Think for yourself

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I think, in all of history, this must be the time when people are most obsessed with being “independent”. It is an era of self-realisation, self-improvement, self-identifying, and multiple other versions of emphasising self. Although my generation certainly promoted the idea of “doing your own thing”, this focus on individuals really started with the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. Before that, by and large, society was strictly hierarchical and rigidly structured. You know your place, your position, your class, and you did not expect to move out of it. 

But the Reformation brought out the value of the individual, no matter the status, education, gender, or other societal label that was put on you. Each one was equally precious in the sight of God, and no-one needed anyway to speak to God on their behalf. This revolutionary change in the way individuals acted in society gradually changed the world, liberating people from their “betters”, developing democratic political processes, trade unions, and, eventually, various liberation movements.

Our ideas of human and civil rights stem from that rediscovery of the worth of the individual, and has become the basis of modern society. Or at least, it was until recently. Because it may be that we’ve taken the concept further than it can bear. On the one hand, the rights of the individual are increasingly becoming a shibboleth, a totem or principle that cannot be questioned. Everyone – or maybe it’s better stated – every one is entitled to form their own ideas, their own standards, their own system of beliefs and behaviour. And, while that is great in principle (no pun intended), it is taking on an unwelcome cast.

What has accompanied this glorification of the rights of the individual is an unfortunate side effect: everyone’s opinion is considered equally valid and defensible. The relativism that has become so dominant in our society means that, to quote the favourite saying: “what is right for you is not necessarily right for me”. Which is fair enough when what is right for someone has been decided on the basis of thought, analysis, consideration of the various possibilities involved. 

It is one thing to have a system of beliefs: it is quite another to blindly adopt someone else’s, and this, I’m afraid, is what has happened. People have decided about what is important, what is right and good, based on what they are told, rather than what they truly believe. It’s one thing to support a favourite sports team because your family always has. The same is true for a political party affiliation, or a religious domination. But we have seen in recent years in our next door neighbour how serious disruption has been caused by people adopting positions which have no internal logic and rationale, and instead are a reflection of what a demagogue or charismatic figure tells them to believe.

It is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which television, social media, and other popular entertainment outlets shape people’s ideas and viewpoints. It is a subtle, lifelong exercise in manipulation and something as close to brainwashing as you can get. This is evident when you consider the many ways in which our ideas of rights and acceptable behaviour have changed over a few decades. The ideas we have, the way we speak, dress, act, vote, think, all have changed radically since, for example, the 1950’s. This is not necessarily a bad thing: many of those older attitudes and beliefs needed to change and be discarded. 

But isn’t it strange how suddenly and universally new ideas, new standards, have become predominant? Have we changed in these ways as the result of serious and researched consideration of topics and agendas, or have we simply adopted whatever society decides is currently acceptable? And society is not an anonymous force, something in the air that sets the agenda for a people. Societal changes come about when a few ideas gain currency through being repeatedly disseminated through those public outlets with which we spend most of our waking hours.

This is just a thought. But whose thoughts are setting the agenda? Take a look at your own principles, beliefs, standards, ideas of right and wrong. Where have they come from for you? Do you feel comfortable with the way people think now? Or do you feel, perhaps deep down, that things are moving away from your comfort zone? Or is this just someone else trying to get you to think like they do? What a world we live in! But maybe we need to start thinking for ourselves a bit more. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight.

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