If you read this blahg you’ve probably noticed that I am almost always annoyed by irrational narratives. Sounds judgmental, of course, to call somebody’s worldview irrational at a time when an angry crowd screaming “we know who you are! we know where you live!” to people who testified in favor of a mask mandate for school children is just as entitled to their opinions as those following scientific advice about preventing the spread of a persistent and sometimes deadly pandemic.
Every one of us is at times ruled by irrationality, even the most doggedly rational among us — fear of the dark, fear of appearing fearful, fear of death, what have you. We all may come to mistaken conclusions, based on what we know, since what we know is often not the complete picture. Add a single piece of solid information, missing from our previous evaluation, and we will come to a different logical conclusion . Entire nations are subject to irrationality, as we see daily in these troubled times. By changing the concept of “destructive asshole selfishness” to “freedom!” wars are launched and bombs begin to fall, to the cheering of “patriots”.
I was thinking of divergent thinking, a way of thinking that generates a web of connections, sets out many things to consider and sometimes leads to unexpected creative solutions. Divergent thinking is not linear, not strictly logical, sometimes the leaps from thought to thought cannot be explained to others, or if they can be explained, others sincerely won’t give a shit, but it is a way of making new connections and coming across surprising, sometimes important, ideas or solutions that a strict logical flow chart will never provide. Creative people operate this way without thinking about it, it is part of creativity to let the mind wonder where it will during creative pursuits.
It’s the difference between hitting up google for an answer and going with it and reading something that refers you to an unrelated source that teaches you something new about the question you googled. To confirm a definition, or get some background, or a source for what you’re talking about, a search engine is great. To find a concrete answer that is irrefutable (location and hours of a restaurant you want to go to) it’s amazingly handy.
The problem is that the twitch of a few fingers and the instant answer replaces the old, more time-consuming, way of researching and learning about things — finding a footnote on a page that leads you to a source you never heard of where you read something that alerts you to an entire body of knowledge you never knew existed. The “answers” that experts and idiots put out there are easy to find online, but the underlying ongoing discussion that leads to these conclusions is not as readily available from a smartphone. Hitting a screen for an answer is much different than turning the pages of a book, which has an index, bibliography and so on that contains many more leads you’d never see with a Google hit.
In law school, during the first semester, students (at least in my day) were not allowed to use to electronic legal databases that provide updated legal sources instantly. We were left to struggle in the library, searching the stacks for a book that could give us a clue, a lead to another set of books we’d never heard of, where the answer might be provided. This forced us to acquaint ourselves with the wide range of legal sources in the vast rooms full of books in the law library. The CFR (Code of Federal Regulations), which can be found instantly with a few keystrokes, was something each of us had to discover the existence of for ourselves in the course of those frustrating first semester hours in the law library. You’d find a legal decision that seemingly helped your argument, but you were instructed to always consult the pocket part, the annual update inserted in the front of the book, that contained the latest action on the case you thought was promising. The pocket part might contain a mention of your case. Oops, reversed by 19 U.S. 173 (2001)… Searching online you’d get this reversal of precedent instantly, without having to read the previous case, or even the case notes, of the overruled case. Sometimes these prior cases have important information not even mentioned in the ruling that reversed it (this is a specialty of ideological judges like Kavanaugh and Roberts). Read only the decision overturning the case and know less about the issues than you did going in.
