Each of us has a particular worldview, a way of looking at the world, a way of deciding whether to believe a message or to reject it or take it with a grain of salt. Of course, to take something with a grain of salt means to regard it with healthy skepticism. That phrase has an interesting origin. It relates to an antidote, described by a Roman philosopher about two thousand years ago, to a type of poison; among the antidote’s ingredients was a single grain of salt. The antidote had other ingredients, too. The lesson to take from this common idiom is that skepticism will protect your worldview from the psychological poisons of indoctrination and propaganda, but, just as the grain of salt was only one ingredient of the antidote, you need more than just skepticism.
Worldviews determine what a society and its members see as truth. Often, worldviews serve the interests of powerful elites. When that class of elites marshals its power in ways that exploit others, those worldviews become weapons of oppression. At times in history, they have obscured our view of what a scientific worldview would say is truth, like when Galileo was branded a heretic for saying that the Earth revolved around the sun, which was a problem for the dominant worldview at that time. Skepticism of these kinds of oppressive and superstitious worldviews is essential, but it doesn’t guide us to create a helpful worldview; although it helps us to see inaccuracies, it doesn’t help us to see the truth.
In addition to skepticism, I propose that one should add some lenses to one’s psychological antidote to indoctrination; by lenses, I mean some ways of viewing messages and ideas that will help determine whether to believe them or reject them. Not only that, but I propose that one should put a particular flavor of skepticism in their antidote, making skepticism itself a lens. The three lenses that I recommend adding to your mental toolbox are coherence, criticality, and connection.
The first lens is coherence. Coherence is an overall sense of agreement and harmony. To cohere is to stick together. When a message is internally coherent, its parts fit with each other, and, when a message is externally coherent, the message itself fits with things you already know and believe. Examples of messages that lack internal coherence are logical fallacies, like an argument that attacks a strawman, or an ad hominem attack. When the message itself isn’t logical, one should reject it outright. External coherence is more challenging. To evaluate an internally coherent message’s external coherence, you need to compare it to something else. This is where your own worldview comes into play.
Your worldview is the collection of things you believe and value. Worldviews are built upon a foundation of deeply-held positions and assumptions about the world, many of which you aren’t even aware of, and others of which you aren’t aware that there are alternatives. Worldviews include ideas about human nature, the best economic system, and where the Earth fits into the structure of the universe. Before you can really start evaluating the external coherence of messages, you need to reflect upon and become conscious of the elements of your own worldview. In the process, you may even have to assess the internal coherence of your own worldview, the messages that you tell yourself about the world. Once you are conscious of your own worldview – and make sure that it has structural integrity – you can evaluate the external coherence of messages and ideas by comparing them to your own worldview.
One caution I would add at this point: try not to allow your worldview to become rigid and brittle. You can use it as a point of comparison to evaluate messages, but you don’t want to let it blind you to the truth of coherent messages that represent the next level of your own worldview. Almost 30 years ago, when I was 20, I was a homophobe. Strangely enough, I was an advocate for social justice and equality in relation to all other issues. I evaluated messages to see if they were racist or promoted oppression of any other kind, and rejected them if they did, but I was homophobic.
At my university, a group called Gays and Lesbians on Campus promoted something called “Blue Jeans Day.” If you supported equal rights for gays and lesbians, you were to wear blue jeans on that day. Back in 1990, everyone on campus wore blue jeans. Everyday. The promotion of this event created quite a stir. I decided that they weren’t going to dictate what I was going to wear (very us vs. them thinking, something I normally rejected, but I was blind to it in this instance), and I was going to wear blue jeans in spite of the event. When I stepped on the bus that day wearing my jeans and felt the stares of everyone else wearing their one pair of khaki pants dragged out from the back of their closet – ironic – my worldview bumped up to the next level, and I became what we now call an ally before I had ever heard that word outside of textbooks about World War Two.
The next lens that I recommend using to view messages is criticality. When I say, “criticality,” I mean a special kind of critical thinking. Not just critical thinking about the logic of a message, since that is captured in the lens of coherence, but criticality rooted in an analysis of power and oppression. Critical theory doesn’t just explain society; it critiques and works to change society. Criticality asks, “who benefits?” When social structures and norms favour one group at the expense of another, critical theory is… well… critical of that. Criticality is rooted in an aspiration towards equality and social justice.
When you apply the lens of criticality to evaluating messages and ideas, an idea can be found wanting if it supports, justifies, or allows for oppression, even if it has sound logic, reasoning, and internal coherence. Throughout history, many oppressions have been justified by perfectly rational and consistent narratives that vindicated the injustices committed, often by well-meaning individuals who, because of their worldviews, didn’t see the harmful nature of their actions.
When our leaders promote economic growth, and the narrative makes it sound like it will benefit all people with jobs and opportunities, we should interrogate this claim: can there possibly be infinite economic growth on a finite planet? We should also scrutinize its implications for a just world. Examining the narrative of economic growth through the lens of criticality exposes the reality that transnational corporations benefit from the current conception of economic growth, while marginalized people in the global South and ecosystems all over the world suffer the consequences.
The final, and perhaps most important, lens is that of connection. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh calls this connection, “interbeing.” To explain this concept, he tells how there is a cloud in a piece of paper. At first, it seems silly or esoteric, but he explains that the paper came from a tree that couldn’t have grown without water, and it wouldn’t have got that water without rain from a cloud. Then, he explains that the logger who cut the tree down is also in the paper, along with the wheat that was in the bread the logger ate, and so on. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that before you leave for work in the morning, you have depended on more than half the world for the food you ate for breakfast, and he described this as the interrelated quality of reality.
To really evaluate whether to believe a message, to reject it, or to change your own way of thinking to allow for the message to fit, or vice versa – looking at the message in a different way in order to make it congruent with your aspirations for the world – it is helpful to take into account the concept of interbeing. Looking for the connections between things and events changes the importance of messages, and has implications for what they really mean. Using the lens of connection as a framework for the lenses of coherence and criticality helps to make sure that the coherence of your worldview accounts for the big picture and helps to keep your sense of social justice expansive and inclusive.
Using each of these lenses clarifies an aspect of truth about messages and ideas. Used in concert, they facilitate understanding that is rational, rooted in social justice, and consistent with the interrelated quality of reality. Take the issue of climate change. Although there are those that claim that climate change has nothing to do with human impacts on the environment, those claims lack coherence. Sometimes, they represent false reasoning and lack internal coherence, but they always lack external coherence, since these claims are contrary to a consensus of 97% of climate scientists that climate change is a result of human activities.
Moreover, the impacts that climate change have and will continue to have on the global South and other marginalized people, make climate change a social justice issue, so the lens of criticality also demands that climate change be acknowledged and addressed, with an eye to minimizing the danger of social and political exploitation expected in the wake of climate change.
The lens of connection reveals how intertwined we are on a warming planet, and how this one issue is interwoven with other issues, ranging from economics to food scarcity to wide-ranging political and military implications. Deciding what messages to believe about climate change demands a truly global perspective, taking into account how dependent we all are on the planet that we live on and each other.
On Valentine’s Day in 1990, interestingly, just a couple of months before Blue Jeans Day at the University of Alberta, at the request of scientist Carl Sagan, the spacecraft Voyager 1 turned its cameras towards Earth and took a photograph from 6 billion kilometres away called “Pale Blue Dot.” The Earth takes up less than a pixel in that picture, and it shows how small it is when compared to the vastness of space. Of this photograph, Carl Sagan said, it “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” To me, that sentiment is an ideal ingredient to add to that grain of salt when deciding what to recognize as truth.
More Than a Grain of Salt (on YouTube)