A non-critical thinker can be taught to think anything.
For the second time this year, Malta echoed with news of someone's death and within hours, with rumours of the details surrounding it. In both cases, the rumours were almost immediately rebutted by emerging information. But vigils were planned, and people couldn't afford to be wrong, because their presuppositions were fodder for their respective causes.
In the case of Paulina Dembska's murder in January, the women's rights lobby attempted to convince the nation - and managed to convince some of its followers - that this was a case of femicide and gender-based violence, even before the body had been removed, let alone the case investigated. At the time, professionals in various fields all over the country had preached caution, but the lobby couldn't afford to lose the publicity generated towards what is effectively a very worthwhile cause, and it soldiered on despite obvious shortcomings in their reasoning. Recent court hearings proved professionals right, and revealed the complexity of the case, one of the factors of which was mental illness.
Nicholas Camilleri's death this week was picked up by the parental alienation and fathers' rights lobbies, both blaming delays in the court, and lawyers' neglect for his death, based on what he wrote on social media. Vigils are planned by both lobbies in support of the man who they assumed to be one of them. Disgruntled spouses blamed his spouse, disgruntled parents his grown-up children, and so on. Again, his son Daniel's interview in The Malta Independent shows this to be a complex case, and one in which mental illness is a factor among many others.
Such hurried decisions are ultimately damaging to the respective causes they mean to promote. They make their proponents seem rash, emotive and fickle in pushing their cause at all cost, overshadowing the right they have to their noble causes and the good work they do towards them.
In both cases, mental illness was not only ignored, but public speakers went through great lengths to preach that mental illness can't be the cause of these deaths. Others joined the chorus of 'don't stigmatise mental illness', but a critical thinker knows that to say that someone did B because they suffered A is not the same as saying that everyone who suffers A will do B.
NGOs are not alone in this. One needs only check comments on popular news items to realise that people will interpret situations according to their own emotional states, their levels of understanding, their biases - both conscious and unconscious - and their personal and institutional agendas. A news article in yesterday's edition of Times of Malta Online featured a 16-week pregnant woman going through a miscarriage, running the risk of infection, yet being refused a termination of the pregnancy, even though her waters broke prematurely about a week ago. The couple has now been "allowed" to fly to Spain to terminate the pregnancy there, in what is a situation reminiscent of the old parenting adage of "not under my roof", but that is a topic for another blog post. My point in mentioning this issue is to draw attention to the public comments attached to it, shunning the couple, calling the woman all sorts of names ranging from the derogatory to the psychologically abusive, all in the name of religion and the ironic 'pro-life' stance that these commenters purport themselves to take.
In both the former cases, people took a single story from all that they heard about both victims and ran with that. That is how the single story works, and the single story is very often wrong. Now while some may have an agenda and deliberately use such situations to push said agenda, others may be pushing the wrong idea subconsciously. This highlights the importance of thinking critically. There are many people out there with an agenda who for some reason or other want to push that agenda onto others and who will go through great lengths to do that. I have said many times that I believe that Critical Thinking should be a compulsory subject at secondary and tertiary levels of education and nowhere is it more obvious than on social media, but for those who are interested, the Foundation for Critical Thinking provides some very valuable information through its website.
We should be able to think objectively, to analyse that which we are being told, to wait for verdicts, to ask the right questions, to assess our own bias, and not to assume - or worse still - adopt a single story. Some good questions to ask ourselves when reading anything are:
What is being said here?
Who is saying it?
Are they using emotive language?
Is the information here verified by reputable sources?
What possible motive could the writer have for making me believe this?
Could there be another side to this story?
Would I be comfortable saying this if my name was placed instead of the author's?