Divergent thinking is useful for many things, especially things like looking at history. Human collective action is rarely motivated by strict rational consideration. Why did this mob feel this way on this date? That open-ended question leads down many avenues that a strict quest for “the reason” will rarely turn up. Here’s a divergently derived example:
Ukrainians slaughtered almost my entire family, on my mother’s side, one hot evening in August 1943. My grandmother, who lost everyone, was a lifelong leftist, influenced by the internationalist Marxist commissars who came with the revolutionary Soviet troops that liberated her area of the Ukraine briefly. They taught her that the future of mankind was one without anti-Semitism, without wars between nations, without the forever exploitation of the poor by the rich. It was an intoxicating message for my teenaged grandmother, that she was living in the dawn of a new era of human justice. A few years later, the leader of the Soviet Union, a mass-murdering psychopath some called Uncle Joe, killed as many as four million Ukrainians (mostly by starvation) to prove his point about his view of international justice (which he’d changed to Socialism in One Country). A few years after that, Herr Hitler’s forces “liberated” Ukraine from the Communists. The execution of my family? Logical in that context, Ukrainians viewed Jews as Communist sympathizers and took revenge on their murderers. But, logical?
The helpful term ‘divergent thinking’ was apparently coined by the psychologist J.P. Guilford in 1956 (the year I was born), as I learned from more than two minutes of exhaustive internet research. Guilford contrasted Divergent Thinking with Convergent Thinking, and the little two minute video I’ve linked to in the last sentence sets the whole thing out nicely. Spoiler alert: both forms of thinking are important.
Divergent thinkers can be a pain in the ass, constantly bringing up random ideas seemingly unrelated to anything, prolonging the discussion endlessly. Convergent thinkers can be a pain in the ass, continually focusing on the problem as having only one logically correct solution, being intolerant of “distractions” in this quest. We are all pains in the ass to people not exactly like ourselves.
I tend toward divergent thinking much of the time. If you are this way and you write, vigilance is required (and the passive voice used), since you need to lay things out in a way that doesn’t confuse, or lose, the reader. My solution, sometimes, is footnotes. A paragraph that slows the flow too much (like the digression about law school above) might be better shoved into a note at the bottom, for anyone interested. On the other hand, a strict linear telling, without providing pertinent background perspective to aid understanding and even empathy, can create a dry and pedantic piece . Like anything else, balance between these two ways of thinking is crucial.
I’m listening to historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat’s excellent Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present. I will post an abstract of the book when I’m done listening to it and making notes on it. One thing that strikes me again and again is the way she eschews the strict chronological telling, jumping from Berlusconi to Putin to Mussolini to Mobutu to Trump and back to Herr Hitler. In this way we are constantly struck by the uncanny similarities in how all modern “strongmen” operate. She is not making a checklist and comparing A-B between these various dictatorial leaders, in order, in one chapter after another. Instead, without making direct comparisons, she provides a ton of detailed information that makes her point for her.
Example: In describing the excellent work lobbyists did to internationally legitimize the rule of Mobutu, longtime dictator of Zaire , she lays out a few crucial services the lobbying firm Manafort and Stone performed for the corrupt, murderous African leader. She doesn’t mention Manafort’s heroic and well-paid efforts to get corrupt pro-Putin Ukrainian Viktor Yanukovych elected president of Ukraine (he was forced to flee to Russia after a popular anti-corruption uprising drove him from office), at least not there. She does mention that all strongmen deploy pardons for those who perform arguably criminal services for them.
Anyway, friends, I could obviously go on all day. Let’s end it here, with a final thought on the usefulness of a little daydreaming that can generate a web of ideas for problem solving. It’s a good way to generate ideas, as you relax and exercise the muscles of critical thinking, if nothing else.
I heard a great anecdote, from Zen teacher Jack Kornfield (on the late Joe Frank’s show), that illuminates this. A man on a train is angry that several children are wildly carrying on as the father sits head in hands, not stopping them. He confronts the father about controlling his unruly kids. The father nods, apologizes and explains that they’ve all just come from their mother’s funeral and nobody knows what to do. Perspective instantly changed from anger to sympathy, based on that new fact.
To paraphrase the Orange Polyp, “I prefer my pedantic pieces juicy, not dry.”
Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga was a Congolese politician and military officer who was the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1965 to 1971, and later Zaire from 1971 to 1997. He also served as Chairman of the Organisation of African Unity from 1967 to 1968. Wikipedia