RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Think Critically, Vote Neighborly

Let's review: All the incumbents -- Rs and Ds -- are yahoos and sleazebags that deserve to be tossed out on their kiesters in November, except maybe one or two. And we know which one or two. Right? Wrong? Maybe?

The pre-election brouhaha arrived over Labor Day adorned with bells and whistles, and it's time to go over the questions. Not their questions. Our questions. About how to listen, decide and vote. We've gotten a heck of a lot better at this critical thinking in the last 10 years, since we've had a lot of practice in picking the sweet drops of truth from the salty oceans of falsity.

Since consumers like you and me are generally stuck in traffic and can't be everywhere we'd like to be, we depend on others for most of the information we use for making decisions. We will call the others "talkers," even though they may be writers, cartoonists, stand-up comedians, actors. The talkers may tell us that a new cologne will make us popular, hoping that we will buy it. That's OK. Some decisions, like whether or not to buy cologne, are unimportant in the whole scheme of things. Other decisions, like which candidate to vote for in November, will certainly change our lives. Keeping this in mind, it pays to keep our critical thinking skills alert as we read, watch TV, surf the Web, listen to radio talk shows, attend public presentations and pursue other media.

Critical thinking means asking questions. Here are some starters:

Is the talker indulging in a rant? Rants are entertaining, but ranters generally bounce from problem to problem sending out blame and solving nothing. Like that parody song with a refrain that blames "immigrant welfare teenage mothers on drugs" for such things as global warming, loss of jobs and so forth. That's a joke, of course, and most rants can be seen as jokes in disguise. Demand solutions and plans.

If you spot a solution or plan, ask if it can be implemented soon, or if it's years off. If it's years off, forget it. Every dang problem can be worked on today -- every one of them. So if somebody tells you that somebody else is working on a solution, you can bet they don't have a clue.

Then, imagine the plan's effect on the long term. Imagine the plan after five years, ten years. Will it actually solve a problem or lead to more problems? Who will pay? Who will benefit?

Then, look between the lines. What is this talker NOT saying? Whose voice is missing? Is YOUR voice missing? Example: A candidate running on big bucks from the oil industry won't talk about how to save gasoline by riding public transportation.

Then ask: Can you get your voice into the dialogue or is it just better to listen, absorb the information and play with it awhile before putting it aside?

Before you reject his/her information, ask about the talker's credentials: How credible is this talker? What's at stake for him/her? Who are his/her friends?

Then analyze his/her presentation style: Is this talker answering or avoiding the questions? Is he/she listening to others? What are the biases operating in this information? Your own biases -- yes, you have them -- and the talker's. Age? Gender? Political affiliation? Religion? Racial identity? Past employment? Are the biases of the talker controlling the way they approach things? If, for example, the former football player running for county office says that he'd like to see your county run mostly by former athletes, the candidate is controlled by something other than your county's interest.

What else has the talker said or written? The Internet is a good place to learn about the background and opinions of almost everyone.

Are there time or space constraints keeping the talker from saying all they're thinking? If you are at a public presentation, you might raise your hand and ask a question. Or, you could write or talk to them another time.

What is the context of the information? In other words, follow the money. Who sponsored the information? If it is a not-for-profit, find out who they are linked with. The Internet is a good place to find links.

Thinking critically isn't really about going through a list, though. In fact, the list is somewhat misleading, suggesting that question A comes before question B and down the line. Instead, thinking critically is quite fun and may take you to unexpected places with unexpected insights. It's a habit of mind.

It's looking out for our interests and the interests of our friends and neighbors at a time when almost nobody else is vigilant. It's involvement with some issues that you care deeply about and it's about learning about the subjects and the talkers before hearing someone else's opinions. It's life at its most interesting and impassioned.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2006

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