Playing Thought Police and Other Oppressive Ideas

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When there is a law on the books, this is an easy and measurable target to combat. When my great grandfather went to school, they could keep him out by virtues of laws targeted at Indians and mixed-raced kids, so they just got to keep him out of school legally. By the time I came around, they had to get more creative and do things like have counselors tell me I didn’t need to go to college and wrote complex, arcane zoning laws. Either way, we got locked out of education but the fight was different. It may seem that challenging that de jure is easier, or that this is a sign of a lack of progress but the simple fact remains that I graduated from Stanford, my great grandfather didn’t because the binds of culture don’t have the same enforcement power as the bounds of the law and the state. It may seem like police brutality has gotten worse, but so far as I can tell, it hasn’t changed in my mom’s lifetime. I mean, lynching was legal when my great grand-father was a kid. IT WAS LEGAL FOR PRIVATE CITIZENS TO HUNT DOWN AND PUBLICLY HANG THEIR NEIGHBORS. The sad fact is: that is the first time it’s felt like a viable target because things have changed so much. Many people had to fight over many generations to get rid of lynching and because of that we now actually ask ourselves whether its ok for the police to kill and especially disproportionately kill, poor people, for trumped up reasons. I, too, am deeply disturbed that it has taken this long. These de jure changes have only happened relatively recently and our culture reflects the fact that while extremely critical in shaping culture and bringing justice, changing the law is a necessary but insufficient condition for ideological liberation. Most of the work we are doing now is in this cultural realm, which is both less powerful and more nebulous to counteract, namely because it is really hard to make people think what you want them to think and its also ethically problematic to even try to do so and comes with the inherent risk of oppressing the thoughts of others.


So the question becomes, how do you effectively change culture without turning into some sort of Orwellian nightmare? The good news about cultural change is that unlike the laws, this is something over which each individual and collective has a say about because culture is essentially the things we do on a day to day basis to live our lives. Cultural change happens both at an elite level with scholarly work and at a sort of kitchen table level and its something that all people can exercise their agency in and for which all people can be included. So how do you change the thoughts so that expression changes in a way that’s empowering, rather than oppressive? Well, how do we shape thought now? How do we socialize humans to have certain beliefs, practices and expressions? We need to take a human and raise them to be a certain kind of human. Sounds kind of a lot like education, doesn’t it?


Here’s the secret about really good activism: we all have to be educators. Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves and I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Changing the thoughts of both the masses of people and the ruling classes are essential to any liberation, but it turns out that there are some really good ways to teach and socialize and that we know a lot about this because our species is uniquely good at it. I did this at a professional level as a government and history teacher and I’ve learned some key things along the way.


  • You cannot control the thoughts of others
    • I know you want to. I know it would be easier. I know it is frustrating and exhausting but its not going to happen. Even under the Nazis people resisted, and we don’t want to be Nazis. Some people, like myself, will resist attempts to control thought on the principle of the matter regardless of what the rest of the belief system is.


  • People don’t learn to change thoughts and thought patterns without a whole lot of trust, love and respect
    • I wouldn’t let someone who I didn’t think trusted, loved or respected me play around with my mind either and I certainly wouldn’t trust an abuser’s opinion on politics


  • Although you cannot control the thoughts of others, the thoughts of others will surprise you in really wonderful ways
    • I’ve seen racist, aggressive little white boys turn into little mini-Howard Zinn’s in a semester in classes with 35 kids. I’ve seen kids who were illiterate and easily tricked into bad behavior by their horrible classmates become well spoken and confident individuals in a year and I’ve watched a large number of quiet Latina girls become not-so quiet Latina boss bitches. My babies are ridiculous but here’s the fun fact about them: they weren’t special and they are everyone’s babies, your babies are ridiculous too. The trick is though, that you have to believe that about them before they will believe it about themselves. That’s part of leadership. Trust the people.


  • You can love people for who they are, or you can hate them for who they are not


  • People are actually really good at identifying bad logic
    • Most people just don’t know this is what they are doing because they haven’t been given the academic vocabulary to identify it, but when someone says something didn’t “feel right” about an ad or argument, what they mean is that they identified a strand of shitty logic, when you give people the vocabulary to identify it they do with stunning accuracy. Even 15 year olds.
    • If you violate the trust of the person who you are trying to educate by using misleading or poor reasoning they are either going to lose respect for you, thereby meaning you will never be in the educator position again OR they will assume you don’t respect them and they will stop listening. This is a good human trait; we should be glad that people intuitively don’t trust bad logic.


  • All cultural production is a form of argumentation
    • This is a broader philosophical point, but my point here is that our actions and expression reflect our beliefs unless we are talking about basic survival. It’s the moment when we have choices that we start exercising our belief systems. As one small example, everything that currently sits in my shower is “organic” and “natural”, I blame this on sensitive skin, but I also just get to exercise my preference for ethical companies with my purchases (and presently have the freedom and privilege to do so). This fact becomes even more obvious when we talk about the things like writing and music that we typically think of as high culture. If artistic production weren’t reflective of belief systems, you wouldn’t have people studying the humanities.


  • If you can’t support your argument with good logic, including evidence and reasoning you don’t have an argument
    • This was a classroom rule and the thing that kids most feared I’d find in their papers. But it stems from this, if I can’t explain why my ideas are the best and why I deserve leadership then I lack the legitimacy to be in that position and my arguments aren’t as good as I think they are. The Catholic Church thought they were doing the right thing too, which is why it was so dangerous that they punished people who questioned their actions because it made it much easier to do the wrong thing. Mao thought the Great Leap Forward was going awesomely because his underling feared the consequences of questioning the party line. Worst. Famine. In. Human. History.


Taking all these points together, I hope you see where I am going with this. We need to focus our efforts on positively changing thought patterns and empowering people to do so. This makes us educators, and we fortunately actually have a lot of knowledge about how to socialize people. People will be able to make up their own minds when they’ve been given the habits of mind and information to do so and we can help facilitate that by making sure that the arguments we make are as tight and widespread as possible while resisting the urge to call for thought police.


Seriously. I see any calls for thought police and that’s when I start to worry that I need to leave the culture.

It never ends well for those of us who question things.


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