Thought comes cheap

Friday, December 19, 2014

Today, while my daughter packed up her dance shoes at the arts center where she takes a class, I watched a rumor whip through a visiting elementary school group. As they passed by the dance studio on their way upstairs, one of the children in a group of about 100 pointed at the studio and said, "Hey, look, that's the place where you ice skate!"

Bemused, I watched as the kids passed this information down the line so quickly and efficiently that it looked as though it had been choreographed. "That's where you ice skate!" repeated over and over again. Even after I thought I heard the rumor drop, it got picked up again, 10 kids or so later.

Nothing about the dance studio says "ice rink" except the color of the floor (which is interrupted by long strips of duct tape). It's tiny, with ballet barres, a piano, a mirror...and no ice skaters. But these kids were so ready to pick up the lie.

It's a human impulse that doesn't dull once we mature. I have had the uncomfortable experience of sitting in a room with 100 others, listening to a speaker give a talk that just...wasn't true--or I didn't think so. But in discussion groups afterward, most of the talk centered on how to implement the speaker's advice, and I was the only one questioning its veracity.

And just last night, I found myself quoting a statistic to my husband, who asked (genuinely), "How do they know that?" And I couldn't figure out an answer--I just believed it at face value. 

It's just easier to believe what we hear. Better yet, it's easier to believe what we already believe. And as the voices in the age of information grow more plentiful, it's actually just becoming easier to find a niche where you already agree with everything said and avoid completely anything that might challenge a particular point of view.

I'm fascinated by the concept of a "marketplace of ideas," which dresses up cultural discourse in the robes of capitalism, assuming the two to function alike. In capitalism (I believe the theory goes), a good product sells while a bad one eventually dies out; the theory states the same will happen to ideas in a cultural marketplace.

But this is a terrible theory. People don't "buy" good ideas; they buy easy ones that don't require additional thought. (Or they don't trade in ideas at all, but only in entertainment, but that's another idea for another day, I suppose.)

Like many problems that find ignorance at the root, the first step is awareness--admitting that this is a problem for me, that I am not above it. I'm doing my best these days to read everything, but especially to make a point of reading things I disagree with at the outset. Because really, how can you find out what you think unless you have been challenged by an opposing view? 

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