Sense and Function

Politics, Philosophy, Art, Media, Environment, and Economics
FEBRUARY 9, 2012 7:36PM

Political Effects of Thoughtlessness

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I posted recently about what I think is an epidemic of thoughtlessness. This epidemic may always have been this bad, but with the spread of electronic media there are good reasons for thinking it might be worse now, not least because there are so many more opportunities for distraction, which interferes with thought and allows people to remain thoughtless.

Recently a friend, attempting to look on the bright side of political life, suggested that since thoughtless people will be controlled by whatever ideas are propounded in the media they live in, it will be thoughtful people who put ideas in their heads, words in their mouths, and votes on a ballot.

So is it true that people’s thoughtlessness is ok because thoughtful people will direct them? I think this is not true. Thoughtlessness in a culture is a net loss, for two reasons:

1)   People who are in power are often the ones interested the most in power. These people are not the best, not the most interested in the great good, and they are the ones who can shape the opinion of the thoughtless the most.
2)   The right and good takes more thought than the alternative. It seems weirdly plausible that it takes more thought to understand that your good and the good of other people are joined and the same, though I am probably suffering from our prevailing cultural idea of what a ‘natural’ human being is, namely self-interested, and that self-interest implies competition (this seems to come from Hobbes). It certainly takes more thought to be aware that something your culture does, such as single-use plastic packaging, is, on the whole, bad.

There are many results of these two things, both in combination and alone. One of them is that people will not notice when those in power are not aiming at the good.

Apart from this assessment of the relationship between the powerful and the thoughtless, I don't think that thoughtlessness is so fickle: thoughtlessness is not as easy to rule as my friend would like to believe.

Someone who is thoughtless still holds a position on things that require thought, and about which it really matters when he is wrong: he says that it’s the president’s fault that the economy hasn’t recovered, that because they are women, women say the opposite of what they want. There is a kind of unity to stances reached without critical reflection, even ones with internal contradictions. Furthermore, such prejudices can be incredibly tenacious, partly because people really do want the world to make sense, even if, or perhaps especially when they don't want to think about it.

Thinking is a natural and spontaneous thing. Thoughtlessness is cultivated: people try not to think, because, as I just said, when they do they feel overwhelmed and confused, can't stop “thinking,” or stay up late driven from one “thought” to another, or because if we think then we would realize that we are profoundly compromised, that we do every day a lot of things we would condemn ourselves for doing. This means we hold onto reassuring and falsified images very tenaciously instead of thinking.

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