How To Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds - Alan Jacobs (ACU Summit 2018)

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thank you all for coming out it's good

to see you I'm gonna talk to you a

little bit today about my book and about

some of the implications of the book I

want to start by telling you how I came

to ride it because I was actually in the

middle of writing a different book and I

stopped in the middle of that and I

decided to write this one instead and I

started doing it because of what I saw

happening to this country during the

presidential campaign of 2016 I usually

write as a scholar or as a Christian or

as both and this was an unusual thing

for me I was writing as a citizen I

wanted to write as someone who was

concerned about my country and what

concerned me above all was the way in

which people on both sides or maybe I

should say all sides of our political

spectrum were so eager to think the

worst of those who disagreed with them

so eager to be suspicious so eager to be

hostile so determined to seek those

gotcha moments and so determined to

interpret what these other folks were

doing in the most uncharitable way

possible and it turns out that there's a

lot of research that's been done in

recent years that shows how this works

I'm thinking of two papers in particular

and I quote both of these in my book one

of them says that the primary way in our

culture in our society that people show

their affiliation with a particular

group is by showing how much they hate

another group but as it turns out that

the primary way in which we express our

group affiliation is not saying I agree

with you I'm on your side but instead

saying I hate those people over there

just as much as you do

so negativity is more important in group

affiliation than positivity the other

study shows something that I think fits

with that first one in uncomfortable way

the other study says that when people

are trying to show their identification

with a particular group then what they

tend to do is to stake out in the most

extreme territory that is I don't just

agree with you but I doubly agree with

you I'm not just on your side but I'm

like farther in your direction than you

are and by doing that they say see I'm a

real believer and so the way that those

two things work together is you get

situations where they say oh you hate

these other people I hate them more than

you do and so you get these perverse

incentives of people to be hostile to be

uncharitable to look for the worst

possible way to interpret what somebody

else says and that's a problem that

concerns me I began to realize as I

thought about these things that one of

the most important texts for me is a

talk that CS Lewis gave in 1944 called

the inner ring and in the inner ring

he's actually giving a talk to a group

of new graduates of King's College

London and he tells them that in his

view this one of the strongest desires

that they will ever face from the moment

he's speaking to them until they are too

old to care is the desire to belong to

an inner ring the desire to belong to a

group of people that you admire a desire

to sit at the cool kids table and a fear

of being left out and then Lewis also

says that of all the desires that human

beings have this one this desire to

belong and the

fear of being left out is the one that

he says is most likely to make people

who are not very bad people do very very

bad things so great is the fear of being

excluded of not belonging and that's

what I decided I wanted to write about I

wanted to try to think about the power

of the inner ring and about how we might

resist it and I want to think about it

in our moment because I think of all

those perverse incentives that I was

just talking about all the things that

incline us towards being cruel or unjust

or unfair to other people in order to

signal our group affiliation it seems to

me that social media magnify that a

thousand times social media are mega

phones so that we can shout our group

affiliation and more importantly our

disaffiliation the people we don't want

to belong to the people we don't want to

associate with and I felt like that was

something that I needed to address but

why did I think I was capable of

addressing it some of it is just my 35

years as a teacher and always trying to

teach people to to write more clearly

and more cogently but I actually feel

that what helped me even more than that

was my history as belonging to multiple

communities because see I'm an academic

and I've been an academic for a long

time and I'm also a Christian and I've

been a Christian for a long time and one

of the things that I've noticed over the

years is that academics don't tend to

have very high opinions of Christians

and Christians don't tend to have very

high opinions of academics and so often

when I would be listening to my

Christian friends and they would talk

about what people in the Academy are

like I were thinking well yeah that's

sort of true but that's actually not the

whole truth and then when my academic

friends would talk about what Christians

are like I would say well yeah some

Christians can be that way but not all

of us and it's actually more complicated

than that and so one of the things that

I've developed over many years of

belonging to these overlapping

communities is a version of what the


it's call code-switching code-switching

is say the linguists talk about it I'm

from Alabama I lived in the suburbs of

Chicago for 29 years and one of the

things that I learned was not to talk

like somebody from Alabama and and then

when I would come back to Alabama to

visit my family I would be man it's so

good to be able to talk the way I grew

up talking I would just like slide right

back into that and I would get even I

would become even more of a redneck than

I naturally am and then when I would

move back up into the suburbs of Chicago

again I would begin to speak in a very

articulate Midwestern sort of way and

and that kind of code switching is

something that we all do consciously or

unconsciously usually unconsciously but

this was something that I felt I needed

to do culturally you know I've been

doing it for a long time so can I make

people can I help people understand does

my experience as someone who has all

many many decades of code switching can

that help me bridge some of the gaps

between communities where there's a lot

of mutual hostility so that was really

what led me into this book and I started

thinking about how I wanted to do it and

there are certain things that I don't

say in the book but that I thought about

right from the beginning

and so I'm gonna tell you now so this is

a secret okay so I don't want I'm gonna

I'm gonna tell my secret here I've

