Monday, April 4, 2016

21st Century Literacy - Dialectical Thinking

Intro: How Dialectical Thinking Can Save the Universe!

Have you ever wondered how Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith might have turned out had Obi-Wan and Anakin really put effort into thinking dialectically? Watch the video below... and then read on for more!

A Bit About Me

Me with my beautiful wife, we have been married for about 3 years!

I believe that if individuals and organizations put concerted effort into thinking dialectically, minds would be expanded, wars would be avoided, and society overall would progress at a much faster rate!

Now, before we dive into the nitty-gritty, I would like to relate why the concept of dialectical thinking is personally relevant to me. As a Mormon, Feminist, and Psychologist-in-training, I tend to get into a lot of involved discussions on a wide variety of hot topics. This happened just the other day, in a scenario that might sound extremely familiar to you!

  1. I post something on [insert social media platform here].
  2. Others comment, some with agitated contradictory remarks.
  3. I try to explain where I am coming from, since it seems they aren't getting that.
  4. The whole thing spins out of control and morphs into a crazy argument that I have no interest in but is incredibly hard to end, and now everybody's day is worse, friendships are strained, and nobody has learned anything.

I am no saint here, and I have probably spent the first 90% of my life more like the aggressive commentator than the (hopefully) thoughtful original poster! But whomever the perpetrator is, it's unfortunate just how often we see this kind of unpleasant dialogue break out isn't it? Often at least one, if not all people involved, could be compared to a sailor, clinging to the last remnants of their sinking ship, seemingly only interested only in proving themselves correct.

Image from here.

Learning Does Not Equal Losing!

In a TED talk by Daniel Cohen (2013, Colby College), he talks about how we often percieve argument in a very warlike, adversarial framing. Imagine for a moment that two individuals have a discussion where Person A has an idea/concept, and Person B brings up a multitude of objections/questions to challenge that concept; Person A explains them all with a degree of competence, and thus Person B walks away with a deeper respect for - or maybe even, gasp! believing in - Person A's idea. Most, if asked to judge this interaction, would say that Person A "won" this argument. This mindset betrays the underlying concept that to learn is to lose. Furthermore, in a TED talk by Jesse Richardson (2014, Brisbane) he states that humans have a tendency to feel like it's very bad to be wrong. He opines that it would be good for us to learn that the ideas we hold are not us, and that we shouldn't feel the need to defend them to the death; rather, it is liberating and will fundamentally change our approach to the world if we allow ourselves to change our ideas.

Image from here.

Now, having said this, I don't want you to think that I am saying you have to be open to changing your ideas in order to be thinking dialectically. In order to explain why that is, let's define the terminology being used here!

And "Dialectical" Means...?

"Dialectical thinking" is a skill that means to be capable and willing to understand and recognize the truth behind opposing viewpoints. Thinking dialectically means that you are willing to give credence to alternative viewpoints, even if you don't agree with them. Not only that, but it means that you are willing to find a solution that meets the needs of opposing views.
Image from here.

Respecting that someone thinks a certain way and valuing their viewpoint does not mean that you will always, or even usually, adopt their ideas as your own! However, when people think dialectically, a healthy dialogue is able to occur where each side is examined and understood objectively, and it leads to consistentfunctional, and widely beneficial results.

Dialectical Thinking And Government

What might the world be like if everyone decided to believe a certain ideology, and then were never open to alternative viewpoints (i.e. failed epicly at dialectical thinking)? Probably much like what the US Congress looks like these days! Almost 90% of Americans agree that the senate does not function as it should. On November 17th 2015, James Matheson (the only Democratic legislative representative from Utah of his time, and co-chair of the Blue Dog coalition) stated his belief that this gridlock is because the Constitution was designed to facilitate compromise between various ideas and groups, so when our legislators are extremely polarized (therefore unwilling to think & act dialectically), the resulting lack of compromise and cooperation across the "aisle" means that nothing gets accomplished.

Image from here.

The consequences of not thinking dialectically are worse than simply not accomplishing things, however...

Why It Matters

The psychological term for the way someone processes information when they are not able or willing to think dialectically is confirmation bias. My peer, Eli Hainsworth, wrote an excellent post detailing the dangers of this psychological proclivity, but I will sum it up here shortly: this term refers to mankind's strong natural tendency to filter info they encounter by ignoring facts, evidence and ideas that may be at odds with their own schemas, and conversely to over-emphasize info that appears to support their own viewpoints. If we are unaware of this tendency and do little to counteract it, we are not capable of seeing the objective world around us, instead inhabiting a self-supportive fantasy world where everything works the way we want it to work. When confirmation bias rules our perception, instead of arguing opposing views in order to reach a workable well-rounded compromise, arguing opposing views becomes an exercise in futility and an act of aggression.

Image from here.

This will in turn push people apart and create a feeling of otherness, lending towards dehumanizing the "others," and as any student of history may tell you, these are the first steps which have been taken towards any meaningless conflict in history!

Explosion of Communication

We are living in an age of unparalleled facilitation of communication. With the click of a mouse, or tap on the phone, I can be exposed to an astoundingly wide variety of ideas. Like any technological revolution, this one brings with it greater opportunity for amazing advances, as well as more painful consequences for failure.

Image from here.

When I am exposed to foreign ideas, I can either synthesize these ideas with my own so that my life can be improved from the good in them, or (much more easily) I can learn about these other ways of thinking just enough to decide that I disagree with them and strengthen my own convictions that my worldview is absolutely right, and maybe even that I should do whatever is in my power to get others to conform to it.

Speaking of the responsibility we have to take advantage of opportunities to learn from various sources of insight, Joseph Smith Jr. (first President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) taught that "One of the grand fundamental principles... is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may," and that "We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up." (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1949).

Modern Education

Image from here.
I mentioned earlier that dialectical thinking is a skill - more specifically, it is a subset of critical thinking. Other subsets of critical thinking are analysis and evaluation - examples may be being media literate, or being able to recognize logical fallacies. With how rapidly communication is changing, and how change is being more facilitated by the day, are we even learning these 21st Century Literacy skills from anywhere? For more on this topic, see my peer Sarah Evans' post here!

Importance Of Literacy

Image from here.

If we are not capable of interpreting information and understanding ideas objectively, then we will feel constantly threatened by alternative ideas. Instead of advancing and progressing, we will remain stuck or even regress. Instead, let's emulate the examples of our founding fathers; when they worked on the Constitution together they debated passionately on topics which they held of the utmost importance such as federalism, limits of government, and the design of checks & balances (for more on that, you can start this CrashCourse History installment here!). Yet in the end, even though many of their opinions were directly in opposition, they were willing to give value and credence enough to their peer's concerns to recognize that they were valid, and thus they penned one document which was adequate enough at compromising between all parties that it was signed into law and has served as the backbone of this country ever since.

Image from here.

Critical thinking is difficult! It takes a lot of attention, effort, and (especially in the case of dialectical thinking) humility. Nevertheless, I believe that like all good things, the progress we are capable of making both as individuals and as a society at large is well worth the sacrifice! So share your thoughts on this concept with your friends, and I guarantee you'll get your first opportunity to practice dialectical thinking today!

P.S. If this slice of 21st Century Literacy interested you, I encourage you to look at this topic's parent blogpost which I created with a group of peers right here! It includes a short, entertaining and informational video, as well as a Prezi with our research in it so you can guide yourself through exploring the topic as you wish.


  1. Funny video and excellent article!

  2. Ah, Jason... a chip off the old block... Glad I rubbed off on you. Well done.