Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Using Ridicule to Kindle Critical Thinking Skills and Counteract Religious Indoctrination



DISCLAIMER: The CONTROVERSY continues! After people started blocking me on FB for writing an article stating I felt is was okay to ridicule children, I have since revised the article to better reflect what I originally intended, but apparently failed to adequately get across.

Many mistook me for wanting to, literally, attack children. That's NOT what I meant! 

INTRODUCTION
In an unrelated article, I made the offhand remark
 that we should ridicule children more to encourage them to question their mistakes, perhaps feel a tinge of embarassment, and seek to motivate them to correct their mistakes and/or misconceptions. 

My intention was to apply the use of ridicule to break what we know to be patently superstitious modes of thinking early on, thereby forcing the child into the awkward position of having to question their own individual beliefs--or at least, why they believe something. After that, it's about guiding them through the sea of information so they can settle o their own conclusions.

This is the opposite approach than what the religious take. Indoctrinating children, something I believe to be ethically wrong. It amounts to little more than telling a child what to think--because if they don't--then they are somehow deficient, singled out as an outcast. I don't see how this is healthier than what I propose with ridicule. In fact, I would argue it's not--as it doesn't seek to attempt to equip the child with the skills of critical thinking or inquiry. It just demands they believe in something and threatens them, with rather pernicious and cruel threats I might add, if they fail to comply.

Inculcation, then, is seeing to it that the child never questions or doubt these initial propositions forced upon them.

I am arguing for a method, a way, to break these terrible, unethical, religious practices of manipulation. A method which, if done correctly, would not only help to break the spell of religion but would also help the child to learn about how to critically assess and analyze their own beliefs--eventually without the aid of an adult. Indoctrination does not teach anything but how to cower before an authority and obey, regardless of whether that authority is valid.

By being made-fun-of for an *obviously mistaken or erroneous belief (and I should make it clear that I am in no way advocating bullying or demeaning humiliation, more on that in a bit), a child will quickly look to their peer group to reinforce the beliefs which are being highlighted and brought to their attention by what I call 'strategic light-hearted ridiculing'.

PART 1: SANTA CLAUS

The example I commonly give is the belief in Santa. Consider, we grown-ups all know (I hope) that Santa isn't real, but a child who has been told by his parents, teachers, and community that Santa is real believes it. After all, they have no way of critically evaluating the claims of the authority figures in their lives. After all, they're just kids. They take things on faith because, well, they take things for granted. It's not their fault, they haven't been equipped with the tools needed to govern themselves independently. This will help them develop some of those tools, and in so doing, will help them navigate the ever growing sea of information by giving them the capacity to question, analyze, and think critically.

The belief in Santa is a good example to look to, because when a kid becomes a certain age, their peer group will quickly find the one child in the group who still holds fast to the infantile belief in Santa and will, usually, ridicule him.

This often shakes a child up, because their being made fun of for believing in something they thought was common knowledge. But suddenly, this belief is called into question, it gives a child pause. It's the first time in a child's life that they must go back and re-think, re-evaluate, what they've been told by their parents and authority figures. Their peer group is the concensus. Nobody in the peer group believes in Sanata anymore. In fact, the idea is so egregiously absurd that they laugh at the poor child, who has our sympathy, for believing in poppycock.

The child begins to look for ways to anchor their belief, signs of Santa's existence or else non-existence, and then eventually, seeing the evidence (or lack thereof) entirely in the ball-park of NOT REAL, they will be compelled to go to the highest of authorities in their premature lives, and ask their parents the big question: Is Santa real?

If the parents are honest, they will inform the child, "No, he's not real."

It's no big deal. After all, the flood of crocodile tears, which is part of the growing pangs, is quickly forgotten. Indeed, the child usually forgets all about the ridicule altogether as she is reassured the presents will keep coming--no worries. 


On the other hand, if the parents are dishonest or want to keep the ruse going, for whatever reason, they will perpetuate the lie only to find that the child's natural skepticism, sparked the by the one true reality, the ridicule of their peers, will grow until eventually the doubt is so thick that is suffocates any attempt to redeem the belief. Once the belief is curshed, the child sheds the belief on their own.

That's sort of the point. It's not about dictating what people can and cannot believe. It's about getting them to look at their beliefs, and then question them, and balance their opinions and conclusions against the opinions and conclusions of others.

PART 2: Jeffersonian Ridicule
Without ridicule, we would be unable to do change our minds and correct our misconceptions because we would have nobody challenging our opinions, beliefs, or ideas. This is why Thomas Jefferson argued that ridicule was vitally necessary in order for freedom of speech to flourish. Moreover, recent psychological studies show people do not change their beliefs even when showed, explicitly, that those beliefs are wrong. Not even when they are provided with the CORRECT evidence to correct their mistaken beliefs. That's worth repeating, people who are givne the correct answer actively refuse to accept it and instead hold fast to the wrong answer! Studies have shown this tendency to correct one's thinking depends on how confident they are in understanding something and how doubtful they are about the connection between the answer and the evidence. If they don't understand something, say like biology, then many times people will reject scientifically validated theories, such as Darwinian evolution, for incorrect ideas and beliefs, like Creationism.

