Beginning to Think
Why it wouldn’t be a good idea to think for yourself, even if you could
A few years ago Megan Phelps-Roper, a member of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, a church founded by her grandfather Fred Phelps, decided to start using Twitter to spread the Westboro message. That message might be summed up by the statement most closely associated with WBC: God Hates Fags. (The church registered the URL godhatesfags.com all the way back in 1994.) As Adrian Chen reports in his New Yorker profile of Phelps-Roper, Twitter was a perfect venue for getting this kind of message across, thus this typical Phelps-Roper tweet: “Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!”
But there was something Phelps-Roper didn’t anticipate: on Twitter, people talk back to you. When she began tweeting at a Jewish web developer named David Abitbol—“Oh & @jewlicious? Your dead rote rituals == true repentance. We know the diff. Rev. 3:9 You keep promoting sin, which belies the ugly truth”—Abitbol responded with bemused humor. He would later comment that “I wanted to be like really nice so that they would have a hard time hating me.” This kind of response threw Phelps-Roper off-balance. As she later told Adrian Chen, “I knew he was evil, but he was friendly, so I was especially wary, because you don’t want to be seduced away from the truth by a crafty deceiver.”
We’re probably all subject to what the literary critic Gary Saul Morson calls “backshadowing”—“foreshadowing after the fact,” that is, the temptation to believe that we can look into the past and discern some point at which the present became inevitable. (“I should have seen it coming!”) But it’s hard not to think that by engaging with Abitbol in a friendly way Phelps-Roper had already set off down the road that would lead her away from Westboro Baptist Church. She started responding to others who shared Abitbol’s skepticism about her beliefs, and some of them also proved funny, or interesting, or kind. She told Chen, “I was beginning to see them as human,” instead of as the faceless RCO.
But it was the relationship with Abitbol—they even met in person, ironically enough, when Phelps-Roper picketed a gathering that Abitbol had helped to organize—that mattered more than any other. And that relationship became so decisive for Phelps-Roper largely because Abitbol took the trouble to look into what Westboro members believed and why they believed it. They claimed to base their views that homosexuality should be punished by death on the Bible, particularly Leviticus 20:13: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” But wait a minute, Abitbol said: Didn’t Jesus say, when a woman was found to have committed adultery, that the “one without sin” should cast the first stone at her? And, by the way, didn’t Megan’s own mother have an illegitimate son, the product of an affair she had had in law school? Shouldn’t she “surely be put to death”?
Phelps-Roper knew, and deployed, the standard Westboro response: that gays and lesbians attended Gay Pride parades—they were proud of their sins—whereas her mother had repented. To which Abitbol replied: How can gays and lesbians ever repent if you kill them?
To this Phelps-Roper had no ready answer, and when she asked leaders of Westboro, they had none either. Phelps-Roper had already realized that believing in the Bible didn’t necessarily require her to perform the hostility that most members of Westboro exemplified. (When questioned about her friendliness to unbelievers she replied by citing Proverbs 25:15. “By long forbearing is a prince persuaded, and a soft tongue breaketh the bone.”) But now Abitbol was asking deeper and harder questions, not about whether the Bible was true, but rather about whether her community really bothered to discern and obey what they claimed was their supreme authority in all matters.
Phelps-Roper’s response to this crisis in her mental history is fascinating and extremely telling. She took two actions. First, while she continued to go picketing with other Westboro members, she stopped carrying the signs that read “DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS”; and second, she ceased her correspondence with David Abitbol.
This twofold response perfectly embodies the mental state of the person who has begun to think. She didn’t leave the church, she didn’t stop picketing; but she drew a line in her own mind that had the inevitable effect of separating her, to some degree, from the community which until that point had given meaning to her whole life.
Which helps to explain why she took the second step: ending communication with Abitbol. On some level, if not consciously, Phelps-Roper had to have known that that one issue—DEATH PENALTY FOR FAGS—was unlikely to be the end of the story. If Westboro was wrong about that, then what else might they be wrong about? If the answer turned out to be “a lot,” then the result could be exile from the only world she had ever known, the only belonging she had ever experienced. So she closed the door from which she perceived the greatest threat.
But it was too late; and there were many other doors, as long as she engaged with different sorts of people online. In the end exile was Megan Phelps-Roper’s fate.
Losing a Place in the World
Stories of forbidden knowledge come in many varieties, but in our time this is one of the more common: the tale of a community that provides security in exchange for thought, and the courageous member of that community who, daring to think, sacrifices the security. It’s the Enlightenment—whose rallying cry is, Immanuel Kant said, Sapere aude!—dare to think, dare to be wise—writ small and writ in a hundred ways. Perhaps the canonical example today is Lois Lowry’s The Giver, that favorite of middle school teachers everywhere, with its rather blunt leading metaphor of moving from the monochromaticism of the protagonist’s little world to the Technicolor variety of the world outside. A more complex treatment of the theme may be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where one of the major characters, Bernard Marx, sees through the stultifying conformity of his society but does so not through audacity but through psychological maladjustment.
