Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | January 29, 2003

Contempt and critical thinking

“A common problem that some opinion writers have is the contemptible attitude that is used when responding to writings of others. There is a direct link between the contempt and the lack of critical reading comprehension, the ability of a reader to enter into a point of view not their own.” ~ Harold Williams

I’ve always been a news junkie and enjoy debating issues and current events with family and friends. When I began working for the Morgan Hill Times, and later The Dispatch, I saw first-hand the important role the opinion page plays, especially for community newspapers. A city councilman once told me his habit was to scan the front page and then turn immediately to the opinion page.

So, when I began writing this weekly column about a year ago, I was pleased when my essays occasionally provoked responses from readers and other columnists. Writers always want their work to be read, and it’s foolish – and boring – to expect everyone to agree with you.

I was also not surprised, but not pleased, when those responses sometimes misquoted me or seemed to deliberately miss the point I worked so hard to make. Although I’ve intentionally remained uninvolved in the “he said, she said” battles that periodically erupt on the opinion page, I’ll admit I was happy to see Harold Williams’ recent defense of my Harry Potter column. Thank you, Mr. Williams, first for reading my column, and second, for noting the differences between what others said I wrote and the words I actually penned, or more accurately, typed.

But the most important point of Mr. Williams’ letter was made in its opening paragraph, which I quoted at the top of this column. It perfectly describes a problem that Bill Maher (host of the now-cancelled TV show Politically Incorrect) refers to as the inability of most people to hold two opposing thoughts in their head at the same time.

Critical thinking requires the ability to consider ideas rationally and non-judgmentally before reaching a conclusion. Unfortunately, too many people seem to turn off their brains as soon as they think they have you pigeonholed, probably because it’s a lot less work than actually thinking. It’s much easier to put someone in a box labeled pro-choice or pro-life, hawk or dove, tree-hugger or big business, than to dispassionately evaluate their ideas.

Several months ago, I wrote a column criticizing Bill O’Reilly for blurring the line between journalist and commentator. The next week I wrote a column complimenting Bill Maher – who never pretends to be unbiased – for having strong opinions and backing them up. The columns critiqued the two Bills’ styles, not the content of their opinions.

Nevertheless, I received unpleasant e-mails about my “liberal bias.” I recall that the Bill O’Reilly column prompted a letter to the editor from someone promising to never read The Dispatch on Wednesdays again – because my column and the opinions of that unabashed liberal, Dennis Taylor, are published mid-week.

Brains that are slammed shut, locked down and hermetically sealed frighten and sadden me. I’ve concluded it’s unfair to try to do battle with people who lack the ability or will to consider someone else’s point of view; it’s like entering a battle of wits with an unarmed man.

And except for Bill O’Reilly – who I believe tries to unfairly wear unbiased journalist and opinionated commentator hats at the same time – I’ll continue to read and listen to the opinions of a variety of folks from homeschooling former engineers to award-winning journalists/Sierra Club members and beyond. It’s good for the ol’ noodle to consider to others’ points of view, even if I don’t always end up sharing them.

Which reminds me, it’s nearly time to add HBO to our DirecTV subscription. A new show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” which promises lots of debate about current events, debuts Feb. 21. It might be bad for my wallet, but should be good for my brain.

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