Employing the use of ridicule is, I believe, necessary in getting them past the insecurity and doubt stage without having to necessarily check ones beliefs and opinions against the sea of information. It's a social equilibrium device, which works toward a goal of conformity in the social acceptance of an idea, opinion, or belief. Being ridicules forces us into the position of having to make a judgement on the quality of our beliefs. Should we continue to believe it--if so, what are our reason? If not, again, what are the reasons?

Employed in this fashion, I believe ridicule could be a powerful tool in reversing the effects of child indoctrination by religion.

PART 3: Less About Tearing Down and More about Building Up: The Goals of Constructive Criticism and Enhancing Critical Thinking Skills
Before anyone accuses me of advocating something cruel, mean-spirited, unfair, improper, or what have you, let me explain a couple of things.

First, I am NOT advocating bullying or demeaning humiliation  This is not about MOCKING the person, it is about ridiculing their beliefs and pointing out their misconceptions.

If anyone is under the impression I want to simply make fun of children, attack children, or eat children (or whatever), they couldn't be more wrong.

This is about molding children into self actualized thinkers. It's what I as a parent do every single day. Those who have kids will understand the trials and tribulations of child development and parenting, and how many horrifying moments can be turned around with a bit of laughter.


In helping to potty train my daughter I found that, well, sometimes we miss the target. Oops! We laugh, and clean the mess up together, and I teacher her that even though we are both embarrassed by the event, of my failure to help her and her failure to do it properly, we can laugh at our mistake. In this way, we ridicule our own blunders by making light of them. We have contempt for our mistakes, and mock our failures, and then laugh. That's what ridicule is.

I am not deriding my daughter for incompetence and she isn't laughing at my failure to properly instruct her. By laughing we are ridiculing the absurdity of the event. This is why I am stressing ridiculing the belief of the child, not the child personally.

It's the difference of saying: Billy is a stupid head because he believes in Santa, versus, Billy believes in stupid stories for kids.

Now a child doesn't know how to distinguish from ridiculing the belief and ridiculing the person, but we adults do. It is a fine line, sure, and we must be careful not to cross it, or if we do, we must be positively sure that our reasons for doing so are just, otherwise we risk becoming cruel--and, I cannot stress this enough, I am not arguing for derisive attacks and shunning mockery of little Billy. I am arguing for the derision and mockery of his beliefs. As a consequence, will Billy feel bad, probably. I am not saying this is without embarrassment or hurt feelings. But we cannot realistically suppose that life, and the beliefs we live by, could be had without growing pangs. If only it were that simple.

Those who have raised children know what a daily grind it is just to get them to do simple things like wash their hands, eat their vegetables, or share their toys. They ignore your instructions, often times deliberately, so then what? Some parents yell. This hardly ever works. Besides, I think yelling is meaner than other methods. It's confrontational without actually challenging the child to think to make a choice. Yelling goes back to lording one's authority over the developing mind, and that is the opposite of what I am aiming for.

Other, more subtler, methods must be employed. We parents often fib. We create ultimatums, platitudes, and idle threats of things like taking away TV privileges or having to go to be early--oh, the horror! They are lies, of course. But they are necessary. By giving a child a choice, they are the ones who have to decide. This forces them to think of which choice is best--and why. Yelling might sometimes do the trick, but it isn't teaching them anything.

Arguing with people full of conviction of their beliefs is a lot like yelling. It might sometimes work, but it doesn't teach them anything. Ridicule, on the other hand, is the more subtler approach.


Secondly, I should mention why I think this technique works.



Another reason I advocate ridiculing children's mistaken beliefs and misconceptions is that it corrects their behavior and thinking early on, and more efficiently, than if you were to sit down and give them the same lesson over and over again.

For example, my daughter, who is two and is still learning to speak, was recently calling pears "Kao nashi" in Japanese. Now, this is completely wrong. A pear in Japanese is simply "nashi." However, she likes the animated movie Spirited Away. In the Japanese language version, the character No Face is called "Kao Nashi," which translates to "Without a face." The 'nashi' bit in both is pronounced exactly the same: na-shi.

After correcting her repeated times, and realizing it wasn't working, I decided to tease her a bit. 'It's not kao-nashi', I said, 'just nashi'. I showed her the pear, and asked, wears its face? 'Oh, no! The face is gone!' I lamented. Looking around frantically for the pears face, she started laughing. "Nashi!" she shouted gleefully, realizing her mistake.

I made fun of her mistake, not her face or her personality or her smarts. That's the key point I am trying to stress. How do I know this approach works, because, well, it worked.