But when I think of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose story isn’t finished yet, whose final verdict on her upbringing in Westboro Baptist Church has not been made and may never be made definitively, the story that comes to my mind is Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” Le Guin tells us of a utopia built on a single (but perpetual) act of cruelty, and of those who, once they face that cruelty, find that they can no longer dwell within their perfect city. But Le Guin does not tell us of the beautiful Technicolor world that they enter when they leave Omelas; nor does she describe anything like the Savage Reservation that Huxley offers as a radical counterpart to the mainstream society of his drug-fueled “brave new world.” Rather, she gives us this:
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
This ending deprives us of the easy comforts that Sapere aude stories tend to offer—the reassurance that, though life in the bigger world may be hard at times, may even be miserable, it is nonetheless the right trade to make because the security of community is not really the most vital thing in the long run. Le Guin’s swerve from the more familiar form of the trope says: We don’t know that. To think, to dig into the foundations of our beliefs, is a risk, and perhaps a tragic risk. There are no guarantees that it will make us happy or even give us satisfaction.
Why Thinking for Yourself Is Impossible
I’d bet a large pile of cash money that thousands of people read Adrian Chen’s profile of Megan Phelps-Roper and said, to others or to themselves, “Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”
This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say “she really thinks for herself” when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z. Similarly, people in my line of work always say that we want to promote “critical thinking”—but really we want our students to think critically only about what they’ve learned at home and in church, not about what they learn from us.
When we believe something to be true, we tend also to see the very process of arriving at it as clear and objective, and therefore the kind of thing we can achieve on our own; when we hold that a given notion is false, we ascribe belief in it to some unfortunate wrong turning, usually taken because an inquirer was led astray, like Hansel and Gretel being tempted into the oven by a wicked witch. And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.
Jean Piaget, the great child psychologist—or, as he preferred to call himself, “genetic epistemologist”—tells a wonderful story about two little boys. (He doesn’t say so, but I expect that they were his own children.) One night when the moon was full, the older, who was about four, led his younger brother into the front garden of his house and ordered him to walk back and forth. As little brother faithfully did so, big brother carefully observed him—and the moon. “I was trying to see if the moon follows him when he walks,” the older brother explained. “But it doesn’t, it only follows me.”
What an exemplary instance of the truly scientific mind at work! Big brother first formed an original hypothesis and then devised an experiment to test the hypothesis. Given the limits of his knowledge, it was a beautifully designed experiment, with a clear result. His conclusions were half-wrong (he correctly determined that the moon did not follow his little brother); but they were the product of genuine, and genuinely impressive, thought. By contrast, if he had been told that a giant had hung the moon in the sky as a great lamp to guide his nocturnal hunting, and had believed that tale, he would rightly have understood that the moon doesn’t follow anyone. But the correctness of the conclusion would not erase the falsity of the premises.
This should not in any way lessen our admiration for the boy’s ingenuity; but it should remind us that all of us at various times in our lives believe true things for poor reasons, and false things for good reasons, and that whatever we think we know, whether we’re right or wrong, arises from our interactions with other human beings. Thinking independently, solitarily, “for ourselves,” is not an option.
On Reason and Feeling (Divided or Joined)
While we’re clearing away misconceptions about thinking, let’s tackle another pervasive one: that in order to think well, one must be strictly rational, and being rational requires the suppression of all feelings. Here we’d do well to look at the story of another person, not a Christian American of our time but an English philosopher and religious skeptic named John Stuart Mill.
Mill’s autobiography recounts how his father educated him, and one may get the flavor of the plan by reading one of the book’s first sentences: “I have no remembrance of the time when I began to learn Greek; I have been told that it was when I was three years old.” James Mill believed that children were capable of learning far more, and learning it far earlier, than almost anyone else believed. He made his eldest son the test case for his conviction, and in many respects quite a successful test case: after all, John Stuart Mill became more famous, more influential, and more highly regarded as a thinker than his father.
Mill confesses that being raised in this peculiar manner was sometimes difficult. He makes no mention of his mother in the Autobiography, and little mention of his siblings, except to note that he became their teacher. The shadow of his father seems to have blocked out almost everything else. In a kind of summary passage, Mill comments that “the element which was chiefly deficient in his moral relation to his children was that of tenderness.” He did not blame his father for this: “He resembled most Englishmen in being ashamed of the signs of feeling, and, by the absence of demonstration, starving the feelings themselves.”
