The societal importance of reflexivity
BridgeND | Wednesday, March 21, 2018
You, the reader, are probably consuming this piece (or moving on to another) because you want to read inflammatory opinions, weird lists and obsessions, social commentary or maybe you’re just bored and lonely at lunch in the dining hall. Whatever it is, there is a “why” behind your actions. Now, maybe you’re reading the inflammatory opinions to rant about them with your roommate later: even your “whys” might have “whys”. These “whys” often hide out of our mind’s eye and unconsciously influence our beliefs and actions. To think about how and why we think is reflexivity. Some might also call it metacognition. Whatever you think, it is useful and essential to political and social life to think about how and why we think what we think.
The ability to be self-critical and the ability to recognize the influence of emotions and perceptions on our beliefs and actions are other ways one can be reflexive. Being able to engage in reflexivity is a sign of cognitive maturity; yet reflexivity is not simply an individual action, it is something which can be used at the level of society and politic. Each of us individually and each society or group of people has consciously or unconsciously decided something about itself: its beliefs, its practices—even its membership.
Reflexivity is the tool we use when we evaluate those decisions as an individual and a society. Sometimes we get stuck in our ways—we continue to do or believe something simply because that’s what we’ve always done. We forget the original intent or reasons behind these beliefs and actions, and reflexivity helps bring us back to the “whys” behind them, and recenters us. Because, unfortunately, rooted practices and beliefs aren’t always as beneficent or “right.” A long list of medical reversals (like lobotomy) and a history of moral disasters (see: slavery) and political blunders (i.e. appeasement of Hitler) can give us a brief and incomplete snapshot of situations where reflexivity—rather than continuing with tradition—might’ve been better.
Reflexivity is an effective compass of change and tradition. By considering the motivations and influences on our thoughts, we can begin to effectively analyze and evaluate policy proposals, medical decisions and other situations. Legislators who oppose gun control, support labor rights, oppose feminist proposals or oppose regulation of the financial sector can and should engage in reflexivity to evaluate whether their motivations lie in a true, reasoned belief in their causes, in the monetary support of interest groups like the NRA, unions or Wall Street, or even in their own biases. Individually, and as a society, we tend to be resistant to change simply because things will change. Even Notre Dame as a community gripes about the smallest changes to tradition, like not singing the alma mater after football games. In more pressing matters, does clinging to tradition always serve us well? Does change always serve us well? Thinking about how we think is essential to answering these questions.
Thinking about how our emotions affect our thinking and being occasionally self-critical can help the country and those in our capital engage more fruitfully in civil discourse and come to more effective policy solutions. Rather than simply dismissing the opposing side’s ideas, our lawmakers should self-analyze; they might realize that the emotions underlying their thoughts and beliefs are more compatible with the opposition than they thought. Through this, bipartisanship can flourish, as our leaders recognize that the motivation for them all is to improve the America we all live in, and to promote unity. Working across the aisle and finding areas of agreement that can produce effective and reasonable policy solutions is a much better plan for the United States than gridlock. In a similar way, being self-reflective and willing to engage in virtuous discourse on campus and elsewhere can lead to more fruitful and productive dialogue, and reduce polarization.
Refusing to “give in” just because those before you didn’t makes little sense if the cause is worthy. Stubbornness for its own sake is nonsense. Not only does it tarnish true acts of courageously standing up for something, but it does not allow you—individually and us, societally and politically—to move forward and better ourselves. The feeling of “giving in” is an influence on our actions on which we should reflect. Consider why you are acting or believing the way you do, and self-evaluate. Only when we think about how we think will we be able to promote effective progress and retain useful traditions.
Ben Robinson is an off-campus senior formerly residing in Keenan Hall. He is majoring in Neuroscience and Behavior, and hails from Wisconsin. He can be reached for civil discourse at [email protected]
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.