:

  1. It shows your audience you respect their time. 
  2. It shows your audience you respect other people.
  3. It adds credibility to your own ideas.
  4. It advances your argument.

Whether you agree or disagree with the statement you choose to quote, it is so important for you to establish the already existing conversation in order to participate in it effectively. If it’s worth mentioning at all, you need to be able to articulate it well so that you can dismantle it or support it.

As a culture, we tend to criticize what we don’t understand.

Criticism does not equate to thinking critically.

The reason we don’t understand it is because we haven’t taken the time to know it.

The next time you hear someone criticize a policy, a professor, or a concept, probe them. Find out if they have all the facts. Ask them if they know what they are saying and who they are bashing.

How many times do we hear people bash politicians without having a clue as to what that politician believes? When is the last time you heard a professor bash a musician you love or criticize a book you like?

When they do this, more often than not, they have never listened to that musician’s music or read that author. 

I hear people criticize the Kardashians all the time, but if you slow down and ask them what they specifically don’t like about that Armenian family, they will probably just repeat a headline to you. 

They don’t actually know anything about that family, other than they are one of the most visible families in our American society.

That makes them an easy target, but it makes you a lazy thinker. 

If you do want to criticize the Kardashian family, or Miley Cyrus, or Donald Trump, then be specific. They are not a catch all for everything that’s wrong with America, or maybe they are, but you are perpetuating the problem by not articulating it.

Anything else is a straw man fallacy and what you are really doing is perpetuating the cultural currency of their brand. I guarantee your audience isn’t silently defending these cultural figures and waiting to be proven wrong by you mentioning them when you write or speak. 

If you don’t, your not being helpful–you’re not provoking critical thinking or encouraging change, you’re just being a hater.

And our culture is full of haters.

The same goes for English teachers when they make fun of the Twilight series. I’ve heard these books are terrible, but I don’t condemn one when my student tells me it was their favorite book. 

I don’t condemn them at all, because I haven’t read them, and I never plan to.

Contending with culture in a respectful and helpful manner is possible, but it takes work. If you are in a position of leadership, and if you have credibility and influence, then this message is for you. I beg you to do what it takes to think critically.

If we want to engage in intellectual conversations and be credible as thinkers, it is imperative that we read primary sources — the text itself, rather than commentaries about the text or the latest headlines in the media. We need to read the words of anyone worth contending with, we need to wrestle with their ideas, and only then should we offer criticism or praise and advance our own arguments.

And when in doubt, read more. 

Get to work.

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Thinking Critically - Stop Being a Lazy Thinker

12 Responses

  1. This is a really interesting post! I definitely agree with you that it is lazy thinking just to condemn something you don’t know anything about- or something you don’t understand. That said, I think there are other forms of lazy thinkers- people that go away and read things but do not actually absorb them or think about them critically. You mention the Straw Man fallacy, and that is an excellent example, but more often than not, I find lazy thinkers tend to use the appeal to authority fallacy. So often people just cite things they’ve read- like you said- and fail to actually think about what it means or analyse the “facts” they’ve been given- which is very similar to what you said about the Kardashians. A lot of what you said about being negative can, unfortunately, be applied to people being too accepting or too willing to be positive about something, without actually examining it’s merit. Like your example with Twilight- I’ve heard people argue that it’s good because it was popular- which is not a good reason to say something is objectively good- because popularity does not denote literary merit- so this is one of the *laziest* reasons to praise a book. Like you said, it’s fine to like whatever you want, (and people can like Twilight for the simple reason of it making them feel a certain way) but people are required to actually think about their reasons for something- and not just resort to a lazy excuses. (that’s not actually a particularly good example- I’m just trying to not get too political here!) Sorry for rambling on- this is just a really thought provoking piece!

    1. I don’t think you’re getting too political. The examples I brought in are easy targets for critical thinkers because there are good reasons to be critical about these, BUT -and the big but that fuels this post- is that I find people are getting lazy and have no idea why they are critiquing these things. They think they know, but they haven’t thought about any of it for themselves, haven’t read the words or done the hard work for themselves. The same goes for blindly praising things like you say, but in my circles, this is less frequent. And I totally agree that people are lazy in all kinds of ways. Maybe this should be a series? 🙂

    2. Good- I avoided all political examples for a reason :p That’s exactly the way I feel- people just say X is good, or Y is bad- without ever thinking of WHY. I also think that it’s not enough to just read things and parrot opinions. You mentioned Freud- well I’ve met enough people that read that then find Freudian analyses everywhere- but the second they get told by someone else in authority (like a professor) that it’s outdated they roll their eyes and dismiss any Freudian arguments. That’s what I meant by people being too ready to appeal to authority. It’s not enough just to read something- if you’re not going to process any of it, then it’s a complete waste of time. It’s not critical thinking to just parrot other people’s ideas without actually coming to certain conclusions yourself. I think with regards to blindly praising things, I think my examples would be far too political- as I said Twilight was not a good example :/ It definitely should! It was a really good post!

  2. Wow. You had a fire in your belly when you wrote that! An excellent post. I agree with you, but with a caveat. If you are a creative person, you can’t wait till you’ve read everything before you give yourself permission to start doing your work. When John Keats systematically started to read Shakespeare, you could see his own poetry improving as he did so. I don’t think he should have waited to become a writer till he had read all of Shakespeare, however.

    But I totally feel your pain. I have had a fair amount of poetry published over the years, and it makes my heart sink when people, who have never read a poem in their life, want to inflict their poems on you.

    1. I have not fully formed this thought yet, but I suspect creatives have a different posture when it comes to culture. Creatives aren’t critical for the sake of being critical. I have written a lot about how Murakami, a creative, contributes to psychoanalytic conversations and essentially writes theory. I am curious, though, about what you mean when you say people inflict their poems on you.

      And yes, there was a fire in my belly when I wrote that. I had to write it, but I almost didn’t publish it!

  3. Thank you for visiting my fledgling blog. I taught high school English for ten years and left the classroom eight months ago. Keep thinking, writing, and – above all – reading. You’re doing good work here.

    1. Burnout is my short answer. The long answer requires at least two bottles of wine! And, at some point in the conversation, I would include the topic of lazy thinkers that you’ve addressed here. I have been witness to amazing students, but those just looking to pass and move on far outweighed them. I miss the academic environment and I may return in some capacity, but high school teaching and I have permanently parted ways. These days I do a little technical editing. It pays fine and I don’t work weekends. Or evenings. Or vacations. You get the idea. Enjoy reading your blog. Mine is still very much searching for itself, but I’ll get there. ?

  4. This is blunt and right on, sad but very true. Thanks for writing about the criticality of groundwork and critical thinking.

  5. Oh my gosh, thank you for this… I have been saying this until I’ve been blue in the face. Meme’s with inaccurate quotes and misrepresented facts are the worst! Great post here!

  6. I liked your article. How do you propose people take a swing at critical thinking? In reference to retaining the knowledge looked into.

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