Janice Stein comments that critical thinking is crucial, but no panacea

September 7, 2010

The great truth of democracy, at least when it’s working well, isn’t about the levels of turnout at the polling stations or the noise from the opposition benches when someone who calls himself the leader gets carried away with his own sense of power. What’s much more fundamental to the 2,500-year-old experiment of people trying to rule themselves can be found in its basic sense of humanity – the ability, as University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in Not for Profit, “to see other people as human beings, not simply as objects.”

We don’t do this instinctively – it takes training. Animals might be collective by nature, but they are hierarchical in their attitudes toward self-preservation and exceedingly narrow in their range of sympathetic feelings. Authoritarian cultures and regimes exploit this us-and-them survival impulse to their advantage, but a democracy glories in achieving the best version yet of the good life thanks to what are traditionally called liberal arts – the broad-based critical education that freed people from all-knowing authority and allowed them to see both themselves and others as fully human.

But the more this good life is repositioned and redefined as material goods, where objects have become more intrinsically human than people themselves, the faster the liberal arts have fallen out of favour – in the academy, the economy and society at large, where a doctor, an X-ray technician and a former engineering student are now charged with wanting to bomb us into oblivion.

Clearly jihadists are the sworn enemies of liberal democracy, but can there be a connection between the disappearance of the liberal arts and the rise of homegrown terrorism? Or put another way, can we deter violence by teaching young people to think more clearly and compassionately than they now do in a technology-obsessed society where democracy is too often defined by its unthinking excesses? Prof. Nussbaum believes so.

As the culture of homegrown terrorism was coming into being, she undertook a study of the Indian province of Gujarat, where religious violence and an ambitious modernization of the educational system starkly exist side by side. “Gujarat is a classic place,” she says, “where schools have cut out all trace of critical thinking and the humanities, and placed a relentless focus on the technical training of people going into engineering and computer science and so on. I do think that is conducive to a culture where you blindly follow authority and respond to peer pressure. Lacking the empathy developed by a more critical kind of education, these tendencies reign unopposed.”

Indian men carry a charred body of a train passenger in Gujarat, Feb. 27, 2002. A train carrying Hindu activists was set on fire, sparking further violence.

In 2002, Hindu mobs in Gujarat killed 2,000 Muslims, a pogrom that Prof. Nussbaum traces to “technically trained people who do not know how to criticize authority, useful profit-makers with obtuse imaginations.” We’re reminded of that willing deference to higher authority and that failure of imagination when someone among us is arrested and charged with, as the law politely says, conspiracy to facilitate an act of terrorism. It’s a disturbing throwback to an animalistic kill-or-be-killed relationship when the calculating minds of homegrown plotters can so casually reduce us from compassionate humanity to objects of disaffection.

Because we remain human beings, despite the best efforts of our enemies to get past that fact, we can also visualize the pain and the suffering and the horror that are the essential parts of the bomber’s objectifying obliteration. This intellectual leap, sadly, is the great strength of what Northrop Frye called the educated imagination. If we’ve learned to share the strong feelings of characters in War and Peace and Madame Bovary, how can we not also identify with the sufferings in our own time and place.

The bombs didn’t go off, and yet this reaction is distressingly powerful, at least in those who still know how to feel. But here’s the essential conundrum with so-called homegrown terrorists: How do they come to be missing this visceral empathy, and how can they so easily shrug off the fellow feelings of the democracy they were raised in? Is there a hole in their soul? Something about their upbringing, their formation, their training that has gone missing or was never there?

A young man who plays a brilliant game of ball hockey, does a jokey turn for Canadian Idol auditions and has achieved all that was needed to get through McGill University medical school doesn’t sound like the classic outsider. To the contrary. Khurram Sher is undeniably one of us – whoever we are, to use democracy’s necessary qualifier.

So if we have a problem with him, then we should have a problem with our society and its shifting values that make it harder to decide what’s good and what’s bad. Is there a dehumanizing strain infecting the Western value system? The late historian Tony Judt thought so. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he wrote in Ill Fares the Land. “For 30 years, we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest: Indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

The supreme virtue of self distorts liberal values, which strive to incorporate other people and other ways of thinking into the ongoing argument. Any education or career directed toward material enrichment is necessarily going to give short shrift to the competing needs and views of others. A humanities education is famously success-averse in financial terms, and yet, Prof. Nussbaum says, “there are reasons to think it pushes people in the direction of more empathetic relations with others.”

Studies by University of Kansas psychology professor Daniel Batson suggest that those who are better able to take the perspective of other people are more likely to help them – essentially, that there’s a connection between vivid, imaginative empathy and real-life moral behaviour. But achieving that high level of emotional engagement is key to motivating altruism, which becomes not a detached act of charity but a powerful human-to-human bond.

The liberal arts value emotional introspection alongside critical inquiry. Does that mean liberal-arts graduates are less likely to become cold-blooded homegrown terrorists than those who haven’t read their Shakespeare? That seems a stretch, or as the scientists would say, we don’t have research on that.

“Hot feelings are always going to wipe out critical thinking,” says Janice Stein, director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “You can be a great critical thinker, but when you feel humiliated and marginalized, rightly or wrongly, the power of thought is overwhelmed.”

Continue reading John Allemang’s article online at globeandmail.com.