Critical Thinking for Personal Empowerment

Critical Thinking for Personal Empowerment

Kevin deLaplante


Why is critical thinking important?

When I was a classroom teacher I would write this bullet list on the board and work my way down:

  1. Self-Defense
  2. Autonomy and Freedom of Thought
  3. Personal Empowerment
  4. Democracy and Civic Duty
  5. Philosophy and the Search for Wisdom

Let’s talk about number 3 – “personal empowerment”.

Playing Defense

In a previous post I talked about critical thinking in terms of self-defense, as a means of protecting ourselves from the false rhetoric, bad arguments and manipulations that are often used by people and institutions to get us to believe and do things that aren’t really in our best interest.

This is the situation when tools of persuasion are directed at us, when we’re on the receiving end of an  argument from a friend, or an advertising pitch, or a sermon, or a political speech, or a newspaper editorial, and we have to distinguish between good reasons to believe something and bad reasons to believe something.

Playing Offense

Now I want to talk about the flip side of the situation, when you’re the one doing the persuading — you’re the one in the position of having to give the argument or write the pitch or deliver the sermon or write the editorial.

What I want to claim is simple: if someone is well-versed in the elements of critical thinking then they’re more likely to be effective persuaders in situations like these.

This is what I mean by “empowerment”. We’re empowered by our ability to organize our thoughts in a logical way, and to craft an argument that gives our audience the strongest reasons possible to accept  our conclusion.

But if we’re trained the way we should be trained (the Argument Ninja way, hint hint) then we’re also going to be empowered by our understanding of human psychology and the psychology of influence and persuasion, so that when we give this argument, we’re in a position to maximize its chances of being heard and acknowledged and responded to.

Not Everyone Views Critical Thinking This Way

Now, not everyone associates critical thinking with these kinds of qualities, and especially this last bit about the psychology of persuasion. Or at least it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when they  think of critical thinking. There are a couple of reasons for this.

One reason is that more often people associate critical thinking with the “self-defense” aspects that we talked about earlier.

Another reason — and one that I think is more interesting to talk about — is a view that many people have: that critical thinking is, and should be, about good logic and good argumentation, and that’s it. They associate the psychology of belief and persuasion with the techniques of manipulative rhetoric that we’re constantly warning people against.

From this point of view, logic and argumentation is “white magic”, it’s what the good guys use. And rhetorical techniques and psychological strategies is “black magic” or  “dark magic”, it’s what the bad guys use; these are the tools used by advertisers and politicians and spin doctors to manipulate information and control public opinion.

I understand this point of view, and I agree that it’s important to clearly distinguish good argumentation from persuasive rhetoric. They’re not the same thing.

But it’s a mistake to think that the theory and techniques of persuasive rhetoric do not have a proper place in the critical thinker’s toolkit. They do.

They’re just like any tool, they can be used for good ends or for bad ends. What ends you use them for is up to you. The tools themselves aren’t to blame for the evil uses to which they’re put.

The Psychological Dimension is Unavoidable

But more importantly, the psychological dimension is unavoidable.

Every argument you give in the real world, to a real audience, is defined in part by the social and psychological context within which the argument is given. And in that context, the persuasive power of the argument is determined by an array of factors.

The logic matters, but the logic needs to reflect the argumentative context of what is at issue, who you’re trying to persuade, what they bring to the table in terms of background beliefs and values, why they care about the issue, what’s at stake in the argument, and so on.

These are psychological and social factors. If you don’t understand these factors, if you can’t get inside the head of your intended audience, if you can’t see the issue through their eyes, and tap into what they care  about, what motivates them, then you’ll never be able to persuade them to accept your point of view.

Good argumentation isn’t just about good logic, it’s also about good psychology.

Consider: What Goes Into Crafting a Persuasive Speech

Now, just to make the point a different way, think about what goes into crafting a great argumentative essay and delivering it as a speech.

We outline the argument in a kind of shorthand, focusing on the key  remises, identifying background assumptions that might be contentious, anticipating possible objections, coming up with replies to those  objections, until we’ve got the logical structure of what we want to say laid out.

Then we’ve got to think about HOW we want to present this. We’ve got to make choices about wording, about the order of presentation, about pacing, about vocabulary, about sentence and paragraph structure, and so on.

Then we’ve got to think about delivery (this is a speech after all) and we’ve got to think about speaking technique and all those factors that go into public speaking, and all the while we’re motivated by the goal of making this the most effective and persuasive argument we can.

In this context, it seems a mistake to think about this thought process in terms of white magic and black magic, right? Thinking about rhetorical technique and the psychology of persuasion is an inseparable part of the crafting of a great persuasive argument.

Train For Offense and Defense

Good training in critical thinking needs to pay attention not only to logic and argumentation in the abstract, but also to logic and argumentation in real-world contexts, where rhetorical choices and psychological factors inevitably come into play when you’re engaged in argumentation with real people.

If you’re well-versed in all these aspects of critical thinking, then you’re going to be in a better position to have your voice heard, to be effective in your role as an influencer.

The Argument Ninja approach to critical thinking is committed to training for offense as well as defense.

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