Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 46 seconds

Uncritical first, or skeptical first?

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 46 seconds

Simon Ensor’s post “(un)critical mass” prompted me to write this post which is an amalgamation of several posts, some of which were in draft form, some in my head, and some ideas that came to me reading Simon’s post.

Simon writes a lot of interesting things, and I rarely understand all of it because it is so artistically written, but that’s also what I love about Simons writing: you can’t just read it and get it and go; it makes you keep thinking and wondering how to interpret it, regardless, really, of what he meant (I don’t think “we” are meant to figure out what he meant, but it is artistically pedagogical in sparking our thinking about what he’s written).

So one thing he says ( building on a known quote, dunno by whom) is:

“If education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has “learnt” at school, the critical mass is what remains after the uncritical mass has slipped away, our violence dissipated”.

I am not entirely sure what brought violence into that discussion of education and critical mass, and it made me wonder if he means the control imposed on children by formal education is a kind of violence that we work on unlearning? Simon does make a connection to peace, through an image with a quote by Martin Luther King Jr that “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal”. I love that quote, because it looks at peace as a process and an attitude, a value, not just an end result. Someone tell that to all those people who commit violence in the name of peace, will ya?

I have no idea what Simon means by the below but I will interpret it based on some stuff on technological determinism I have been thinking of recently. Simon says,


Uncritical mass, we are love-struck.

Love me, look at me, hold me, take me, take me now…for ever.

I am yours, you are mine…all MINE, MY PRECIOUS…

books won’t help, connected courses perhaps?

Remains to be seen…

Critical moments, of connecting with others uncritically, semenly critically, a mass of bodies, a mire.”

So… i *think* Simon is alluding to the pre-course orientation when he mentions “click, link, embed” (reference to Alan, Jim and Howard as they are calling themselves).

He might be talking about how we sometimes talk about connection in overly romantic ways, as if two things were at play: as if connections were easy to form; and as if connections are always necessarily good. To believe so would be uncritical. Often, in our enthusiasm, we talk about them as such. I know I am guilty of that myself.

But see, I am also the same person who’s completely capable of critiquing the whole thing. Its just that there are contexts where I would rather be critical first, and there are situations where I choose to be uncritical first. As Women’s Ways of Knowing describe it, its a lot also like what Peter Elbow calls the “believing game” as opposed to the “doubting game”. I think they are both intertwined in our quest to be critical people. To be critical is not only to be skeptical and question everything; it is also to sometimes allow oneself to believe, to empathize and understand an “other” before we start doubting them.

When I think of a lot of what is happening in Egypt, it raises my skepticism. No evidence, misleading rhetoric, sensationalist media, it all raises our skeptical hackles and at best gives rise to conspiracy theories. Why does Egypt all of a sudden have so many electricity cuts? Then two days of none, then a day of city-wide blackouts, with different “excuses” given by officials every day? My conspiracy theory is that they’re playing us. They want people to keep busy trying to figure out how they’ll survive the next elevator ride without getting stuck, find ways to make it safer. People trying to find solutions to charge their phones and alternative light sources so they can later have something to connect them to the world when the electricity goes out again. This isnt the Egypt of 4 years ago. And I hate that I am saying it like this, but I cannot bring myself to believe.

But when it comes to my online contacts and connections, I believe first, critique later. I want to build community in some sort of harmony before I critique and then we can critique in relative peace, as opposed to fight online. I have seen people who are total strangers who have never connected with me, jump into twitter conversations with aggressive critiques. I have seen people jump into facebook groups and critique entire communities for having a convergent conversation. So what if we sometimes converge? Divergence is great and pedagogically important, but it is ok to converge sometimes. The goal is not always to be critical. Being critical is just sometimes (often) part of our process for arriving at peace and truth. Sometimes the value of peace is more important than the value of criticality.

Which brings me to Audrey Watters’ keynote speech (link to transcript) at #altc – where, long story short, she talks about technological determinism and how we need to take responsibility for how we allow technology to affect our lives.

