The Death of Thoughtfulness?

A Minnesota colleague whose insights I respect, has an academic blog. Recently, he shared a post in which he summarized an aspect of contemporary life that keeps many of us up at night; he titled it “The Death of Thoughtfulness.”

As we watch an increasingly bizarre Presidential campaign–dominated on the Right by authoritarian know-nothings to whom the term “thoughtful” would never be applied and on the Left by voters impatient with complexity —his essay seems especially pertinent.

The post was lengthy, and I encourage readers to click through, but these paragraphs seemed to me to capture the essence of his—and my—concern:

The world is not black and white but it  is lived in shades of gray.  Solutions to America’s or world problems are not as simple as just send in the marines, cut taxes, or carpet bomb.  There are no silver bullets to fix the economy, bring about world peace, or eliminate poverty.  We live in a complex world with complex problems and understanding both and possible solutions require thoughtfulness about recognizing the limits of any one idea or policy proposal.

Yet simple-minded dogmatism is what sells.  Recently I attended a conference  of student college journals.  One of the speakers was a representative from a major media news service.  When one of the students asked how they could get more media attention for their journal the response from the news service was simple: Take a point of view and press it no matter what, even if extreme.  The advice was that to be successful you had to have a simple, clear perspective and argue it to the extreme.  It was not about being thoughtful or making clear careful distinctions–just take a position and advocate it, facts be damned.

The question we face—and by “we” I mean the whole world, including but not limited to the United States—is whether polities dominated by people demanding bumper-sticker solutions to complex and often highly technical problems can recapture what my colleague calls “thoughtfulness” and I would label intellectual humility.

When a United States Senator brandishes a snowball and claims it refutes climate change, when a candidate for the highest office in the land blithely promises to “carpet bomb” nations with which we are adverse, when outrage and pompous machismo are said to be signs of strength while considered, rational approaches to policy are sneeringly dismissed as evidence of weakness….we’re in trouble.

Big trouble.


  1. A good friend, and not surprisingly the most thoughtful man I know, often pulls me back from one of my too often shoot from the hip responses with a softly spoken, ” But what about _____?” I try to keep that phrase in mind when I mull over problems, mine and the world’s, and most often find that I revise my first ideas and come up with a better solution. Not surprisingly, my friend is the most successful person I know.

  2. Is this the problem, or are we just infected by a scourge of reactionary scam artists who realized it was easier and more profitable to rile up the dumb people than to achieve consensus among the thoughtful ones? The great-great-grandchildren of the fools who bought into secession are the fools buying into the GOP con. I am not less thoughtful. My children are not less thoughtful. But this is a period of excitement among dunces.

  3. Theresa beat me to the punch. We must first focus on our own “thoughtfulness” which simply means to look at the whole picture, consider alternate possibilities before making our decision and taking action…on anything. Jumping to conclusions describes the basis of the voter support for that entire group of presidential nominee wannabees.

    I watched and listened to friends and people on Facebook, the Internet and this blog who reached the conclusion to no longer support President Obama because he didn’t meet all of THEIR expectations and requirements. Simple thoughtfulness and close attention would have shown them reasons – whether they agreed or not. Those who have stated “If Hillary is nominated I will not vote.” or “If Bernie is nominated I will not vote.”; are cutting off their nose to spite their face and we will all pay for their selfish lack of “thoughtfulness” and could get stuck with Trump…or Cruz…in the White House on January 20, 2017.

    “Thoughtfulness” means to THINK before you act…or speak…or vote. The generation we watch taking action in this state today and regarding the presidential election is many of the “me/instant gratification” generation. raised primarily by those of us on or nearing Social Security and Medicare age. I don’t remember the one or two commenters who stated that our generation “is dying out” but they need to think again. Most of us are thinking and struggling to save ourselves and their generation…and the generations to follow, by correcting our mistakes and trying to prevent them from making the same mistakes today.

  4. The world used to be simple but our relentless curiosity kept us adapting what the universe offered to our pleasure and pretty quickly there were more human’s than resources here – the stuff that dystopian novels forever have been built on.

    So, one possible outcome clearly is dystopian.

    Can we use the same brains that got us here to achieve a less traumatic outcome?

    Good question. We’re smart enough to get here, but are we smart enough to back away from the brink of the cliff?

    “Thoughtfulness” seems to me a polite way to wonder about that. It sort of portrays the problem as a choice that we can each individually make to use our cognition over our culture to make more reality based choices.