But how does the younger Mill judge the experiment that was performed on him—the experiment that in a sense he was? “As regards my own education, I hesitate to pronounce whether I was more a loser or gainer by his severity.” Again, in many respects James Mill’s experiment was a rousing success. His eldest son became a figure on London’s intellectual stage when he was still in his teens, and James Mill had good reason to believe that John Stuart would be a great force for the social reform that both of them believed was desperately needed in England. But it was just at this point of promise-about-to-be-realized, in 1826, when Mill was twenty years old, that he confronted what he called “a crisis in my mental history.” (The attentive reader will note that I used a parallel phrase in describing Megan Phelps-Roper.) Mill sums up his crisis in this way:
It occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.
Mill kept this collapse to himself—as, in effect, he had been taught by his father to do. (“He resembled most Englishmen in being ashamed of the signs of feeling.”) In perhaps the most heartbreaking passage in his account Mill comments, “I sought no comfort by speaking to others of what I felt. If I had loved anyone sufficiently to make confiding my griefs a necessity, I should not have been in the condition I was.” He lived this way for months, mechanically laboring at the East India Company, where he worked, of course, for his father, and wondering how long he could survive in such a condition. “I generally answered to myself that I did not think I could possibly bear it beyond a year.”
Over time he managed to get a little better—not healed, not happy, but functional—no longer in constant imminent danger of collapse. And then something curious happened to him: in the autumn of 1828, he picked up a book of poems by William Wordsworth, and for the first time in a long time felt something like delight. And this delight had the effect of reinvigorating his will.
James Mill had focused his energies relentlessly on developing his son’s analytical and critical powers, and had seen no place for poetry in that scheme. But what the younger Mill in his misery came to see was the disturbing truth that “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings . . . when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analysing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives.” And the wearing away of feelings was a great and complex loss.
The analytical mind constantly separates, divides, distinguishes, until its whole mental world lies in pieces around it. And where will that mind acquire the energy it needs to put things back together? In the aftermath of his collapse and poetic restoration, Mill writes, “The cultivation of the feelings became one of the cardinal points in my ethical and philosophical creed.” But what did the cultivation of the feelings actually do? And what did it do for thinking?
One of Mill’s closest friends at that time was a man named John Arthur Roebuck. Roebuck became his chief antagonist in debates on these matters—though not because he scorned poetry; in fact, “he was a lover of poetry and of most of the fine arts.” What, then, was the point of disagreement? Simply that “he never could be made to see that these things have any value as aids in the formation of character.” Instead, Roebuck found that his own feelings got in his way:
He saw little good in any cultivation of the feelings, and none at all in cultivating them through the imagination, which he thought was only cultivating illusions. It was in vain I urged on him that the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceived, excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects.
With that quotation we’re ready to grasp Mill’s argument—and why it matters for our little project here. Mill’s defense of the feelings and the imagination has two components. The first is that bringing analytical power to bear on a problem is not enough, especially if one’s goal is to make the world a better place. Rather, one must have a certain kind of character: one must be a certain kind of person, a person who has both the ability and the inclination to take the products of analysis and reassemble them into a positive account, a structure not just of thought but also of feelings that, when joined to thought, can produce meaningful action.
The second component is this: when your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really like. To have your feelings moved by the beauty of a landscape is to respond to that landscape in the way that it deserves; to have your feelings moved in a very different direction by the sight of people living in abject poverty is to respond to that situation in the way that it deserves. The latter example is especially relevant to someone like Mill who wishes to be a social reformer: if your analysis leads you to the conclusion that is it unjust that people suffer in poverty in a wealthy country, but your feelings do not match your analysis, then something has gone awry with you. And it may very well happen that if the proper feelings are not present and imaginatively active, then you will not even bother to do the analysis that would reveal unmistakable injustice. If the feelings are not cultivated the analytical faculties might not function at all. (This is a point to which we will return.)
It is, then, for John Stuart Mill, looking back from the end of his life on his youthful sufferings, impossible to draw a line that separates analysis on the one side from feeling on the other and to conclude that only the first side is relevant to thinking. The whole person must be engaged, all the faculties present and accounted for, in order for real thinking to take place. Indeed, this for Mill is what it means to have character: to be fully alive in all your parts and therefore ready to perceive the world as it is—and to act responsibly toward it.
Wilt Chamberlain’s Manly Rationality
A move from philosophy to basketball may seem curious, but it will help us add to our understanding of what it means to be rational. Recently I was listening to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History in which he was marveling at human irrationality, as manifested by the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. Gladwell noted that Chamberlain’s one great weakness as a basketball player was free-throw shooting, and further noted that only during the brief period in his career when he shot free throws underhanded did his percentage from the charity stripe improve. Why, then, did he go back to shooting in a more conventional but less successful style? Because, Wilt later admitted, he was embarrassed to shoot the ball in a way that might be perceived as girlish or sissy.
