CRITICAL DIALOGUE: THE LEARNING CONVERSATION AND LEARNING TO SUSPEND JUDGMENT

 

I have written more than one million words on the internet for Dailycensored and other sites.  The lack of critical thinking never ceases to amaze me as I read comments by shills, trolls and other provocateurs.  Not only do many people not have the ability to think critically, they cannot even dialogue effectively.

One reason is the inability to understand the use of language.  Many people believe that when they use words, everyone has the same definition they do or worse, that they can look up a word in the dictionary and thus have a definition that applies to all situations and all people all the time.  We use language believing that everyone has the same definition of terms that we do, or that a dictionary does.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As reasoning dies within the body of a culture that is dying in America, so too dies the reasoning mind and this is why so much vitriol, hate, fallacies and irrationality abounds.

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The internet is not a tool for dialogue.  It is rather a tool for monologue with the belief that ‘posting’ is dialogue.  Now, with the Massive Open Online Classes that promote irrationality and murders reasoning, it is hard to see how the art of critical thinking will survive — at least in North America.  School is no longer a home for the mind, it is the house of ‘capital’ and obedience training.

We use the word ‘dialogue’ often in conversation. But just what does the term mean? The term dialogue is an old term that has its meaning within Greek origin. ‘Dia’ means “through or with each other” while ‘logos’ meaning “the word”. The purpose of a critical dialogue, or what has been referred to elsewhere as a ‘learning conversation’, is to advocate critical inquiry into our everyday experience and what we take for granted, or assume, in our thinking. Thus, a critical dialogue is both one of advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy lets us put forth our ideas and reasoning so that we might convince others of the truth and veracity of our position on issues. Inquiry is both an internal and external process that helps us see the ideas of others by drawing out their reasoning through questioning as well as developing an insight into our own thinking through critical dialogical reflection. Dialogue helps build shared understanding, shared vision and aspirations, as well as setting forth the principle differences or contradictions between multiple lines reasoning.
To dialogue ‘critically’ and effectively it is essential that we develop a repertoire of tools that allow us to compassionately inquire and advocate within the context of collaboration and critical reflection. These skills, or techniques, allow for skillful Socratic discussion that seeks to elicit reasoning as it may apply to problem solving or decision-making within specific contexts. One of the most important skills in developing effective and critical dialogue opportunities is to appreciate the necessity to suspend judgment when reasoning within different points of view. The ability to suspend judgment allows for critical listening and empathic understanding – and critical listening is the key to critical dialogue.


LEARNING TO SUSPEND JUDGMENT

Although we would like to think we should be non-judgmental, the fact is that there rarely is a moment when we are not engaged in some type of ‘sort and judge’ process; after all, isn’t that what makes us human? Think about it: You take an idea or ideas, talk to people about them, gather data and facts about them, sort, classify and evaluate the data and facts, make decisions and solve problems, right? Throughout your development as a person the process accelerates and you come to learn to make more effective judgments. Or do you? All judgments are the product of a mental process you are engaged in and how well you understand your mental processes and the manner in which you reason your way towards judgments within specific contexts will allow you to become a better decision-maker and problem solver, i.e. a better critical thinker. After all, good decisions and well-crafted solutions to problems require that we form critical judgments, not uncritical judgments. But what’s the difference?
Judgment differs from opinion in one very important way: Judgments require that we consider different points of view, evaluate reasons and evidence that may not agree with us, and learn the process of reasoning so we can look at our thinking and develop more sound and cogent judgments. Opinions, on the other hand, can be accomplished without considering different points of view and multiple perspectives; opinions require a different reasoning process than judgment making – opinions are fine and judgments certainly are not bad: you couldn’t live your life without making either of them. However, judgments and opinions are very different and the processes we use to make them are equally as disparate.
Suspension of judgment is all about developing the ability to develop critical judgment — to learn to visualize our judgments and the processes we use to attain them while we consider fairly the points of view and perspectives of others. It requires not that we give up cherished opinions or thoughts on matters we feel are important, but that we try to maintain a critically reflective position when considering multiple perspectives. Suspension of judgment asks that we recognize the importance of listening critically to others not in the interest of defeating their ideas, but to truly understand how they might come to arrive at judgments that may be different than ours. In order to develop learning conversations that allow for creative thinking, suspension of judgment and the development of critical judgment is crucial, for uncritical judgmental thinking can serve to shut down listening, hijack conversations and therefore suffocate the consideration of other points of view.

 

Learning to suspend judgment is based not on simply courtesy and benign respect for another’s points of view, although it is that; it is also grounded on the need for all of us to hear and see how others arrive at different judgments than we might arrive at so that we can fine-tune our own thinking and oxygenate our own thought-manufacturing process. Learning to listen to others and learning effectively dialogue and develop learning conversations enriches personal effectiveness and the development of critical judgment processes that are aware of the practice of reasoning.
The automatic paths that our judgments often lead us down can be both functional and dysfunctional. Take the following example: If I am driving a car or performing some other fairly complex process, I want to be able to do all of this without the need for too much conscious effort. Therefore, I will automatically collect information and make choices and drive along without much endeavor at all. On the other hand, if I am trying to critically think and find some creative solution to a problem at work or in personal life, judgment manufacturing, or the habitual uncritical judgment process, can limit my ability to move in new directions or discover new and creative alternatives to problems because I will suffer from complacency in my thinking and thus may not entertain or generate alternative creative solutions to social and personal problems.
The automatic judgments we make can certainly help us by reducing the mental labor we must engage and put into service. This whole process of observing, interpreting and then making judgments can happen so rapidly that we are usually not aware of it; becoming aware of the process we use to arrive at our judgments, learning to slow down our thinking, can make the thinking process more responsible, mindful and effectual. However, the downside of judgment manufacturing is that we can pigeonhole ourselves with old thoughts and thereby limit our ability to understand other people and grow as human beings precisely because we become prisoners of our perceptions.