    The real world though seems to me more billions of people each with a mix of free will and culture with a dash of real knowledge thrown in. That makes it seem less an individual choice and more a collective choice. What worldview will predominate?

    “We are met on a great battlefield of that war.”

    2016 in the US will be regarded by history as a milestone in the collective choice between dystopia and continued progress as was 2008.

    Will we continue to pursue the notion that reality is what we say it is or will we continue to adapt our civilization to what reality is.

    Two sides, two outcomes, two futures.

    Which corner of the caucus will you go to?

  5. Bravo Jo Ann!

    I spent a number of years bargaining labor agreements for a UAW local vs Gm. Often my biggest problem wasn’t management, but fellow bargainers locked onto poorly conceived ideas that in the end would have backfired on them. In similar fashion I was often faced with management who had taken a quick look at a policy from Detroit and rushed to implement it without considering how it would impact the plant they were responsible to oversee. In the end I was a successful bargainer–not because I was a genius–but because I was unafraid to force others to think and re-think their positions, and while I was often considered by one “side” or the other to be a difficult person to deal with, our local/plant/product was the most efficient, safest, most profitable and had the highest quality in our segment. This success was not due to any special abilities on my part, but it was, at least in part, due to my insistence that we consider how current problems might effect future plans. All this took place more than 20 years ago. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be today.

  6. The embarrassing low-information, bumper-sticker people compose the exact groups that both political parties routinely depend upon for winning a national election.

  7. Today’s blog is like so many others by Sheila: she’s pointing at a problem that many of her participants/readers have experienced. We are not averse to thoughtful consideration of a problem, even complex solutions. The problem I see is that there are many, many more staring at their flat-screens who willingly believe what they are told by whatever source they choose to watch. It also seems to me that the media continues to court them through the programming, the commercial messages and the content of the broadcasts. There is a lot of inertia to overcome. I find it hard to imagine that most voters are well-informed, including me, and that they most even care about the outcome of our rigged elections for more than a week or two after the polls are closed. I have to think we’re near the edge.

  8. Here’s something to think about. Is the US today less “thoughtfull” or simply more propagandized. I’d pick the latter as a result of more pervasive media and more capable brand marketing AKA brain washing.

    Just like was predicted in “1984”.

  9. I think the article was right on point. There are no simple answers and often there is more than one right answer; compromise is the key that will unlock the block. It is not in the air now but I am confident it will come; it has before.

  10. “This weekend, I brought home Jane Mayer’s new book, ‘Dark History: The Hidden History of Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.’ Mayer is The New Yorker staff writer whose reporting can leave a reader breathless.

    The calm, patiently-paced ‘voice’ in every one of her books demands that attention must be paid. I had not even opened ‘Dark Money,’ however, when an email popped up from an old friend — a long-time public servant and experienced cultural and arts administrator who had beat me to the punch.” – Bill Moyers

    Read on:

    This book has been touted by many “thoughtfull” people as an impeccably researched compellingly written revelation of how one oligarchy team has used their almost unlimited resources to bring about an intellectual coup d’etat of the democracy that clearly is the final hurdle between them and wealthiest in the world

    I have always poo-pooed the notion of conspiracies as I don’t think humans are typically smart enough to pull them off but a single team with unlimited resources and an unquenchable thirst for power is eminently possible IMO.

    I need to read the book but the fact that it was written by an esteemed journalist and judged important by others with high credibility certainly makes it seem compelling.

  11. Campaign training schools teach candidates to condense complex proposals into sound bites because that’s what the media want and will air. Unfortunately newspapers often resort to sound bites too even though they have more space than TV has air time. Reporters who don’t get to the core of an issue are not serving the public interest or their own profession. Fewer and fewer folks read newspapers because there’s not much there. I still go to the newspaper to get more details on a TV story, but sadly, news print also fails to offer in-depth thoughtfulness about a story or issue.

