How to Think: Book Review and Reflection

Alan Jacobs

Well, I guess that a book with such a title would strive to be that most-clichéd of written works: one that is “thought-provoking.”

Okay, mission accomplished, Alan Jacobs.  But for me, the book is better described as “introspection-inspiring.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” I read a Wall Street Journal review of it a few weeks ago and was intrigued. The review didn’t lead me to believe that it was a self-help book. Rather, it held out the promise that How to Think would give the reader a measured and sober understanding of the causes and cures for the vast chasm that divides the left and the right in America’s body politic.

You can get a good deal of that understanding from this compact (156 pages) book by Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University. You’ll probably recognize attitudes and tactics from both your side of the political divide and the other side. You might even acknowledge the existence of your side’s version of the “RCO” — the “Repugnant Cultural Other” who inhabits the far shore (but who actually might be your next-door neighbor or long-time friend.)

Corollary to that will likely be a realization that you and those on your side are somebody else’s RCOs. It is, as he puts it, a “profoundly unhealthy situation.” Duh.

So, why is it this way nowadays? And is there anything we, as individuals, can do about it? If not to change the world (we can’t), then at least to chart a course through calmer waters and steer between the Scylla of the alt-left and the Charybdis of the alt-right? That we can do, and this book is a helpful guide.

Groupthink

Early in the book, Jacobs gives the example of people’s attitudes towards “The Puritans.” For the most part, to be called “puritanical” is to be insulted. Puritans are rigid, authoritarian, judgmental—right? Jacobs cites writer Marilynne Robinson, who states that this easy characterization is a “great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without the knowledge or information about the thing being disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. I think Jacobs gets it about something, a phenomenon that’s common in these days of social media, the era of the knee-jerk retweet and the forwarded-without-thinking disparagement.

We all want to belong to a group or a community, and that’s usually a positive thing. No man is an island, and so on. But a problem crops up when the group exists primarily to exclude and denigrate others. Those who belong get their comfort and feelings of safety and power from belonging. But that belonging exacts a price, both from the individual person and from the wider society.

Jacobs mentions the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a card-carrying, insult-hurling member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She goes through a gradual and wrenching transformation when she encounters and is willing to talk to one of those RCOs. In the case of the Westboro crowd, the RCO is a gay guy – and she eventually sees his humanity and leaves the Westboro cocoon and her old comrades-in-arms behind.

This is an unusual example, but it’s proof that the battle lines in today’s culture wars aren’t permanent, that there’s hope. Jodi Picoult tells a story of such a transformation in her novel Small Great Things.  In that fictional account, the convert is a pickup-driving, tobacco-chawing racist who eventually come to see the loving decency and professional competence of a black nurse who has cared for his child. The guy sees the light; his wife remains behind.

Both the real person and the fictional person cited here experienced a loss: of group security, of friends, and of family members. Whether it was truly a net loss, in either case, seems unlikely, because new affiliations await those who are willing to change their minds and evolve.

These experiences also both predict the final words of Jacobs’s book, Item 12 on his “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” He writes, “Be Brave. “

Yes, it does take more than a little courage to be open to the possibility of modifying your views at the risk of distancing yourself from your fellow travelers. Not everybody is up to it. Jacobs says as much near the end of the book:

“You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.”

There are many pithy examples and light-bulb-inducing “Oh, of course” explanations sprinkled throughout the book.  I’d like to cite just a couple that struck me as particularly relevant.

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

It’s not surprising that Jacobs turns to C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works of Christian humanism, for an erudite and prescient look at what’s become of much of our society. Lewis delivered a lecture titled The Inner Ring at King’s College, London, in 1944. I remember reading and re-reading it a few years ago, and I thought it was spot-on even then.

“…you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring… And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems,” Lewis told students more than 70 years ago.

And he continued,

“And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. ..of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In applying the notion of the Inner Ring to present-day social affiliations and communities of interest, Jacobs offers the following observations and advice:

“…once we’re part of an Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post-hoc rationalizations that confirm our identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those Outside…Smart people have a problem, especially (though not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize anything.”

But he does offer some hope to those who try to do better, suggesting,

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup…If you have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.”

And Now for Some of my Most-Admired Friends

As for the “introspection-inspiring” that I mentioned up front, I‘ll give this last example because I can relate entirely to Prof. Jacobs’s feelings.  I, like him, hold rather passionately to a set of beliefs and attitudes. Not all of those who are dear to me and whose friendship I treasure share those beliefs. In fact, we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum on some important cultural and political matters.

Of his friends, Jacobs writes,

“Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christian, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting…Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is the reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.”

Bingo there, Alan. I’m glad you brought that up, and put it as you did. It’s nice to know that someone else feels as I do.

I can think of several people whom I respect and admire greatly, for things like their love for others, their worldly wisdom, and their just plain personal class. I wish I were more like them. But I know I’ll not be voting like them either, or trying to bring them around to my points of view. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with one of them about our many years of friendship. She remarked that it was good that we never tried to make it as a couple because we’d probably have ended up trying to kill each other.

Anyway, I liked this book. And perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I also like to think that I’m the type of person for whom the book will work. If you do decide to read it, please let me know if you think the same way.

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