I first interfaced with the discipline called Logic in my first year of Philosophy at the Apostles of Jesus major seminary in Nairobi.
I had never really understood why aspirants to Catholic priesthood had to first study Philosophy before Theology. Besides, the history of Philosophy is replete with atheists, whose work we had to study too!
Logic was taught by a one Dr Oriare Nyarwath from the University of Nairobi, a very critical gentleman who challenged us a lot about many of the beliefs and opinions we held hitherto. I remember one day when he mentioned Bertrand Russell’s scathing book Why I am Not a Christian, before taking us to Nietzsche’s proclamation that ‘God is dead’.
Many of us were helplessly disturbed, for whereas their arguments were uncomfortable, we had little beyond faith to challenge them. Some of us started developing a dislike for Philosophy, while some became hesitant on certain religious issues. But overall, we had more questions than answers.
Gradually, a new attitude started developing amongst us. Our reasoning was taking new directions, mostly seen in how we now questioned everything and argued with careful control of emotions plus avoidance of committing fallacies.
One of the most discomforting things in conversation was to be told that you had committed a fallacy. We learnt to talk only when we had something considerably sensible to say, which we could rationally defend. We were our first critics, at times too harsh on ourselves to the extent of censoring oneself into total silence.
Not that everyone was changed and by the same degree. Education is not without misses. But we generally appreciated why anyone whose work involved interaction with people needed Philosophy, in this case, logic in particular.
By studying atheistic views too, we not only learnt not to run away from ideas contrary to ours, we also appreciated the value of making an effort to first understand one’s position before rushing to attack them.
This memory comes back in view of what dominates our media today, especially social media. Disagreement often comes in the form of insult and denigration.
At a random scroll through Facebook timelines, you never miss verbally violent attacks against someone who holds an opinion that the other finds untenable. In this fallacy of name-calling, the idea is to ‘insult them until they see our point’.
Sound logic would require that we respond to the argument one has made or the issue at hand, and not the person of the one behind it. I understand that this is a difficult call, considering that sometimes the person of an arguer is an important detail in qualifying an argument.
Naturally too, it is very difficult to listen to someone whose character practically contradicts what they say - where one shouts too much that we fail to hear what they are saying.
Nevertheless, even in cases not characterised as above, you often hear people attack the messenger without any heed to the message. In some cases, this is actually a rhetorical device meant to silence an opponent. It is one of Ofwono Opondo’s favourite tools in debate.
Unfortunately, many of our political debates do not seem to be driven by intent to learn from one another. The goal is to win the argument, by hook or crook. All sophistic and other crude tools of argumentation will be deployed to take the day.
At the end of it, no one has improved from their entry state. Everyone tries to defend their cited weaknesses by all sorts of rationalisation and to rhetorically find fault in the other’s case, even where they are not.
It is not surprising that many of our social media arguments tend to degenerate into quarrels and nasty exchanges. Because many of us have neither been taught how to manage criticism nor how to countenance critique, disagreement is often bound to culminate into bad blood. To be critiqued is to be disregarded, unappreciated, or provoked.
This tendency is partly bred at home, with parents that tend to respond to children’s questions by barking at them. This is the child’s first site of learning how to use power and how to respond to criticism.
We then find it in classrooms – where some teachers want to speak with the unquestioned authority of a messiah. To engage them is to disrespect them; sometimes penalised by being failed in exams. Ultimately, from such lessons, everyone that acquires some amount of power wants to subvert critique as much as they can.
It shall be found among managers of organisations, supervisors and political leaders. Sadly, an environment without critique usually results into sheepish conformism that can hardly allow progress in society.
It is by being challenged that ideas and systems are improved. But the modes of challenge must be progressive too; not bashing for sheer satisfaction of the basher; not criticism that is packaged in such a way that its effect can only be to discourage.
These here are just random elements of the art of argumentation, variously taught under Logic and Critical Thinking Skills subjects. Now that most educators and employers are coming to the consensus that one of the best things that school can do for learners is to teach them how to think independently, the urgency of considering to teach Critical Thinking Skills across all disciplines cannot be overemphasised.
It may not be in the interest of a certain section of the political class to produce critical citizens, but, if we care for progress, we must put our selfishness aside.
Without reducing on citizen gullibility in processing the forest of information before them today, without equipping them with skills for constructively handling dissent, we shall continue wasting a lot of time/resources in unproductive arguments/conflicts and other consequences of irrational behaviour.
The author is a teacher of philosophy.