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Judgments help us develop unconscious filters that we use to interpret the world and decide what information, what assumptions and perspectives, what evidence we wish to consider, collect and utilize to live our lives. At some time we have all become aware that our judgments might have been limiting our ability to expand into new directions, find more satisfying learning conversations, and encourage a new-borne sense of wonderment about the world. When this happens we either shut down or we are forced to make conscious our judgment manufacturing process and examine the assumptions that have led us to the judgments we have made. At this point, we begin to notice and consider new data, look for diverse perspectives on issues, develop an appreciation for evidence, explore un-chartered possibilities we might never have considered before, enhance our listening and dialogue, learn to examine our own assumptions and the reasons and origins for them, and develop new, refreshing relationships with people and the world — in short, we develop critical judgment.
UNCRITICAL JUDGEMENT IS AN ECHO CHAMBER FOR ITSELF

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The inability to suspend judgment limits our ability to listen and as a result reduces our emotional intelligence by affecting our ability to empathize as well as depriving us of opportunities to learn and grow through and with others. Limiting listening opportunities means that people are not able to develop a critical understanding of information within their environment because judgment will often operate to fail to see that which disagrees with it; this is the notion of the halo affect. What happens is that when the mind has formed an uncritical judgment that will often listen only to what reinforces its own judgment, what we call a confirmation bias in logic, the inability to critically reflect and examine assumptions one has through the assumptions of others becomes compromised. This limits the ability of the mind to give other points of view a fair hearing in decision-making and problem solving processes and can assure that ‘impulsivity in thinking’ or ‘group think’ can become an unfortunate yet dominant mode of mental activity. In fact, the inability to suspend judgment until all views are fair-mindedly expressed can lead to what is referred to as a process of ‘confirmation bias’ whereby judgment seeks only to consider evidence that confirms itself: it listens to corroborate its world view, it collects and selects only the information that substantiates its world view, and it will bend evidence to fit within its world view and as a result, it reduces other points of view and information and data about the world to pre-ordained judgments that have often not been subjected to rigorous critical thinking.

 

Creating collaborative partnerships at work and in neighborhoods and in families signifies that critical thinking must be utilized to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting to avoid the pitfalls associated with the psychological barriers to thinking critically. This requires that the human mind value and encourage diversity of thinking and engagement with multiple perspectives – that the mind understand the need for and the processes necessary for suspending judgment in the interest of creating critical judgment.
In order to be able to suspend judgment when necessary, critical thinking asks that we do a number of things. One, control our impulsivity in thinking. The mind wants to take shortcuts, jump from what it thinks is the problem to the solution, move fast and quickly and as a result, we often shoot from the hip making rapid-fire judgments that do not allow us to consider all sides of an issue. This cans lead to our inability to listen to others, personally profit from multiple perspectives, misinterpret data and facts, and fail to take charge of our thinking. This is the essence of un-critical judgment; the propensity to act, then think and then act again as opposed to think, then act and then rethink.
Suspension of judgment asks that we give a fair hearing to ideas when we are engaged in the process of forming reasoned judgment; it asks that we see the whole picture when we are problem solving and engaged in decision-making; it asks us to look at how the parts relate to the whole and vice versa. Arriving at what can be called critical judgment is a process that requires not only the ability to suspend judgment but also a conception of what we do when we think and what others do; it asks us to consider that we might not have the best idea, the best way of proceeding, or that perhaps we might have overlooked something in our reasoning process. It calls upon us to embrace constructive doubt, for it is only through constructive doubt and critique that we are able and willing to look at other points of view regarding personal and social life.
We all can learn the art of suspension of judgment and thereby increase our ability to listen and dialogue with other people who hold a diverse collection of points of view. To do this, it is not necessary to stop our judgments but to learn the process of forming critical judgment — to be aware of the origins of our judgments and how we have derived them, to become sensitive to the reasons and evidence we use or do not use to support our positions, to be sensitive to the fact that our judgments might not be the judgments others have and thus learn to reason within the points of view of others, and that we become aware of our process for thinking about how we have been manufacturing the judgments we have made and will continue to make all of our lives. It requires that we be willing to release, at least for some period of time, our time-held certainties, the arrogance that often accompanies these certainties, our ego-centric attachments to our assumptions and our world view, and to become aware of how our feelings arise and their origin – especially when engaged in dialogue or listening. Being detached from our judgments does not imply that we have to abandon what we feel is right or in our best interests; on the contrary, it is about creating critical opportunities to become more aware of our thinking, to become aware of the reasons others may give for their conclusions and the assumptions they might make regarding issues of complexity and controversy.

 

We all have the ability to learn to suspend judgment in the interest of entering into more caring relationships and in the interest of advancing our abilities to dialogue and listen to others so we might form processes for maturing our critical judgment. For critical thinking advocates, we must take the time to copiously examine our thinking through internal and external questioning opportunities.  In this way, we may find that narrow-mindedness and limited growth are replaced with empathy and unlimited potential.  However in a socio-centric society like the US, uncritical judgment wins.  And with this ‘win’, we all lose.
Suggested Readings:

Brookfield, Steven (1987). Developing Critical Thinkers: Challenging Adults to Explore Alternative Ways of Thinking and Acting. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.

Phillips, Christopher (2001) Socrates Café. Norton Publishers. NY, New York.

Freire, Paulo (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum. NY, New York.

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