In a world marked by growing authoritarianism, increasing and entrenched ideological differences which demand assent rather than dissent, and one in which appeals to emotion matter much more than reality and facts, the importance of taking a step back and making time to think critically and question surface appearances cannot be stated enough. The words of Hannah Arendt bear a chilling resemblance to events unfolding today, that a world devoid of thinking and judging would, she argued, 'be a world inhabited by automatons.'
As traditional expectations and assumptions of what was to expected in the world of politics for 2016 collapsed, new terms and phrases like 'alt-right' came into being to make sense of the harsh new reality. Yet one in particular that signified the worrying times we live in made it into the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016, 'post-truth'. Taken to mean 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief', it is a timely reminder of what can go wrong when swathes of an entire population choose to abandon their reasoning abilities in favour of appeals to their feelings. Donald Trump may be just the beginning, as the tide of the populist far right sweeps across Europe.
Yet it would be wrong to make this solely about Trump and the far right, the same applies to those on the left who may equally seek to portray the world's current problems as a simple battle between 'good ideology' and 'bad ideology'. As the world grows more ideological, as talk of a new 'cold war' between the West and Russia resurfaces, the space for critically thinking becomes increasingly difficult. Individuals are told they must choose sides between competing ideologies that demand loyalty as ideology seeks to eradicate the opportunity for individuals to think for themselves.
Independent thought however undermines the rigid rules and generalisations that the authoritarian far right along with others who seek to impose ideologies rely upon in order to drum ideas into the masses. It is fatal to political propaganda that works because it overrides thinking, and replaces it with demonization. We are told that many are angry because they feel like they have 'lost control' over their own lives and futures. Yet there is no greater way to assume responsibility than to question and challenge what many of us are being told no matter how many times it is repeated. It is a means through which to regain control.
The profusion of fake news and misinformation on the web, especially on social media, highlights further the need not to take things at surface value. At present it would appear that many sections of the public have a voracious appetite for scandal, with the media all too keen to feed their wildest imagination, driven only by the need to get as many clicks as possible and be number one in popularity. They are indifferent to the truth.
In this respect social media has proved to be a double edged sword, one that has the power to raise awareness and democratise debate and discussion, yet at the same time disempower as conspiracy theories and fake news go unchallenged. It is striking to see how some who question everything they see in print and TV refuse to bring the same standards of critical reasoning to bear on news that is spread on social media.
We must all find the time and inclination to stop and think critically about the world around us as it becomes increasingly marked by intolerance, as facts and reality are cast aside by appeals to emotion. In an age marked by time pressures, this can indeed be difficult, but the ability to think critically must not be left to the preserve of the elite few. At times we are told that out of sheer necessity things are the way they are, yet necessity must never be an excuse not to question conventional wisdom. Thought undermines rigid rules and generalisations that authoritarians and ideologues use to push their worldview.