Sunday, 11 August 2013

The Right To Think Differently Includes The Right To Think Differently

The learning community for person centred practices just tweeted "The right to think differently includes the right to think differently" on their twitterstream.

What they mean that as well as having a right to think differently about different things we also have a right to think in different ways. We can have very different opinions about all kinds of things, yet still get on together as a community, and we also need to learn to be just as open to people whose very thought processes seem different from our own.

I was listening to a programme on the Radio, about Japan and the way that the use of the abacus helps children understand number in an entirely different way from the fairly abstract concept of number we have in the west. By using the physical abacus, children start using the parts of their brains dedicated to sight and touch to understand number as well as the small part that westerners use.

In the West we've long had an idea that mind and body are separate - psychologists are discovering however that much of our thinking is done with our bodies long before we even become aware of it. 95% of the time the idea of a step-by-step logical and rational thinking process is just not the case.

The self-proclaimed champion of rationalism is Richard Dawkins. I used to follow him on twitter, and the key thing I noticed about his posts was not some cold Vulcan rationality, but an intensely passionate man, whose writing dripped with anger and other emotions. There's nothing wrong with thinking emotionally. It's how human beings think most of the time. It's our emotions that drive us forward, it's the way most of us are built! Instead of denying this and seeing it as a problem, we'd do better to understand it, and understand why it works for us most of the time (and why sometimes it doesn't!)

But when it comes to people who think in even slightly different, non-standard ways, we immediately see this as a problem, and even a threat. We label these people, we create fearful myths around these people, we try to 'cure' these people. We try to impose a false standard of rational and logical thought onto these people that we do not even approach ourselves. Rather than accepting these people as a part of the rich diversity of our species, we focus all our darkest fears on them, make them something 'other'. We have to learn to resist this innate desire to 'normalise' ourselves by 'othering' difference.

Zombie film 'World War Z' included the rather powerful idea that if there are 10 people in a meeting who all think exactly the same about something, then 1 person should be tasked to think something different about it, because otherwise no real thinking can be happening. This is suggested because real thinking only happens where there is difference, diversity, discussion and dialogue. If everyone is in agreement, then it's likely that most of us are not thinking. The conflicts that difference creates are the 'gadfly of thought' - they drive us on to thinking and contriving.

One example of this from medicine is the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal to accept blood transfusions. People got really angry about this. How stupid! How irrational! But the refusal of Jehovah's Witnesses to accept blood transfusions forced medical science to invest in the investigation of alternatives. This has resulted in techniques and products that don't rely on human blood, and these have saved many many lives, including those of many people who are not Jehovah's Witnesses. We may not understand their intransigence, but ultimately it is the Jehovah's Witnesses' gift to everyone who gets better and safer treatment as a result.

We need to understand that people who think different things, and people who think in different ways are very valuable. They have something to teach us, they open up new ways of seeing, being in and understanding the world. Business manuals are full of techniques aimed at encouraging businessmen to think in different ways, because this is at the heart of businesses survival. Strange then that the culture of business so strongly encourages conformity behind the bland uniformity of the business suit. Forcing a single way of thinking on society is as unhealthy as trying to impose a single racial characteristic or a single sexuality on society. Diversity is the greatest source of adaptability and strength for the whole human community.

Person Centred Thinking also challenges us to think differently. It asks us to stop just seeing things from our own perspective, from a 'professional' perspective, from the perspective of what suits the service, and instead to attempt to see things as the person sees them. It challenges us to drop habits of thinking about people's deficits, of thinking of ourselves as 'fixers' and to instead attempt to see people's gifts and assets, and to see ourselves as connectors, renewing people's place and relationships in the community, and thus strengthening all of us.

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