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The Powerful Need To Think For Ourselves

30/01/2017 17:25 GMT | Updated 30/01/2017 17:25 GMT

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SUZANNE ASKHAM

There's a footpath that passes close to where I live. It's a direct route between local communities. It's as old as you care to think. In places, it runs adjacent to a busy main road which no doubt is just as ancient in origin.

Go back far enough in time, and the footpath and the road were probably equal partners. Each would have been wide enough for humans and animals to travel along. However, over centuries, one became a busy thoroughfare, and the other remained a quirky, winding path. But they each get you to your destination.

A society's collective thinking is very like those routes. It makes sense for us to put things and people into categories - to put ideas into highways of collective thought, as it were.

It's easier to say "I am Christian/Jewish/Muslim" for example, than it is to think exactly what your personal, unique experience of spirituality might be.

It's easier to say, "Science is always right" for example, than it is to think about those countless times that scientific research is bent towards the commercial concerns that fund experiments.

And it's easier to believe that we vote freely than it is to delve into the murky waters of psychometric social media advertising that can suppress or encourage votes for the benefit of a particular party or individual.

The biggest irony of our information-rich age is this: the internet faithfully reflects back to us and amplifies our own interests, fears and prejudices. This creates a narrow, bubble world designed especially for us - and for those who think exactly as we do. If we are not aware, we can end up believing that the fake construction presented to us is the real world. And if our world view is a particularly fearful one, anyone who contradicts our notion of reality becomes a threat, an alien, an outsider.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry understood this perfectly when he wrote Le Petit Prince. In that parable, adults are seen as narrow-minded. They have to have information presented in a way that is compatible with their constricted world view. A number live both literally and metaphorically on their own planets. They value things that don't matter, such as how many stars one owns (as if one ever could).

Adults who treat people as objects on which to project their own preoccupations don't realise that what really matters is love and empathy - the heartfelt bonds we form with others.

Patterns of habitual thought, like populated highways, are practical in many ways. I don't want to reinvent my beliefs every day - or only a little bit. I'd rather use my car when I'm in a hurry than put on my boots and walk the fields. But it absolutely behoves us to think for ourselves - to be willing to walk the less travelled route, at least some of the time. Because when our minds are open to alternatives, we are more likely to be able to look into the hearts and motives of others, and understand for ourselves our own best direction. And that is good for everyone.

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