I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we think. I have always been one to challenge the status quo, a habit I picked up from not going along with my abusers’ bullshit. I’ve always been able to see situations from different perspectives, another trait developed as a result of abuse. In my critical thinking classes in college, I wanted to shout “Amen!” after every lecture. My favorite word to insert into every one of my English essays was “fallacy.” I’ve fought back against brainwashing since birth, so sometimes it surprises me when someone falls for a glaringly obvious lie.

Take “fake news,” for example. It’s the quintessential manipulative bait and switch of our time.  Yes, there is “fake news” and it is a problem, but the ones purposely generating it are also the ones who coined the term and projected it onto the legitimate news outlets. I mentioned to someone recently how the most important classes students can take right now are critical thinking and media awareness. His response was, “Oh, I know. I mean with all this fake news, how can we really tell what’s real or not?”

Now, the issue of critical thinking is nonpartisan, but this was someone who had been actively listening to FOX News Rush Limbaugh for years, grossly unaware of how he had been manipulated by fake news birther stories, feeding all his fears about “the other” right in his own living room. I explained that it is actually quite easy to track unbiased information, thanks to the Pew Research Center, and sites like Media Bias Fact Check. He grunted and walked away, certain that there was no solution to his problem. He valued his own skewed worldview over finding the correct information, which might challenge his firmly held beliefs. He was already conditioned to keep his TV turned to the same channel rather than to choose to think. Multiply him by several million people, and it’s easy to see why we are in a cultural and political mess.

Critical thinking was a life and death skill for me to acquire. Perhaps this habit of constantly checking and rechecking what I believe and why, making sure that my thoughts are my own, makes me more aware than most. I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that everyone has the ability to think for themselves and make independent decisions after the collection of well-cured information. I’d like to think that most do not live in bondage to cultural and political lies. I’d like to think that most of us are neither dumb nor lazy about this, because if we are, we are in a major crisis that has far-reaching consequences on every level. But how many people are going through life allowing themselves to be told what to think without ever training themselves how to think?

Learning how to think does not require much time. A couple of basic points in critical thinking can be learned in an afternoon and reinforced through regular practice. The biggest stumbling block is desire. A desire for truth. A desire to change. A desire to challenge previously held beliefs. As an abuse survivor, I know what it feels like to live in fear of change, the fear of losing all that you know. But I also know how life-giving and essential it is to take that step and finally be free to choose my own thoughts.

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