• Justin McBrayer

Space to Think

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

The name of this blog is ‘Space to Think’. I want to describe that concept and explain why it’s so important.

Deep truths about the world are rarely obvious. The world is vast and complex. And our evidence is often ambiguous. This is true for facts about what IS just as much as facts about what OUGHT to be. Values are often no more obvious than empirical facts. Most of us, most of the time, have access to a mere sliver of the total evidential pie. Our perspective is limited, biased, and shaped by factors beyond our control.

And yet all of us have beliefs about these deep truths.

We have philosophical commitments (ethical frameworks, religious worldviews, political allegiances). We have assumptions about the empirical world (where it came from, how it works, where it is heading). And we have cherished beliefs about ourselves (who we are, and, more importantly, who we are not).

Getting to these truths requires that we have space to think. We need to try out ideas, challenge the status quo, give arguments their best chance, and follow the evidence where it leads. We need to think for ourselves instead of getting pushed or shamed into views by others. And we need to listen to others when they see the world differently. It’s hard work. It's uncomfortable. And it’s no place for partisans, close-minded crusaders, or politically correct censors.

Creating a space to think is easier said than done. It was probably always difficult to find space to think. That’s what made early schools like Plato’s Academy such marvelous places. You could show up with an idea and find an audience ready to test it in rigorous ways. And, from the little that we can tell from historical documents, all arguments and ideas were welcomed and challenged. (Well, as long as they were offered by a free Greek male, but that’s part of a later story.)

In that vein, a proper space to think incorporates two elements: (a) rigorous back and forth of ideas along with (b) a no-social-judgment zone. The only criticisms that are welcomed are well-reasoned ones. Think of it as a safe space for ideas, so-to-speak. This blog is designed to be such a space.

We need such spaces more than ever. Social media does not offer space to think. There’s almost no chance for an idea to get a fair hearing on social media. Instead, it’s a virtual school yard with bullies rushing in to condemn ideas that cross ideological lines and partisans pulling in their own directions for their own purposes. Identity politics, cancel culture, comment trolls, and online shaming have made social media positively inimical to open-minded but critical thought. It’s a problem on the left just as much as on the right.

Alas, schools are often not much better. To be sure, the very best classes on campus create spaces for students to think about class-related topics. Classmates learn to trust one another, say what they really think, and offer honest appraisals of the positions and arguments being considered. It’s the best part about teaching.

But there’s reason to think that such classes are in the minority. Surveys now show that college students—even liberal ones—are afraid to voice a wide array of viewpoints and beliefs on campus for fear of reprisals from right-wing mobs, politically correct crowds, or left-wing professors. (And professors definitely lean left—a recent survey put self-described liberal faculty at a 12:1 margin over self-described conservative faculty. That’s no way to create space to think about political issues on campus.)

So this blog is my small contribution to a culture that cultivates space to think. I need such a place. I need to try out ideas, evaluate what’s going on in political and popular culture, and hear from others—especially those with perspectives different from mine—who are trying to get to the truth regardless of whether it’s popular or comforting or supportive of a larger agenda.

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© 2020 by Anna McBrayer