Mike Kueber's Blog

January 12, 2014

Sunday Book Review #120 – Arguing for our Lives by Robert Jensen

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 5:07 am
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Jensen’s book, which is subtitled “A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog,” is not a primer on rhetoric or argumentation.  Although Jensen suggests that his book is about the development of critical-thinking skills, that is mere window-dressing.  What this book ultimately is is a manifesto in opposition to America and what it stands for.  Jensen hates American exceptionalism and capitalism, and he pines for a world that regresses to more primitive times.  His mantra is ecology, not technology.  But he also recognizes that society will not go backwards, and to accommodate this recognition, he has used his critical-thinking skills to shift from prior overpowering feelings of anxiety to current more calming feelings of anguish.  I’m glad his soul has found peace.

Although I disagree whole-heartedly with Jensen’s manifesto, I did find his window-dressing on critical thinking to be immensely interesting.  Jensen begins with the basis for his prior feelings of anxiety – i.e., fundamentally, he feels strongly that humans know so little that they should be more cautious before arrogantly charging into the future with nuclear energy, etc.  To the contrary, the people with a dangerously wrong mindset believe that more technology will always be able to resolve the problems created by the earlier technology.  Jensen fails to convince me that his mindset (he calls it an “ignorance-based worldview”) is better than the technologist worldview, which is where I am.

Jensen’s jumping-off point in explaining critical-thinking is to defend the intellectual life, which he describes as a systematic effort to collect information, analyze that info, and finally to apply that analysis to real-life issues.  Jensen defends the intellectual life by debunking a couple of anti-intellectual clichés – (a) you think too much and (b) don’t attempt to discuss politics and religion.  Jensen says, “If we don’t talk about politics or religion, what else is there of interest to discuss?” Of course, Jensen has broad definitions of these terms, with religion meaning, “What does it mean to be a human being?” and politics meaning, “How should power and resources be distributed?”

Definitions are important to Jensen’s form of critical thinking.  Indeed, the most important formulation in the book provides four questions that a critical thinker must ask:

  1. What are the unstated assumptions behind a claim, and how do those assumptions affect our understanding?
  2. How are the terms being defined, and might those definitions favor one position over another?
  3. What is the quality of evidence being offered, and is the full range of evidence being acknowledged?
  4. Does the evidence lead in logical fashion to the claim being made?

But critical thinking is not an abstract, academic subject for Jensen.  Instead he directs it toward our most vexing questions.  The middle three chapters focus on three practical subjects of critical thinking – politics, religion, and media.  The chapter on politics has Jensen suggesting, among other things, that capitalism and democracy are fundamentally inconsistent.  Regarding religion, Jensen argues that fundamentalism and critical thinking are inherently inconsistent.  And regarding the media, he minimizes the importance of objectivity (or fairness) while struggling to distinguish between democratic persuasion and undemocratic propaganda.

In the penultimate chapter, Jensen encourages the reader to “think courageously and reframe ourselves and our world.”  But his concluding chapter concludes that our world will not avoid an ecological Armageddon without radical changes to our social, economic, and political systems.  Because he is not a technologist like me, he believes the aphorism “necessity is the mother of invention” is actually a platitude.

Let’s hope he is wrong.

Incidentally, Jensen is a journalism professor at my alma mater, the University of Texas, and he grew up in my home state of North Dakota.  He’s a few years younger than me, and I’ve always said that if I had been born a few years later, I would have gone into journalism instead of law.  Jensen is married to Eliza Gilkyson, a folk singer.  I love folk singing and found a link of her singing on NPR.  She’s just my type.

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