always heard what happens in Abilene

stays in Abilene so I'm gonna trust that

that that's the way it's gonna happen

here and that this will never get

outside this room despite the fact that

I've got about eight mics on me and

nevertheless I'm gonna tell you my

secret so whenever I write a book I

usually have in mind a kind of an ideal

reader not necessarily the most

sympathetic reader I actually always try

to think of someone I want to win

over someone who's going to be

suspicious someone who's not really

going to agree and and because I think

what's the point of writing what's the

point of writing to people who already

agree with you about everything that

doesn't seem like it's worth my time

though given the dynamics I was just

describing there's a lot of that it goes

on and I knew that because I was writing

this book for a New York publisher and

given the reach of that publisher and

how the marketing would work and all of

that then I would have a great many

readers who were not Christians who in

other words people on that division

between the academic and the Christian

are probably more likely to be on the

academic side rather than on the

Christian side and so I laid a little

trap here's how it works in my first

chapter I talked about a woman named

Megan phelps roper who young woman who

was the is I think the granddaughter of

Fred Phelps the man who led Westboro

Baptist Church which of course has been

infamous for its you know for instance

going to military funerals and mocking

people and also for a lot of other

unsavory things and the story that I

wanted to tell is about how she was

gradually brought to doubt whether her

fundamentalist Christian upbringing at

Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas

whether that fundamentalist upbringing

might be wrong whether indeed the truth

about the world might be something

certainly broader and probably rather

different than what she had always been

taught and that is a story that all of

my secular readers would be very

familiar with the idea that that

Christians are rigid and narrow-minded

and don't see the bigger possibilities

in the world and don't see all the

options and

the natural thing that happens to them

is once they see that broader world than

they are cured of their fundamentalism

and they're led into a more open

tolerant and inclusive way of life

that's a very familiar story and that

does happen

and indeed the story of megan phelps

roper is a story of someone who just

assumed a lot of things and didn't think

about it very much and then when she did

start to think about the things she had

always assumed she wasn't so sure

whether they were true anymore that's

not where the trap is though the trap is

in the next chapter the next chapter is

about another young woman in fact of

almost exactly the same age as megan

phelps roper and this young woman's name

is Leah libretto and Lila Briscoe grew

up in Long Island in a family that had

no religious belief whatsoever she was

very smart very academically inclined

but not only were her family not

religious in any way she hardly knew

anyone who had any substantive religious

belief she tells the story about how

when she in in one high school class

they were studying the Protestant

Reformation and and the creation Martin

Luther's creation inadvertent creation

of a new church the Lutheran Church and

somebody in the class raised his hand

and said are there still Lutheran's were

there any of those still around and

nobody in the class knew whether there

were still any Lutheran's or not

including Lee Allah Brasco herself

that's how secular the world was that

she grew up in and then she went to

college at Yale and at Yale got involved

in a group there called the Yale

political Union where they conducted

debates and I've actually known a number

of people who've been in the ypu and

they all loved it for the same reasons

if you have been in the ypu for a while

and you have participated in their

debates and you decide maybe I'd like to

have a leadership role in this society

then you can be interviewed for a

leadership role and when that happens

one of the things that they'll ask you a

couple ask you many questions there are

two questions they always ask one is

have you ever broken anyone on the floor

that's a weird question but to be broken

on the floor in the terminology of the

Yale political union is have you ever

right in the middle of a debate realized

you have you ever in right in the middle

of a debate convince someone else that

they were wrong you broke them on the

floor that right in the middle of the

debate they had to say wow you're I

think you're right and I'm wrong so they

want to know that about you or you were

good enough debater are you a skilled

enough debater that you can break

somebody on the floor but here's the

next question

have you ever been broken on the floor

have you ever in the middle of a debate

realized you were wrong and admitted it

set it right there in front of God and

everybody I'm wrong and here's the thing

saying yes to that question is way more

important than saying yes to the first

one if you have broken somebody on the

floor that's good that's fine that maybe

says something about your rhetorical

skill your your deliberative skill but

the real question is whether you have

been broken on the floor because that's

the test of your character are you the

sort of person who can say yep I'm wrong

you got me I thought I knew what I knew

what was right about this but I don't

gonna have to go back and rethink if

that's your attitude then you could be a

leader and Lela Briscoe internalized

that she internalized that attitude and

then another thing happened to her she

started running into

some really thoughtful Christians at

Yale and she realized because she had

never she because of her time in the the

ypu had sensitized her to debates and

how they work

she realized you know I've never

actually even thought about whether

Christianity might be true I've always

just assumed that it's false but I

haven't actually investigated I haven't

actually thought it through I haven't

talked to someone or debated someone who

really knows what Christians believe and

why they believe it says you said maybe

I should do that and as she got into

these conversations with people she

found out there were a whole lot smarter

than she thought they were and that they

knew their stuff way better than she

thought they did and she began to

realize that she actually didn't have

any good reasons for refusing

Christianity and that set her on a path

because she was willing when she was

having debates with Christians she was

willing to be broken on the floor and to

say I don't have an answer to that I

don't have a response to that I I'm not

