Thinking through the issues: your brain should be hurting

A school of thought exists which believes that successive Jamaican governments have worked to keep the majority of the nation poorly educated because that makes them much easier to control. I have some sympathy with that view, though, I have to think really hard to try to understand if it is a true strategy of a group who may be called ‘the power elite’ or if it is the outcome of lots of botched action, itself the result of the same process of poor education. I often hit a block when trying to work out which is right. However, I rarely go a day when I do not see the outcome of poorly educated people being manipulated by those who have been better educated.

Now, a good number of the latter have come from backgrounds that are anything but elite. However, I understand that the process of getting better education means that thinking of the group of persons benefiting from it tends to become more aligned. It’s for that reason, when I hear talk of diversity I balk. A room full of different looking people who have come through rather similar educational processes is not very diverse. To simplify, 100 economists who were originally from 100 countries, who go to 10 universities to get their education have a lot more in common than their nationalities would suggest. That becomes more evident if we replace 10 with 5, for the universities.

My father was a mental nurse when he was in the prime of his working life. He was one of the first people to tell me that the brain is a muscle, and it needs regular exercise to become and stay strong. So, we try to give people tasks that stretch the brain from an early age. We now have lots of evidence that shows how people can retain cognitive skills by keeping mentally in shape, often with games. My father is a stroke survivor and one of the things that have clearly helped him is yoga, for both its physical and mental training. Another thing has been the simple process of conversation, and needing to keep track of dialogue and engage in arguments. Adults often make the mistake of talking to children as if they cannot reason and then seem surprised by answers that expose basic flaws in thinking. Many so-called ‘caring’ parents like to keep their children mentally sprightly. Let me call myself one of those. I love to just come up with games that force children to think fast; I use it all the time when I coach football, believing that the ability to process information quickly helps whatever you do.

Last week, I was with some kids at the swimming pool, while my daughter was training. They had finished their sessions. I asked a 5-year-old to talk for 30 seconds on a subject I would give her, without deviation, hesitation, or repetition. This is based on a BBC panel game called ‘Just a minute’. She tried, and hesitated after about 10 seconds, and I buzzed her. Some other children came and asked what I was doing, so I explained, then started again with a boy who is about 7 years old. His subject was something like “My favourite toppings on a slice of bread”. He began by giggling, and I buzzed him. “That’s not fair! I hadn’t started,” he protested. I explained that he had hesitated. He asked for another chance. I went to one of my favourites: “Life isn’t about second chances”. I pointed to another boy, and told him to try the same topic. He went well for about 20 seconds, then faltered. This was new to the kids and they warmed to it. They went off to play it by themselves. The parent of the little girl (they are both French) said this was a great game and would be excellent for long car trips. I talked about how her daughter’s brain is really working fast because she’s mastered English fluency in a short time, and now switches between French and English in the blink of an eye, or even in mid-sentence. The game made her stumble but she could do fine at it.

My daughter came over and her gave her a bizarre topic, like ‘Why cutting my toenails is so exciting?” She rattled off an explanation and was still going after 30 seconds. She’s used to things like that from me, even though this game we had never played. She also understands that I will just test her thinking all the time. She’s primed.

Sadly, a lot of Jamaicans are not primed.

Many Jamaicans have problems in thinking
Many Jamaicans have problems in thinking

I was about to watch a current affairs discussion programme last night and heard a snippet of people being interviewed on the street about the nature of an organization called ‘Jamaicans For Justice’. I barely heard a coherent sentence as people tried to explain. I suspect that most did not really know what the organization did, though it featured a lot in the news, so they tried to give an explanation on the fly–like talking for just a minute. It was hilarious. We know understanding is low when nouns get replaced by ‘thing’. I press my daughter all the time to use nouns to help her keep track of her subject, and make sure that pronouns like ‘it’ first have a relevant noun. She gets a lot of “What ‘it’?” I was similarly disturbed when I heard Jamaica’s PM discussing energy issues in Parliament yesterday, albeit only snippets. She kept on referring to ‘the thing’ being brought to Cabinet for discussion. Without the noun, I was wondering what was this thing. A blanket? A cuddly toy? A new fountain pen? I gathered after a while that it was perhaps a document. A thing? I’ve heard her use that phrase before when posed questions on the topic of a floundering energy project and had thought that she was just caught unawares or badly briefed. But, she may have a mental block discussing the topic. Poor us, then, as she now has the mantle for that portfolio. Poor thing.

Again and again, we see that thinking skills, mental processing, and ability to express ideas clearly are stumbling blocks in Jamaican life. The PM talks often about how her party love the poor. Cynics jump on that to say that the poor are so loved that the PM just wants to keep making more of the country poor. That’s all good political badinage.

I wont go into many specific topics now, but I consider some of those that are ‘hot button issues’ and the first thing that often jumps out at me is that the thinking is incomplete. I read yesterday how the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas had ‘forbidden’ pastors from performing same-sex marriages. One of my first thoughts was why do you need to forbid something whose prohibition seems to have already been a central tenet? Did that mean that some pastors were inclined to break that? Interesting, I thought. The president of the organisation then went on a rather odd piece of logic, as reported in the press.

‘In declaring the church’s objection to homosexuality, Wade affirmed the church’s stance in defence of the biblical union of man and woman, while rejecting homosexuality as a sin that is disruptive to human existence and normal society. In explaining further, he said that a man and a woman in a sexual relationship look towards procreation, but the homosexual act negates that. “So we have to ask the question: If all persons started living woman to woman and man with man, where would humanity be?” asked the churchman.’

Seems like a reasonable question?

No. Here we have the proposition that an act or lifestyle that is widely understood to be that of a minority of people, and has been so for centuries, millenia, even, suddenly becomes the lifestyle of ‘all’. Is this my Aunt Sally (a straw man) or what? Arguments like this work because people listening to them either do not think about what is being said or are too afraid or embarrassed to challenge what is apparent nonsense. The king has on no clothes!

Spot the fallacy (Courtesy of Scott Adams)
Spot the fallacy (Courtesy of Scott Adams)

So, like Chicken Little/Henny Penny, we all run for cover: “The sky is falling!’

Stuff like this gets past because we are collectively thinking-challenged. We are full of the dullest tools in the shed. With no apology for seeming politically incorrect, we are a village full of idiots (watch this Monty Python extract). Society needs a lot of blithering idiots.

As put aptly and visually amusingly, however, we must handle the challenge of thinking for ourselves.

But, we have largely been trained not to do that. We often have to face suspension of disbelief but do not know how to think our way out of that. Does your brain hurt? It should.

My brain really hurts (Courtesy of Monty Python)
My brain really hurts (Courtesy of Monty Python)