Independent Thought

Recently I was answering an Email where, in addition to a more specific query, the writer had passed a compliment on my dogs that he saw on my web site. I included the following in my reply in acknowledgment of the compliment:
Thanks for the compliments on my Beardies. They are a special breed that I love for their intelligence and personalities. They are very independent thinkers which can make them a challenge. That is usually a good attribute in my books. There are times when I wish more people were like that.
I am not sure exactly what inspired the last sentence at that particular time but it probably provoked more subsequent thought on my part that it did on the recipient. While I have often been frustrated by the unwillingness of the vast majority of people to challenge "conventional wisdom", I have never thought of comparing them to my dogs. I have often compared my breed to others and been fascinated by their tendency to challenge and innovate. I have done obedience training with them and been frustrated by their tendency to change the rules as soon as they get bored with a routine. If you want a particular behavior from them, you will not get it by coercion - they will more likely defy you. They have to want to do something and you better be prepared to convince them why they should. It can be very frustrating at times yet they will learn very quickly when properly motivated. Why would anyone want such a breed? Because these same characteristics along with their non-agressive, non-territorial tendencies yield companions that are affectionate and entertaining. It is a most interesting combination.

That brings me to the comparison with people. As I write this I also realize that the people I like best have similar characteristics. They have active, challenging minds while being open to the thoughts of others. They do not have to agree with you to like you. You can challenge each other's ideas without challenging their ego or the friendship. They may cause you to change or refine your ideas and vice versa. It makes for stimulating, long lasting relationships.

On the other hand, people who get readily offended if you question their ideas, get hostile when you do not agree with them and support them or become scornful when you come up with a concept that is foreign to their normal line of thought become rapidly tiresome. It is hard to build a long term relationship when any subject more controversial that the present weather has to be approached with care.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the population can fall into the second category to some degree. Thankfully the most extreme cases are fortunately not in the majority. The most common manifestation are the folks who have already bought into "conventional wisdom" and strive fervently to avoid the discomfort of having it challenged. This often works to their (and our) detriment over the long term.

The problem with "conventional wisdom" is that it often has little to do with wisdom. It has much more to do with the thoughts we are fed and have failed to challenge over the years. For many people, their only real stage of challenging thoughts comes during their teen years and that is usually in the form of rejecting the ideas of their teachers and parents in favour of those accepted by their peers. We all seem to get caught up in striving to be accepted by our peer group. This often becomes a permanent preoccupation.

So, where do our ideas come from these days? Some of them come from the media either directly or indirectly. Others may come from the management of the companies we work for and from the society  around us. A large proportion of what we regard as "conventional wisdom" that we receive through these routes are the ideas promoted by the current power holders. These may be our politicians, big business leaders, religious leaders or other strong special interest groups. Most of them are promoting ideas beneficial to themselves and their organizations or causes. Any benefit to us as individuals is coincidental. More often our share is the expense.

So why do we buy in? Primarily because we are not willing to undergo the discomfort of challenging what we are being told. We are helped in this by the fears, real or otherwise, that are sown around us. This may be fear of what the people around us will think, fear of attack or rejection by those challenged or fear of facing the reality of a situation. Avoiding these fears will not change the truth.

The problem is that reality will eventually win out. When that happens, the further we are from reality, the worse off we will be. It is even worse if we don't even know where we are when that happens.

This brings me back to the original theme. The only way we can stay close to reality is to think about and discuss what is happening around us. We won't find it by watching the "reality shows" that are the current rage but rather by gathering information and ideas and challenging them. We need to take the knowledge thus acquired and use it to direct our decisions and actions while continuing to learn and challenge. More importantly, we need to get those around us to do the same. It is not important that they reach the some conclusions. It is just important that they engage in independent thought!

To wrap this essay, I would like to leave the reader with one of my long term thought provoking ideas. Perhaps it will get the wheels turning. I don't care if you agree or disagree - just don't write it off - think about it.

History tells us that when the distribution of wealth in a society gets too skewed in favour of the few and at the expense of most, that society will become unstable and a correction will occur. The more skewed the distribution, the more violent the correction will be. In recent decades the distribution of wealth in western society is becoming increasingly more skewed. How long will it be before a correction occurs and how violent will it be?
Copyright © 2004 by Rod Vokey