  12. I agree, Sheila. Had a conversation after bridge yesterday with some friends. One is a die-hard Republican. I suspect because she has always been. She DETESTS Obama. I didn’t push her on that because I value her. Another one is a pragmatic Republican. The third is a relative newcomer, but a woman who’s worked outside the home for most of her adult life. I told them I keep asking “But what about the children?” When people complain about others “on the dole,” are we to let their children starve? We need a jobs program in this country to put people back to work. We need to tax more those individuals and corporations who have sent the jobs overseas. We must recognize that some/most of these jobs will never come back. Factory automation will continue to decrease the need for human workers. We must increase the minimum wage; low income individuals spend any extra money they get. Wealthy individuals don’t. Raising the minimum wage would “goose” the economy. Bottom line for me is that I don’t want any child to be without healthcare, shelter, food, education, clean water, clear air, a sustainable environments, etc…….now….what can WE do as responsible, thoughtful adults to move us in that direction?

  13. Pete a couple of responses to you. Concerning 1984, I read an interesting column that said Orwell got it wrong. There would not be a TV in every home that actually watched you (maybe it really does) but something far more clever. A TV and other electronics that we actually want to watch and not try to avoid.

    Billionaire Greed and Control – I heard an interesting hypothesis recently on the radio. I am sure you are familiar with the term hoarder and maybe seen TV shows about them. We tend to think of hoarders as people with some mental dysfunction that compels them collect objects to the point it rules their lives. This person said that the same dysfunction possess the Billionaires they can never have enough, even if it means others may suffer for their greed. I think of the Walton Family here or the Kochs.

    For most of history the Legend of Robin Hood, he is considered a hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John are the villains. I suppose we will know the Plutocrats and Oligarchs have won, when Robin Hood is portrayed as the villain.

  14. NancyG, in all honesty, I’m fairly convinced that I’d enjoy your company; however, your casual mention of a conversation with friends following a bridge game places you in a category of women whose lives might revolve around card games at the club.

  15. The trouble with “principled stand” in politics is it is just a short step to absolutism – itself a small distance from authoritarianism in a place that most often demands compromise.

  16. My experience in life has taught me that thoughtfulness solves the problems that thoughtlessness creates!…ijs

  17. Louie, thanks for the thoughts. I probably ought to re-read “1984”, it’s been years.

    One hazy memory is that Orwell portrayed a villainous government mind controlling its constituency. Evil.

    I think that what we’re facing today is much more subtle and ultimately more sinister because there is no villian. It’s a dysfunctional culture. It’s what entertains us.

    So we all live our normal every day lives making livings and families and the little screens connect and entertain us and the livings of many people are in producing the media content. We accept advertising and news as though they are an inherent part of life. They get very little thought.

    It’s become apparent though that they change us. The both inform and misinform us and they create emotion as part of their function.

    People accept that the fear and anger come from the content both real and imagined when really the emotions come from trying to get ratings. Emotions attract attention. That’s why we go to the movies but there we know the story is fiction.

    So we are manipulated and manipulative and we assign reality easily to anything so presented.

    So our world is a homogeneous mixture of truth, exaggeration, myth, lies, shoddy thinking, brilliant insight and partial truths and we are increasingly gullible, unable to distinguish truth from fiction.

    We are immersed in non-critical non-thinking.

    Progress must be based on reality. Our ability to realize reality has been compromised.

  18. Effective “thoughtfulness” must begin with respect and concern for others and an acute awareness of one’s own fallibility.

  19. Sheila, thank you for introducing another interesting blog to follow. I listened to Cruz as he touched all the right points in his Iowa win speech last night; student loan debt was a point that caught my ear, but I can’t believe a word that he says, and the thought of his becoming president is stomach turning.

    Not only can a candidate give the easy answers we want to hear but he can then turn around and do whatever his financial backers or his personal (non thoughtful) ideology lead him to do.

  20. “Take a point of view and press it no matter what, even if extreme. The advice was that to be successful you had to have a simple, clear perspective and argue it to the extreme. It was not about being thoughtful or making clear careful distinctions–just take a position and advocate it, facts be damned.”

    I wonder what the above comment looks like written out in German since Josef Goebbels, who practiced this to a very fine edge, likely said the same things 84 years ago. One doesn’t necessarily need to be a clone of George Santayana (Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás) in order to see that history does repeat itself but “George” himself would perhaps find it to be particularly shocking and tragic that it is happening here, in this country. Even worse is that so many of us fail to grasp the devious and destructive game that is being played out on all of us as we watch in disgust as our political system is being reduced to rubbish akin to bad game show status right before our eyes. These people, just like good old Josef, probably sleep well every night and can look in themselves in their mirrors and smile heartedly back at themselves with glee. Mission accomplished! No thoughts of thoughtfulness is their minds, none at all.

    God help us – please!!!

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