I love how she brings in Latours interpretation of Frankenstein (remember that Frankenstein is not the monster himself but his creator). Frankenstein’s mistake, according to Latour, “was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself.”

Also, by Latour “our sin is not that we created technologies but that we failed to love and care for them. It is as if we decided that we were unable to follow through with the education of our children.”

And so Watters concludes “We must love and educate our children. We must love and care for our machines, lest they become monsters.”

She relates the story of Frankenstein to education:

“While typically Frankenstein is interpreted as a condemnation of science gone awry, the novel can also be read as a condemnation of education gone awry. The novel highlights the dangerous consequences of scientific knowledge, sure, but it also explores how knowledge — gained inadvertently, perhaps, gained surreptitiously, gained without guidance — might be disastrous.”

More citing of Latour (but here quoting Watters) “the lesson of the novel is not that we should step away from technological innovation or scientific creation. But rather we must strengthen our commitment and our patience and our commitment to all of creation” (where creation is not God’s creation here, but our creation of machines)

I found this paragraph (this part of her speech) very important and well put:

“To be clear, my nod to the Luddites or to Frankenstein isn’t about rejecting technology; but it is about rejecting exploitation. It is about rejecting an uncritical and unexamined belief in progress. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that we have pretended like it is truth and divorced from responsibility, from love, from politics, from care. The problem isn’t that science gives us monsters, it’s that it does not, despite its insistence, give us “the answer.” (Emphasis mine)

What I love about Audrey’s talk is not the part where she rejects technological determinism. That part is not new,though I love hearing people talk about it anyway. What I love about her speech is that she talks about our critical approach to our machines as one like that of the parent: loving, caring, responsible.

This can also be true of our online connections (to people, not machines). How do we nurture them, treat them with care, and make sure the way we connect to others does not become a monster while we are unaware… But to avoid the monstrization or monstrification (err, is that a term?) it starts not with just being critical; it starts by approaching it with a nurturing attitude

11 thoughts on “Uncritical first, or skeptical first?

  1. I think you’re drawing a terrific distinction here. It’s easy for us to fall into uncritical hero worship or adherence to our beliefs – and yet what kind of world do we create when we cannot allow our professional or intellectual selves tap into love? (Louis Schmier is wonderful on this point, if you want to look him up.) Anthropologists might argue that this is the point of the much-reviled (and often wrongly applied) “cultural relativism” – that you must first examine a culture uncritically, only gathering data, building your understanding of the inside perspective, before switching gears and applying the critical faculties which let you judge.

    1. Hi Joe, thanks for your thoughtful comment, and for pointing me to new avenues to look at 🙂 It seems that even though the dominant discourse of critical thinking is what it is, people from various fields (incl also Edward Said, philological hermeneutics) believe that there is value in “believing” before “doubting” and in feelings being involved as well as reason and not necessarily subordinate to it 🙂

  2. Maha as ever I enjoy reading your reflecting aloud. The easy bit. The quote mashup is bits of Einstein. As for the rest. Most of the time it writes itself and then I look at it and take a few months to figure out how the bits fire off in various directions.
    I don’t think in explaining stuff anything is added. We may or not make connections with words, pictures or other at some or other level and that is not really important.

    I think you have it right when you say that you want to trust.

    I trust myself now – see last blog Compagnie d’apprenants which is much more explicit in explaining my journey to your comment box!

    I trust you implicitly and I enjoy very much working with you.

    What an adventure!!!

    1. oh Simon, but I do like it when you talk in plain English like in that comment – I’ll check out your blogpost, too 🙂 Gosh can my brain take it after midnight? 🙂

  3. Mistrust limits a person and what can be learned from the world. I know people who have screwed me because some people are just too casual about the damage they do or are following orders that absolve from their own humanity. What to do with these rats? Some I forgive, some I won’t ever deal with again (but would cross the street to piss on their shoe) and many I have no choice, or desire but to allow them into my reality and live with the discomfort, contradiction and conflict within myself.

    Letting people go like were confetti out the window rips me apart–I can’t do it.

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