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Blog // Simplicity
October 1, 2007

Block Thinking – Or Another Strategy For Not Listening

Making generalizations about groups of people isn’t new. But, the internet seems to be making this worse, a trend Charles Taylor calls Block Thinking

Ideology often crumbles in the face of reality. We’ve all seen it when someone tries to make some grand and sweeping generalisation only for their argument to fall apart when they’re unable to answer real world examples or specifics. We also this whenever we hear non-expert (or bad journalist) describe a field we know well.

One strategy for dismissing reality (and in particular, sociological and scientific evidence) is what Charles Taylor calls “block thinking.” He describes it, in a piece on Project Syndicate (and also in The Guardian) when discussing religion,

“Block thinking fuses a varied reality into one indissoluble unity, and in two ways. First, different manifestations of Islamic piety or culture are seen as alternative ways of expressing the same core meaning. Second, all Muslims are then seen as endorsing these core meanings. The possibility that a girl wearing a headscarf might in fact be rebelling against her parents and their kind of Islam, and that others might be deeply pious while being utterly revolted by gender discrimination or violence, is lost from view.”

Taylor’s point is that we can look at a phenomena, like headscarf wearing, and assume it has the same meaning for everyone who does it. But, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe there’s important differences in the meaning from one person, or context, to another.

The Problem With Block Thinking

What block thinking does is just assume the meaning is always the same. It ignores subtle differences. Block thinking makes it easier for the phenomena to be used as an example in an ideological argument. It lets the ideologue make a claim with letting the facts get in the way. By treating all “enemy” as the same, as a totally homogenous group, it makes attacking them easier. The worst characteristics of any people in the group can be ascribed to the whole group.

Block thinking creates a deep sociological problem. Taylor points out that block thinking renders internal critics of a group or movement invisible to their external critics. People can no longer see people across the ideological divide. They can only groups, labels, and phenomena they’ve learnt to mistrust or despise.

Of course, history teaches us we should be concerned about the potential for ideology to be weaponsied, to pit groups of people against other groups of people.

On a more subtle level block thinking make cooperation harder. If the other side is totally evil then we can’t find collaborators there. Block thinking encourages us to believe only people who share every aspect of our worldview can be trusted.

Of course, this doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny and doesn’t reflect reality. Sometimes the staunchest critics of a group are inside the group. People inside churches, clubs, or communities are often the most aware of the collective’s problems. Equally, sometimes the one’s who’ve left have a specific wisdom to share. The reality is insiders sometimes need outsiders and outsiders sometimes need insiders.

Today, too much political and even religious discourse is geared towards helping us ignore reality, rather than become more attentive to it.

The Internet Is A Minefield Of Block Thinking

Taylor’s final challenge is to ask, “Where are the crossover figures who can provide that urgently needed connection?” I can’t help but wonder if that’s bloggers should take to heart. Maybe we need to consider how much block thinking is already dividing us up rather than bringing us together? This technology is still so young. We don’t have to make the same mistakes again.

Maybe we when look through the blogosphere and the internet we shouldn’t just look for people like, people who follow the same blogs, and read the same news sources. Maybe we should focus instead on people who are tackling practical problems and concerned by the same issues, regardless of how they describe themselves.

The worst thing about ideology is that it’s ultimately such a shallow way to find common ground. Just because someone has the same passport as you, voted for a similar party, or follows a similar religion, doesn’t mean they want the same things from life all the way down. Political beliefs are poor predictors of someone’s position on the arts in society. Church goers might believe in preserving nature or exploiting it.

By learning to identify block thinking and avoiding it we can go a long way to having a less superficial view of the people we meet. Maybe we’ll even get better at listening to each other.

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