Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

To Lean...or Not to Lean...

   For most of my life, at least since my latter high school days, I have tried as much as possible to think independently. Instead of just toeing a line or going along with any of the “correct” ways of thinking du jour, I have tried to look at as many facts as I can obtain, consider all sides and all viewpoints, and arrive at my own judgment. Some have called it being a “geek”. Others have called it arrogance. Still others have called it indecision. At least one has called it cowardice. To me, it just makes rational sense.
   Of course, I haven’t always been successful. There have been times when I’ve been swayed by something like a moral outrage, a desire not to be ostracized, a hope to get along well with new friends, etc., and I’ve wound up aligning with a “side”. But on realizing I was starting to echo the cliches and labels of that group like a mindless puppet, I would pull away again...sometimes even flirting a bit with the “other side” to get me off the bandwagon and put me back on a more neutral footing.
   I hate bandwagons. Bandwagons are dangerous. They kill thought. Sometimes they kill people. Bandwagons are why millions were killed both in and by Germany and the USSR in the 1930’s and 40’s. Bandwagons are why Imperial Japan committed atrocities against its neighbors and its own people in the name of “saving” Asia from the West only to see the West reduce it to rubble.  Bandwagons are why thousands if not millions of people die every year.
   Bandwagons are why we’re not allowed to ask certain questions or think about certain things even if doing so is vital to solving certain problems.
   The fact that I’ve been punished many times either for refusing to align or for daring to speak about unspeakable things underscores this.
   I’ve been told that it’s possible to be TOO objective. Is that true? When is independent thought and judgment going too far? One of my biggest pet peeves is being told in an accusing tone that something I’ve said was something uttered by some reprehensible figure in the past. For example, I might make an observation about something and be told, “That’s what Che Guevara said!” Or I might list some facts about something and someone will retort, “That’s an argument the Nazis made!” And the intent in these comments is obviously to try to make me feel guilty for having thought “incorrectly”.
   That intent usually fails. It makes little logical sense. After all, water is still wet regardless of whether or not Pol Pot, Genghis Khan, Elmer Fudd, or whoever happened to have mentioned it years ago. And regardless of what arguments reprehensible people might have made in the recent or distant past, it is a fact that even hate speech is protected by law in the US (at least in most states), and trying to imply that I’m a racist for pointing that out is ludicrous. Facts are facts. Critical thinking is critical thinking. Evil figures in the past may pervert the meaning of innocent words or symbols (such as the swastika) to the point that only the bad meaning remains, but facts do not change.
   But where should we draw the line? Some years ago, a senior I was tutoring at the Japanese private school where I work told me that her planned research subject in her college days was Adolf Hitler. “Everyone thinks Hitler was evil,” she went on, “but I think he’s just misunderstood. He made some terrible mistakes, but he also did some very good things. I want people to understand that and remember him for the good things he did as well as the bad things.” That took me totally by surprise. I’m sure my left-leaning friends would have known exactly how to respond to that, but I was unsure how to proceed. As a teacher, I’ve tried to resist the temptation to push my own ideals, preferring to give the students different sides and let them think and make their own decisions. I wound up just saying, “That’s an original topic, and definitely interesting, but it’s both very complicated and very risky. Proceed carefully.” Was that a mistake? Should I have just dropped a couple of stock buzz-words and/or labels as a trump card against genuine critical thought? Or was I right to grant the student to think on her own even if she was entering what most would consider dangerous if not forbidden territory?
   Now I find myself confronted by similar dilemmas. If I ask what reason tells me should be asked and say what reason says should be said, I’m told I’m “insensitive” or “uninformed”. From the left come the labels of “bigot” or “racist”. From the right come “libtard” or “unamerican”. It seems few if any want to have anything to do with genuine critical thought because they’re too busy re-posting the latest Truth™ from their respective “sides” and echoing their respective “correct thinking”. So am I right in continuing to try to encourage people to think independently, or should I just “go blow”? Or should I heed the advice of so many, reset my brain from “active” to “passive” mode, take a “side”, and just start echoing the errors?