How astonishingly irrational! cries Gladwell. To sacrifice success in your vocation because you’re afraid of what people might think or say! And then, as is his wont, he goes on to offer an explanation for this bizarre behavior. I don’t think it’s a very good explanation, but I’ll set that aside for now. Instead, I want to unpack his claim that Chamberlain’s behavior is irrational, because it rests on an unconfronted assumption. (Many errors in thinking arise from assumptions people don’t know they’re making.) Gladwell assumes that if Wilt had been thinking rationally, the only thing he would have been concerned about was success in his job.
But that’s because Gladwell, like many of us, seems to have unwittingly internalized the idea that when professional athletes do the thing they’re paid to do, they’re not acting according to the workaday necessity (like the rest of us) but rather are expressing with grace and energy their inmost competitive instincts, and doing so in a way that gives them delight. We need to believe that because much of our delight in watching them derives from our belief in their delight. (In much the same way we enjoy watching the flight of birds, especially big birds of prey, associating such flying with freedom even though birds actually fly from necessity: they need to eat. And yet we have no interest in watching members of our own species drive to McDonald’s.)
Many professional athletes have confessed that, while they do sometimes find great satisfaction and even, yes, delight in their work, they never forget that it is indeed work. Many’s the night when they take the field or court not for the joy of it but because if they don’t they won’t get paid. Which is to say that athletes are like the rest of us: they find some degree of value in their work, but work is by no means the only thing they care about. We work for leisure, many of us.
In his leisure time, Wilt Chamberlain had one central interest: having sex with as many women as possible. (He famously claimed in an autobiography to have bedded twenty thousand, which has caused many envious and/or skeptical readers to resort to arithmetical calculation.) This is what Gladwell missed when assessing the rationality of Chamberlain’s free-throw shooting. If your primary goal in life is to have sex with as many people as possible, then you very well might avoid any behavior that could lower your reputation for desirability. What if some woman you approach had heard someone say, “Wilt’s a great player, I guess, but only a sissy would use that granny shot”? And who knows, perhaps Wilt actually heard the s-word from a woman he was pursuing; that, or something like that, could have influenced him to abandon the far more successful underhand style of free-throw shooting.
Moreover, what was Wilt actually giving up when he returned to a more “manly” style of free-throw shooting? Several points a game, perhaps; but only rarely would that make a difference in the game’s outcome. And anyway: when Wilt shot free throws underhanded, he was the most unstoppable force the game of basketball had ever seen; then, when he returned to the conventional method he was . . . still the most unstoppable force the game had ever seen. You could say, then, that he gave up little in his workplace in order to create potentially more interesting opportunities for himself in an arena that meant more to him. This kind of decision making may be ethically dubious, but it’s anything but irrational.
We might call Gladwell’s error the What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas Problem. Thomas Frank’s 2004 book famously tries to address what is to him an astonishing puzzle: why so many people in the American heartland vote in defiance of their “best interests.” But Frank, like Gladwell, conceives of only one relevant good to be sought: if in Gladwell’s tale of Wilt Chamberlain the only excellence that matters is workplace excellence, for Frank the only real “interests” that people have are financial interests. Both writers overlook relational goods. In Chamberlain’s case the relevant relations are purely sexual—given his numerical ambitions, none of his encounters could have lasted more than a few hours—while the factors for Frank’s representative Kansans are, as many critics of the book have noted, communal. (That is, Frank doesn’t acknowledge that people might be willing to make economic sacrifices in order to live in societies they think of as morally stronger.) But none of those “other” commitments are any less rational than the desire for economic and workplace success.
As can be seen from these examples, I’m not paying anyone a compliment when I speak of relational goods. Chamberlain’s Don Juanism is, in my judgment, both wrong and sad. The “Kansan” desire for communal solidarity is far more noble, though that impulse is sadly subject to its own perversions. My point is simply that an account of rational thinking, and a resulting set of judgments about irrational thinking, that can’t account for the power and the value of relational goods is a deeply impoverished model of rationality.
So just as we do not “think for ourselves” but rather think with others, so too we think in active feeling response to the world, and in constant relation to others. Or we should. Only something that complete—relational, engaged, honest—truly deserves to be called thinking. In a preface to his novel The Princess Casamassima, Henry James writes, “But there are degrees of feeling—the muffled, the faint, the just sufficient, the barely intelligent, as we may say; and the acute, the intense, the complete, in a word—the power to be finely aware and richly responsible.” This is thinking: the power to be finely aware and richly responsible. We just need to learn how to be more aware, how to act more responsibly.
Copyright © 2017 by Alan Jacobs. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.