Number 6, I hear ya

Number six really speaks to me. You see, I am one of those liberal types. In fact, I am probably more liberal than most people would think. But, here's my secret. Most super-liberal people annoy the hell out me. As much as the staunch right-wingers do. It is just tiring to speak to people who think they have a lease on the truth. They refuse to see where other sides are coming from. And because of that, we can never move forward together. We are stuck in this polarized climate. And let me tell ya, it's cold out there in the polar ice caps with the penguins, whales, and polar bears (Sorry, couldn't help the bad pun).

And so, I present the next installment of Chuck Yates' baccalaureate address. If you are left wondering what happened to numbers 10 through 8, just scroll on down or click on the label below (Chuck Yates' baccalaureate address).

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Number Six: Know what you think, but more important, know why you think it. What you believe is nobody’s business but your own, but the rub — as Hamlet would say (10) — is that belief guides behavior, so knowing why you think what you think is a precondition for knowing why you do what you do. And the best way to keep track of all that is to pay attention to the language you use to talk about it.

You have to be careful with language. George Orwell knew this. That’s what 1984 (11) is all about. The way he saw it, you can use language carefully, or you can cop out by, “... throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you... think your thoughts for you... concealing your meaning even from yourself.”(12)Thucydides knew this too. He was the one who warned us about how, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, even the meanings of everyday words suddenly start changing to suit the needs of the moment. (13) Remember Freedom Fries?

In other words, if you don’t control your language, your language will control you. Pay attention to what you’re not thinking about — that stuff that “goes without saying” because “everybody knows” it. And pay attention to those “ready-made phrases.” They can highjack both your intelligence and your common sense and make it easy to act without thinking, which is a really good way to end up doing really terrible things.

OK, what “ready-made phrases”? Well, Orwell mostly means cliches and colloquialisms, but if they’d had bumper stickers when he was writing, I’ll bet he’d have included them too. You know, things like “think globally, act locally.” We all get warm fuzzies from that one, right? Be careful: it means more than it says. After all, it’s also the marketing strategy of the Coca Cola Company, and it doesn’t stop there.

If you’re the United Fruit Company, for example, “think globally, act locally” turns out to mean “get the Marines to help you overthrow a legally empowered head of state who thinks the people of his own country should get the profits from sales of fruit produced on their land with their labor.” If you’re the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company — the one we know as BP — it means pretty much the same thing, except this time it’s oil instead of fruit, and it’s a prime minister instead of a president, and of course it’s the CIA instead of the Marines. Think about this the next time you peel a banana, or stick that nozzle into your gas tank.

“But that’s not what I mean,” you’ll say. And of course you’re right. It’s not what you mean, but here’s the lesson: if you get into the habit of thinking globally and acting locally, and feeling all puffed up and righteous about it, without actually thinking about why you’re acting the way you are, and how that’s actually connected to what you think you believe, people may eventually get so bent out of shape about the impact of your behavior on their lives that they’ll start doing things like flying airplanes into buildings.

And then you’ll stand there feeling all hurt and confused, trying to figure out what went wrong (14 )and why they hate you.(15) There are less complicated ways to miss the point and make a complete fool of yourself, and that’s still not all. Those nineteen guys in those four airplanes? They were also thinking globally and acting locally. Talk about bumper stickers gone bad. But this is why Orwell was so worried about those “ready made phrases” and these are the sorts of things that can happen when you stop controlling your language and it starts controlling you.

So, don’t rush out as soon as we’re done here and scrape all the bumper stickers off your car. But don’t forget that their elegant simplicity conceals risky complexity. And here’s the point: unexamined beliefs work the same way bumper stickers do — they make us feel all righteous and right, saturated with pure goodness, and full of god’s own justice and mercy, and then we start seeing simplicity when we’re looking at complexity.

Nothing is ever that simple. There’s always more than one layer. You already know this. The belief we embrace — the simplicity we see — is just the layer on top. Peel it off, find out what’s underneath it, and don’t stop peeling until you’re sure you have a good idea how many layers there are, and what they are, and what lies underneath all of ‘em.

That’s what people have in mind when they talk about critical thinking. That’s what critical self-awareness is. And the same thing is true of critical self-awareness that Karl Malden used to tell us about American Express traveler’s checks: don’t leave home without it.


10. Shakespeare, loc. cit., Act III, Scene 1, Line 64.
11. George Orwell, 1984, New York: Signet Classics, 1961.
12. George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946, in Andras Szanto, ed., What Orwell Didn’t Know, Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics, New York: Public Affairs, 2007, 216.
13. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Rex Warner, New York and London: Penguin Books, 1972, 242- 43.
14. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? New York: Perennial, 2002.
15. Fareed Zakaria, “Why They Hate Us,” Newsweek, October 15, 2001.

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