Know your own way

I’ve mentioned that I find skepticism and critical thinking to be slightly different concepts; to a large extent, this is in perception only, where many people consider skepticism (or being skeptical or a skeptic) to mean cynical, disbelieving, dismissive, and so on. In current culture, skepticism is sometimes considered a pursuit or even a movement, making it an ideology. Critical thinking, on the other hand, is something that we all use to one extent or another – some more than others to be sure. There isn’t a club to join or a subculture to embrace, there’s simply the recognition that there are myriad ways to be fooled.

One prime discussion factor that critical thinking can counter, especially when it comes to certain topics, is redirection. It can be quite subtle, and when we fail to recognize it we allow particular assumptions and perspectives to hold sway, even making it hard to debate the merits of any viewpoint. But let’s not be so vague, and deal with an example instead. Within discussions on countless topics can often be heard the argument that “science doesn’t know everything,” which is true enough, but not really relevant to anything. The assumption is that the true existence of the topic of discussion hides in the realm of stuff we haven’t discovered yet, but no one who ever uses this was trying to argue for ‘potential’ or ‘possibilities’ – they were, only moments before, maintaining that [topic] really does exist, and that we have good reason to believe it. If we have any form of evidence, however, that’s science. And if we don’t, well, what makes someone argue that we should be supporting the topic?

Another example is frequently seen in religious discussions. It is often argued that religion is a personal choice, which I haven’t seen .05% of people argue against in the slightest – but what is usually being discussed is how often religious folk try to apply their ‘personal’ choice to anyone else (occasionally, everyone else.) It’s not the freedom to make their own choice that they wish to protect, but the privilege of being considered an authority, or even just that they’re special (“good christian”) solely because they’ve made this choice. This also extends to martyr complexes when they’re “denied the right” to pray before government meetings or dictate what everyone learns in schools, rights not guaranteed by anyone’s personal choice, and in fact not rights at all.

Philosophy is absolutely riddled with redirection, though more often this manifests in common terms that haven’t actually been established with the rigor that most assume. Consciousness, for instance; try to find a definition of this that isn’t vague and wide open for interpretation. Yet lengthy, convoluted, and above all tedious discussions are constantly taking place over this as if it’s a specific and measurable trait. Admittedly, there is a certain degree of usefulness in formulating a posit, declaring a potential circumstance and then hashing out what the consequences of this being true might be; this is actually the underlying premise of all theoretical sciences. Two of the biggest errors in philosophy, however, are arbitrarily defined posits, and assuming that if a logical argument can be made then the posit has been established. Imagining traits or abstracts, as well as the consequences of them, remain fictional unless evidence can be found that supports them – and only them, which is also key. All other possibilities have to be ruled out at the same time.

Redirection can often appear as a challenge to social decorum or emotions: “Are you saying all of these people are liars?” All of a sudden we’re dealing with hurt feelings or the idea that we’re making judgments on integrity, when before we simply recognized that people are not only fallible, they can be mistaken, they can exaggerate, they can infer, they can fall for illusions and suffer delusions, and yes, they can commit hoaxes, tell stories, and indeed lie. Considering all of these is perfectly rational, but if we’re confronted with the attitude that it isn’t, we can immediately question our perspective, often more influenced by how someone responds than whether we’re making sense. Redirection frequently works to put the receiver on the defensive.

In some cases redirection is unintentional, fostered by people having to defend their views and stumbling onto a more appealing approach. Yet it can also be perfectly intentional, calculated to produce responses, and this manifests often in contentious topics. Evolution is yet denied by arguments that we still have monkeys, and the second law of thermodynamics wouldn’t let it happen, even though both of these are blatant misrepresentations. Conspiracy theories thrive on the idea that the lack of evidence, or existence of counter-evidence, actually demonstrates a plot to conceal or counter the conspiracy; “Big Pharma” pays to make people believe we landed on the moon, and satan wants you to believe fluoride is innocuous (sorry, mixing it up a little there.) I’ve frequently heard the question of why the military would keep anything confidential, if not to hide their knowledge of aliens. National security, and not blabbing details of defensive measures, somehow isn’t adequate.

Which brings up another aspect of redirection: dichotomous thinking. If anyone questions the policy decision of a politician, it must be because they’re members of an opposing party and automatically at odds (therefore can be dismissed.) If someone opposes abortion restrictions, they must think life is inconsequential. Such polarization is often accompanied by the stigma of extremism, and ties in closely with both straw man and ad hominem fallacies.

Yet, there’s something else to be aware of. Not every example of redirection is an attempt, either known or subconscious, to evade the thrust of the argument. In some cases, it’s merely evidence that someone does not actually understand the point being made, or started with different assumptions, or has conflicting experience. In such cases, treating redirection as a deliberate manipulative tactic is making a rash assumption on our part, and stands a good chance of preventing a functional discussion. I’ll be blunt: I’m not a huge fan of taking the high road and bending over backwards to accommodate someone who plays the disingenuous game – I’ll generally call them on it instead. But there’s much to be said about correcting just the specific point, only the argument, rather than any underlying attitude or tactic – or our assumptions thereof. In fact, this kind of mild, non-confrontational approach in the face of an honest mistake is far more likely to generate more support for our views. This itself is admittedly an emotional rather than rational response, and not what I’d encourage (I believe people should judge on merit and not charisma,) but it may still serve to get past initial resistance.

The hardest part is recognizing redirection, which is where forums give a significant advantage over verbal debates, since we have time to compose our answers and see where the redirect lurks. Another spotting tip that I’ve stumbled across is when some new word or concept is introduced, especially if it seems to trump previous points. And anything that puts us on the defensive can be suspicious, but this is not a good rule; we can be defensive over anything, and in some cases our arguments really aren’t as good as we’d like them to be, so merely finding ourselves on the ‘losing side’ (I don’t like the concept that discussion is a ‘win/loss’ issue, but you get the gist) isn’t a firm indication of redirection.

The worst is when we redirect ourselves, by making assumptions or failing to recognize where the topic isn’t strictly defined (see philosophy again – in fact, see the opening statement about skepticism and critical thinking.) It also happens frequently when we misinterpret a comment, especially if it falls close to some pet peeve that we have. The only solution to the first is paying attention, and recognizing that assumptions are very prevalent. As for the latter, this isn’t hard to address for online purposes: always work in draft form, most especially if the topic stirs a strong response, and come back to the draft a little later to see if your response still seems appropriate – at the same time, re-read whatever prompted your response to see if you’re remaining on topic. In spoken discussions of course, things get much harder, since we feel obligated to respond quickly and don’t often have time to consider things carefully. It may help to become very Zen and imperturbable, or have the mindset of a tennis game and remember to always return to center court; it’s not necessarily the analogy that works, but the awareness of the problem (or potential thereof) that matters most.

Like everything, it comes easier with practice, and even becomes a kind of game: can you spot the flaw? But unlike many games, it can produce more than just a selfish feeling of accomplishment, because others will often be influenced by foiled redirection. It’s almost like an optical illusion that is suddenly revealed, giving a sense of discovery that people often want to produce on their own – or at least, that’s been my experience. Regardless, being able to peg redirection when it occurs can be a worthwhile tool in critical thinking, and simply a fun exercise.

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