Also, kids generally enjoy being teased--when the teasing isn't intended as an attack but as a bit of fun.  It can be taken too far, but so can anything else. We must always be careful not to inflict abuse, but rather, keep it playful and affectionate. As long as they know you genuinely appreciate them, they won't mind the ridicule or teasing one bit. Again, I'm not advocating being mean. Ridicule is a type of looking down on, because it's a type of criticism. But criticism is often necessary in order for us to correct our views.


PART 4: More on Criticism
Criticism isn't an evil thing. Both negative and positive criticism can be good things. As a writer, when someone points out a spelling error, I am truly grateful for their help. Their positive criticism helps me improve my writing. It's called constructive criticism for this reason--it helps you to construct something better than had you not relied on the advice of others.

When someone comes at me with a terribly good reason for disagreeing with a point I've made--and I cannot find fault with their reasoning--I am often compelled to change my mind, or at least reconsider my position. Their negative criticism helps me to refine my own thinking and writing. Again, I am grateful. So you see, even negative criticism can be helpful at times.


Criticism isn't evil, per se. But it can be abused and turned into a tool to tear someone down. I am against tearing people down without valid reasons for doing so. This, is not about tearing children down, but quite to the contrary, it's about teaching them and building up their minds! It's about guiding them. Shaping them.

Many will disagree with me and argue that there is no reason, under any circumstances, to use ridicule on children--or more precisely--what they believe. Two things. I feel exactly this way about religious indoctrination. There is no reason, under any circumstances, that a child should be brainwashed into a religion to believe based on nothing more than threats, appeals to emotion, and appeals to authority--but they are--by the billions.

This kind of manipulation is cruel--because it doesn't tear a child down--it simply holds them down--crushes their confidence in doubting and asking questions--or worse, making it so they don't have to--and then suffocates them with age old superstition.

Secondly, even if one thinks ridicule is somehow detrimental to a child's development, and I don't think it is if utilized in the way I propose, then they simply haven't read closely enough what I have said. The reason this article is so lengthy is because I am going through great pains to detail my meaning, and explain my reasoning, as not to be misunderstood. In summation, all I am saying is that a softer, more subtle, form of ridicule is one possible technique which can be utilized to get a person to question their beliefs, and it is proved to work.

Let's be clear, ridicule doesn't necessarily mean to humiliate. It can be used that way, but then that would mean one is using it for cruel purposes. I am against such abuse. Rather, I intend to use it a corrective tool, one in which scoffing doesn't end in scorn and mocking laughter doesn't end in contempt. Rather, the scoffing and mocking, the poking fun at, should always be for the purpose of dismantling a conviction based on authority and forcing the person whose notions, opinions, or ideas are being laughed at to have to evaluate, not only the reasons why, but the reasons why as well.

CONCLUSION: There's 'Strategic Light-Hearted Ridicule' and then there is Plain Old Mean Ridicule

As experience with my daughter has taught me, we can ridicule children in a way which is fun, makes them laugh at their mistakes, and helps them to think for themselves. It shows them that distrusting authority figures is okay and, perhaps, lead them to rely more on themselves. But they won't be able to do this if we sit idly by and let the superstitious delusions and erroneous beliefs be planted into their minds early on.

As for the adults, I advocate a more direct approach. If you have had the opportunity to think about religious questions, but simply haven't, or have simply left it up to the religious authorities and shirked the burden of justifying your own beliefs, then I'm sorry to say, the kitty-gloves come off.

I think it's time to tell the religious believers God isn't real, just like Santa. And when they don't believe us, yet themselves cannot offer any convincing validation for why they hold such a belief, then we know all at once their belief is erroneous. However, they may not, as conviction often clouds ones mind to such matters. As such, we can point our fingers and laugh.

Sure, they'll hate it, but you know what, they've had every opportunity to listen to reason, they have had endless hours to give serious reflection, and instead of admitting to the differences of facts and fancies, they turn it into a farce and retreat into the safety net of religion and the protection it provides.

So if the adult believer, whose indoctrination was never challenged, takes their faith for granted, and believes in the metaphysical, supernatural, fantastical world of religious faith wants respect for their beliefs, they simply are going to have to learn to respectfully keep those beliefs to themselves, or get laughed at.

I have attempted to argue, to the best of my ability, why ridicule is a necessary tool in the development of children and why I think it is necessary for aiding in counteracting the harmful, if not stifling, effects of religious indoctrination. At least, that was my intention, whether or not this demonstrated my intent adequately is up for debate, as this piece is not without controversy. Additionally, I wish to note that I am in no way convinced this is the best or only way of creating critical thinkers and combating the harmful side-effects of organized religion. I merely think it is one method which gets results, and is worth reflecting on.   

[DISCLAIMER: If anyone still believes I intend ridicule in a mean-spirited or cruel way, then, apparently, you did not care to read the full article as it seems you have confused emotions for methods, and have missed my point completely. If, however, you read the article in full and still voice a consenting view, I would like to know why--not just what you think--but the reasons as well. Thank you.]

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist