Monday, August 17, 2020

Recognize and evaluate assumptions

 How do I recognize and evaluate my own assumptions?

This is a question which I believe has always been important but is becoming important in a new way now. Having worked in education now for so many years, the importance of critical thinking has continued to receive more attention. However, critical thinking in public conversation seems to be highjacked by a tendency to ignore our own assumptions and to devalue the thinking of others. This is sadly not accomplished by reasoned arguments but by emotional reactions and even attacks on the other's person or character. Unfortunately, this may be partly due to the social media phenomenon which moves us away from personal relationships and accountability where people would value the relationship as much as the content of the conversation.

Now, in order to evaluate my assumptions and the assumptions of others, we must learn to ask good questions. Here is one to begin with. Is critical thinking important? And, if true, is a growing ability to think critically necessary for everyone in a society? I don't want to make this assumption without a way to back it up, but I have found no valid rational for answering these in the negative. Certainly there are differing values about education and beliefs about what type of education is important and who should be educated. But if a community values education for its members, and not simply a process of indoctrination and behavior modification, then critical thinking is an essential ingredient of that process. The elements of education would be to develop an understanding about how we learn, what is valuable to know or do and why those are valuable for the individual as well as the community. The product would then be a member of that community who understands the values of that community and is able to contribute in meaningful ways to improve and even to lead that community through its internal and external struggles and successes.

If we take a look at a particular example, we can see a deep divide between critical thinking and non-critical thinking in relation to assumptions. This example is taken from the Smithsonian Institution in its recent "guidelines for talking about race". You can read more in the Newsweek article, but I will not post the "guidelines" here. Go to My comments will deal with the "guidelines" themselves and not the article about the guidelines by Marina Watts. Note that these were later removed from the display.

After reading the content, my first questions should be "What are my assumptions about this information? and How do these assumptions impact how I read and interpret this information?" Only after doing this, can I begin to ask questions such as "What assumptions does this information make? Are these valid assumptions, providing proof of their validity? Why or why not?"

In a brief examination of my assumptions, I must recognize several things. First, I come from a background of European immigrants to the US around 1900 who worked hard to make a living and did not depend on a government or system to supply what they did not earn themselves. I also must recognize that my constant and intense exposure to the Bible has set a standard for my thinking about life which is not common to the majority of those in the US, although a biblical perspective has had a major impact on the structure of American society and government over the last 400 years. I must also recognize that my experiences and education, living extensive periods in 4 countries, an intercultural marriage, work in ministry and education and much more, gives me a different view of life than many of my peers with a European ancestry. I recognize that I am opposed to ideas which set one system of values above another simply because they come from a group that is different than me. I am also opposed to the idea that the "rightness" or "wrongness" of any set of values makes that people group of less or more value. Finally, I am strongly in favor of the idea that when a group holds a particular set of values, those must still be questioned and never assumed to be "right". This is because I believe in a God who provides absolute standards against which all human values can be evaluated, not for the advantage of one group over another but for the blessing and benefit of all.

But now I will also need to evaluate the assumptions of the authors of these "guidelines" and possibly the assumptions of those in the Smithsonian Institute who allowed the publication of these "guidelines". I hope I am not too critical here, so I encourage you to evaluate my perspectives and share yours! We cannot learn and grow in our understanding if we are unwilling to consider other perspectives - especially of those who disagree with us!

Let me first examine the title. It reads "Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States". So, the information which follows is ASSUMED to be authoritative and somewhat complete on the topic. In addition, since it is provided by the Smithsonian Institution, the reader would ASSUME that it is not only authoritative but historically accurate and based on quality testing and peer-review, otherwise it would have no place in an institution of such quality. But we can see from a cursory reading of the information that this is not the case, nor is any proof or reference to academic studies provided for our consideration. 

Actually, the title is quite confusing when we ask ourselves a simple question such as "Is the color of one's skin a major determining factor of their values and culture?" A simple study will show that values are determined by the family background, education, social structure and language of each person, not their skin color. We must also recognize that many values shift over time for both individuals and people groups. Further complicating the issue is the increasing multiculturalism and cross-cultural relationships within our society. If a person has a French father and Indian mother, their values will be different than a peer with a Nigerian father and German mother. Which of these 2 people is white? How has their "whiteness" impacted their values and culture? "Whiteness", if there is such a thing, has no significance here at all.

Another problem with this title is the phrase "in the United States". We would ASSUME that the author knows at least something about people of European ancestry currently living in the United States. But this is not evident in the document. The first clue is that the designation of "white culture" is used in place of a more descriptive and precise term such as "European culture". This would at least provide a distinction between the more individualistic values of western society from the more collectivist values of African, Asian or Middle Eastern societies. But, of course, there are varying degrees of so called "whiteness" in all of these societies and significant differences in values between each of the European countries (many of which do not match these "guidelines").

So, we already have many reasons to doubt the validity of the content. But when we take a look at the content itself, we begin to wonder "How could this serve to significantly describe any group based on color? and How could this provide a foundational context for talking about race?" The only possibility is if these guidelines somehow transcend skin color to describe a group of people (whether caucasian or not) and classify these values in a category called "whiteness". This begins to lose all meaning because it is really not about color at all but something else entirely. Another follow-up question might be "What is the motivation or agenda behind providing such misleading information?" Let me provide just one observation.

In the first category, rugged individualism, it is said that in white culture "individuals [are] assumed to be in control of their environment, 'you get what you deserve'". I would recognize that no one is fully in control of their own environment, even if they think they are. Our skin color has no influence on the actual control of our environment, but this is not really what is being communicated here. So what is the author trying to communicate? I believe the statement has more to do with how one interacts with their environment and the responsibility they might, or might not "own" in order to change their circumstances. If you feel you have no control over your level of education, your job prospects, your relationships, your personal contribution to society, then you are less likely to try to change it, believing that your actions will have no impact on the outcome. If you feel that your actions do have some impact or that the more effort you put into changing your circumstances, the more likely they are to change, then you are more likely to try. We can also examine the statement "you get what you deserve" and try to think of what other options there are to this perspective. Here are a few: "You don't get what you deserve. You get what you don't deserve. You don't get what you don't deserve". None of these statements are always true for any group of people or for any individual. There are statements that could be shown to be more true, such as "Many people get what they earn but few get what they deserve." Is this closer to a "white" assumption, as described by the author? I don't think so - this assumption still has nothing to do with the color of one's skin but rather on their family background and their perception of reality.

But all this begs the question, "What is the purpose of providing such misleading information?" This is much harder to evaluate without knowing the author, their background and their personal values. Without that information, we can easily move to more dangerous and uncertain conclusions. But I believe I am safe in assuming that there is a serious misunderstanding of how multiple cultures and value systems have contributed to American society and how all of us, from every background, have benefited from this blending and exchange of cultural ideas. We learn the most from those who are most different from us. It is not clear to me if the author is judging "white culture" as bad or good and maybe that is not the purpose of these "guidelines". However, I am making the assumption that whatever the author assumes "white culture" to be, its values are ASSUMED to be different than the values that are held by every "non-white culture" - whatever that means!

I might make some further assumptions in the form of questions, and these are a bit more disturbing. Who is the intended audience for these guidelines and why? Is it possible that the intent in these guidelines is to divide and alienate people of one skin color from another? Is it possible that the color of one's skin is so important that there are people who would reject the values others hold simply because they have a different skin color? What is the purpose of promoting any division between groups within a society except to gain political power or material advantage?

What are your assumptions regarding these "guidelines"? How does your background and experience influence those assumptions? Are you willing to evaluate your assumptions as they relate to this information? Why do you believe (or not believe) that this process of critical thinking is important in developing an understanding of our world and how we interact in our society?

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