In many cults, a simple technique is taught to people in order to keep away doubt from their minds: every time they have a thought that veers towards asking questions or criticizing something, they are taught to think some phrase over and over, such as “just believe,” in order to drown out that thought. We call these phrase “thought-stoppers.” This technique, by the way, is also used positively by people who suffer from certain mental disorders, so don’t think thought-stopping is all bad.
Another thought-stopping technique is the fear of punishment. If you expect to get punished for expressing doubt, you will naturally repress those doubts and eventually come to rationalize the suppression of doubt as a whole. In time, people naturally internalize the external enforcement of certainty. We observe this to be true in most, if not all, areas of life.
Granted, our social institutions are not as concentrated as a cult, so their thought-stopping methods will necessarily be more diffuse. And unlike the area of religion where naked, arrogant ignorance (faith) is still considered laudable, people require more persuasion to adopt this attitude in other areas of society.
There is the manichean worldview and its “we are the good guys, everything we do is good” perspective. I’ve already talked about this at length, so I will not repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that if you consider everything “your side” does as being good by definition, then this will necessarily shut down the capacity to criticize and seek out better alternatives to what is being done in your society. For instance, “this way of things is American, therefore if you oppose it, you are anti-American.”
Another thought-stopper is the exhortation to “think positive” and to not think about the negatives. According to the motivational speakers and other scamsters who push this nonsense, thinking positively makes us happy and fulfilled, and magically improves our lives. Being around “negative people” drags us down and makes our life worse (as echoed by Scientology’s sinister PTS/SP doctrine), and so does focusing on the negative side of things.
A popular web site advises us, amongst other thought-stopping attitudes, to:
Always use only positive words while thinking and while talking. Use words such as, ‘I can’, ‘I am able’, ‘it is possible’, ‘it can be done’, etc.
Allow into your awareness only feelings of happiness, strength and success.
Try to disregard and ignore negative thoughts. Refuse to think such thoughts, and substitute them with constructive happy thoughts.
Watch movies that make you feel happy.
Associate yourself with people who think positively.
Presumably, the French New Wave of film-making is right out, or at least not suitable for people who want to be happy. Feel sad? You’re probably watching too many Truffault movies. The sad thing is, this is just par for the course for “positive thinking” maniacs, and the things you read about it can just make your hair stand on end. It is just pure non-confront, “head in sand” attitude, even though they strenuously deny it.
Nowhere is it explained exactly how thinking positive makes our life better, except for vague references to “creating our own reality.” In this way, there is a strong parallel between the pop-psychology of “think positive” and the New Age belief that good thoughts actually changes reality in our favour (e.g. The Secret: think about the car you want and you’ll get it).
The New Age belief is merely a secular, pseudo-scientific rehashing of the belief in prayer and other forms of divine intervention. It is also much better at providing a scientific-sounding explanation on how pumping ourselves with positive thoughts would change anything beyond making us more vulnerable to scams which prey on people who don’t have the brains to think for themselves and criticize anything.
New Age beliefs are for rich white people who are obsessed with their own privileges and the emptiness in their lives that they entail. They are inherently reactionary beliefs, seeking to divert the individual’s attention from society and to fix his gaze inwards, always to the self and one’s internal world. “Thinking positively” is no different in that it also fixes one’s gaze inwards. When we criticize something, the fault is not with what we are criticizing, but with us. It is our internal world which must be changed, not the external world. It is internal thoughts that must be stopped, not external injustice. In greater extremes of this view, criticizing a great evil, indeed our very perspective of it as a great evil, is merely a reflection of our own internal states. Nothing is good or evil but that we make it so with our own feelings.
Compulsively stopping negative thoughts is evil. It prevents us from having a healthy sense of free will, as well as having a sane view of the world and our place in it. Because of the fact that one will always have some negative thoughts, repeated failure to cease all such thoughts must lead to lower self-esteem and frustration at being unable to attain the “positive” ideal. As a whole, negative thinking is more useful to the individual and to society than positive thinking.
I just want to answer a possible objection before I move on. Certainly it is not useful to the individual to believe that he can do no good, but this is not what we’re talking about here. We are talking specifically about the belief that one must stop all negative thoughts, whatever they are, that one must not criticize, that one must always find the “positive side” of things. There is a vast difference between being realistic about oneself or others and thought-stopping.
Another thought-stopping technique is the belief that “this is how things are, so this is how things should be.” This is applied to all sorts of rationalizations, from capitalism and the so-called “free market” (this is how people choose to produce, so this is how things should be), to social institutions in general (this is how things are, and we can’t change that) to genetics and claims about human nature (this is how people are made, so this is how things should be).
These beliefs are meant to invoke a feeling of powerlessness, that even thinking about changing these things is unrealistic, and thus that the individual should passively accept the way things are. All doubt is pointless to examine because “nothing can be done about it” anyway. No matter how many objections you have to competition, to give just one example, you will be told that it’s human nature to compete and that therefore there’s no point in thinking about it. One must reject “unhealthy” competition, but promote “healthy” competition. In short, one must think within the margins of acceptable discourse, no matter the field.
Two objections can be used against such arguments: first, that this is not really how things are, and second, that such a deduction omits the factor of free will. In cases concerning assumptions about human nature, for instance, one can point out that the person really has no criteria to classify any given character trait as being part of human nature or not. I have laid out this case clearly for hierarchies, giving clear criteria on how one could evaluate such a claim, and the fact that the concept of hierarchy fails every single one of them.
Free will, obviously, is always the forgotten factor in all these equations. For them to make any sense, you must first exclude people’s free will as a factor. Otherwise, it makes no sense to equate an existing state of affairs with a necessary one, since people can always try to change states of affairs, and sometimes succeed. Traditions eventually get uprooted or modified to adapt with new times. Institutions exist to serve a role and, if people reject that role or reject a particular process made for reaching that goal, stand to be overturned as well.
This is the exact opposite of the previous argument, as not only should you look at the negative, but you should fixate on it as being necessary and unchangeable. One needs to be “reasonable” and accept in their mind the things they supposedly cannot change. But the only stability that exists in history is how long you can fool people. So this argument is in fact a self-fulfilling fantasy: things should not be changed because we have convinced you of the delusion that things should not be changed.
In all cases, there is one constant: the attempt to deprive you of the ability to confront evil. Some of the concepts I’ve described here were already discussed in my entry on confronting. There, I also briefly discussed another thought-stopping technique, which is the Big Lie. “We live in a class-less society” is a good example of this. A Big Lie is a lie so great that one would never suspect it of being fabricated. By presenting a utopian view of the world, all criticism is shut down as being irrational and evil is kept under wraps. The trick, of course, is to present a lie not only big enough but also sufficiently out of people’s power of verification.
My position on thought-stopping is that, barring mental illness, one should never try to stop one’s own thoughts, that doing so is a great evil. It is basically self-brainwashing. Criticism of oneself or one’s own ideas, criticism of others or other people’s ideas, criticism of institutions, criticism of received beliefs, are all necessary and beneficial for the individual and for society. Stopping oneself from confronting evil is support for the survival and propagation of evil ideas and evil institutions, and is therefore detrimental for the individual and for society.