sure what I think I need to go back and

reflect on this more because she did

that she set herself on a path that led

to her becoming a Christian so you see

what I did I tried in that first chapter

to give my non-believing readers a story

they're familiar with the story of a

narrow-minded fundamentalist who opens

up her mind and begins to question what

she had always been taught and then in

the second chapter I flipped the script

and now it's not the narrow-minded

Christian it's the narrow-minded atheist

who also has never really questioned

what she was taught and who opens

herself up to the possibility of

something being true that she had never

really expected could be

and my point in doing that was to say to

my non-believing readers if you do start

really thinking you don't know where

it's gonna lead you you don't know where

it's gonna go you are just as vulnerable

as the most narrow-minded rigid

fundamentalist once you open the

possibilities of something being true

that you haven't suspected before I

wanted my non-believing readers to see

it that way

but I couldn't do it by just launching

right into that I had to give them a

more familiar and comfortable example

first one that told a story that they

liked and then say yeah but let's flip

this script and it turns out it's just

as true on the other sides as it is just

as true for Lila Briscoe as it is for

megan phelps roper that once you begin

questioning your long-held assumptions

you don't know where you're going to end

up so that's my secret that I was doing

a little pre evangelism there you know

just trying to get people to think a

little bit about these issues and I

think the upshot of that for all of us

it seems to me is that in both cases

these were young women who had

communities that they belong to

communities that gave them some of their

identity gave them some sense of what

life was all about gave them affirmation

megan phelps roper was affirmed by her

community for holding the views of

Westboro Baptist Church but equally so

Leola Brasco was affirmed by her

community for not being a Christian for

not taking religion seriously for not

for even pursuing religious ideas

because they're so obviously wrong

that's the way it is for all of us when

we genuinely reflect on the

possibilities that are available to us

we put ourselves at risk and we put

ourselves at risk not just

intellectually but also socially and if

CS Lewis is right and if all those other

people whose studies I've quoted are

right then in many ways it's being put

at risk socially that is the thing that

we're most afraid of or the thing that

most people are most afraid of that we

don't want to have people we care about

turn their backs on us we don't want to

have them look at us with horror or

disgust or even pity we want to be

affirmed we want to belong and that is

the most natural thing in the world and

it is appropriate for human beings we

are social creatures we are made to live

in community in fellowship with one

another the problem is to distinguish

the difference I spend a lot of time in

the book talking about this between an

inner ring and a genuine community and

here's how you can tell the difference

the inner ring is a group that won't let

you think the inner ring is a group that

won't let you question the inner ring is

a group that demands conformity whereas

you know that you are in a genuine

community if people are willing to

listen to your questions and you know

that you are participating in a genuine

community if you're willing you're doing

your part to make something a genuine

community if you are willing to listen

to other people's questions not to be

threatened by their doubts not to be

threatened by their puzzlement but to be

generous and kind to be able to listen

there are those of us who need to have

the courage to express our convictions

and then there are those of us who need

to have the patience and forbearance to

listen to the questions of others and if

we are doing those things if everybody

is doing those things then we have a

genuine community then it's not an inner

ring then you don't get thrown out the

first time you say something that you're

not supposed to but instead you are

still welcomed into the community now it

may be nobody's gonna make you the

leader of that community but if you want

to belong

you can belong if you want to ask people

will listen and if people do ask you're

on the other end of that then you are

willing to listen you are willing to try

to interact with them even though it

might put some of your comforts at risk

this is why I say in the book and this

is maybe the single most important thing

I say in the book people are always

telling you to think for yourself you

cannot think for yourself it is not

possible for any of us to think for


we always think with others and so one

of the big questions that we need to

face is who are the people around us who

are good to think with who are the

people who are good to think with one of

the reasons that lleol abrasca found

herself so drawn to the yale political

union is that they were good people to

think with and how did she know that

they were good people to think with

because when she was broken on the floor

and said I'm wrong I'm just wrong I

thought I had that thought I had a good

argument thought I had a strong position

I don't I'm wrong they didn't cast her

out they didn't think less of her in

fact they thought more of her so I think

that's what the upshot is for us that we

all need to take the risks of

participating in community in a way

that is both encouraging of those who

struggle and open when we ourselves

struggle that's the only way that

thinking is really going to happen and

that's hard because we don't want to put

our social affiliations at risk and

that's why the very last words of my

book are be brave because I think that's

what is called for here I want to say

one last thing in conclusion these

particular risks are always especially

present in any educational community any

community of learning is ideas are being

debated assertions are being questioned

beliefs are being put into context or

challenged in some way it is a

continually risky endeavor and so all of

us who are participating in communities

of learning whether that's at a

university like ACU or whether that's in

a high school or an elementary school or

whether it's in a local book group or

whether it's in Sunday school at church

wherever it is we really need to learn

to be patient and forbearing and honest

if we can be patient and forbearing and

honest then we can build communities in

which real thinking is possible I cannot

tell you that that is a safe endeavor it

is not it isn't safe

but it's good thank you very much