Thinking Critically about Critical Thinking in the Era of Trump and TikTok

While it now seems like generations ago, in the spring of 2008, I joined other faculty at Furman University in an organized protest labeled “We Object.” Through the university’s connections with FU graduate and former governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford, George W. Bush was invited to speak at commencement.

Recent university tradition was to have two students speak, but did not include outside speakers. None the less, students and the community (overwhelmingly conservative) seemed to welcome the opportunity to have a two-term Republican president speak to graduates.

The protest took many forms, including reaching out to the media, posting an official “We Object” statement, and wearing a “We Object” shirt, revealed from beneath professor’s gowns during the speech.

I did not yet have tenure as an assistant professor, but I was active in the organized resistance that included a wide range of reasons why professors were objecting. I attended meetings, helped with the statement, and provided interviews to the media (I did not stand and protest during graduation, however).

One aspect of that spring that now looks like a harbinger of the world in which we live today was an Op-Ed published by two conservative professors in political science. In that piece, they discounted the professors protesting as postmodernists.

Two problems stand out from that commentary. First, as is typical of conservative thinkers, they either did not understand postmodernism or willfully misrepresented postmodernism in order to have a strawman to attack. Second, when those of us protesting gathered after the piece was published, we uniformly confirmed that not a single one of us considered ourselves postmodernists (an intellectual movement now well in the past, supplanted by the ever-inane, in fact, post-postmodernism).

Conservatives have long posed postmodernism as a full rejection of truth/Truth (which it isn’t), but the great irony of being falsely slandered as postmodernists is that we objecting were all doing so on very clear ethical grounds.

A logical and dangerous extension of postmodernism’s challenge to the nature of truth/Truth is, of course, that there is no truth; many academics quickly rejected that path. In its purest form, however, postmodernism attempted to emphasize that truth/Truth is never objective but always a pawn of those in power.

In other words, postmodernism posed that truth/Truth is almost always what people in power say is truth regardless of empirical evidence (truth couched in power versus truth gleaned from evidence).

While scholars in philosophy, literature, and the arts had moved through and past postmodernism in many ways, this moment in 2008 certainly was a harbinger for the conservative and popular bastardization of postmodernism by Trump and the youngest generations in the U.S.—fake news and the power of social media to create (distort) truth/Truth.

The paradox of Trump is that he has become the embodiment of “there is no truth except what I declare is true” (even when those claims are baseless and repeatedly self-contradictory). Yes, Trump’s appropriating “fake news” to prop up his pathological lies and power-mania are exactly the worst of problems with truth/Truth that postmodernism was confronting.

Even Trump’s use of the term “fake news” is itself false (an ignorant or willfully planned use similar to the one used by the two conservative professors), but Trump’s mendacity and megalomania have both spoken to and emboldened a much wider and more insidious faction of the U.S. who function with the same sort of misguided approach to truth/Truth as Trump.

Not so long ago, Fox News and Rush Limbaugh seemed like mostly harmless sideshows, things of a very small minority of people in the U.S.

In 2021, Parler and Breitbart have far surpassed what was once rightwing media—and then there is QAnon.

Just as there was a logical and dangerous natural conclusion to postmodernism, there is now a very real and dangerous outcome of simplistic approaches to critical thinking as well as honoring the democracy of ideas.

The Right in the U.S. has leveraged challenging any and every idea, fact, and authority into a chaos that allows even a greater concentration of power among very few (mostly white and male) Americans.

Republicans have aligned themselves with both Evangelical Christian conservatism and authoritarianism; democrats have increasingly become the party of ethical challenges to the status quo (a party that at least pays lip service to gender, race, and sexuality equity).

Trump’s “fake news” ploy is a scorched-Earth policy for political and financial gain.

What has happened, however, in the wider society is much more disturbing in the sense that we can see some possible end to Trump as president.

Here is just one odd and troubling example: Young people (often expressed on TikTok) in the U.S. do not “believe” in Hellen Keller.

Writing on Medium, Isabella Lahoue concludes:

Maybe we [Gen Z] don’t believe in her [Hellen Keller] because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted. There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all….

We don’t have to believe in Helen Keller, and it shouldn’t be surprising if we don’t. The world we were born into makes us profoundly different than other generations, and hopefully, it will also make us into change agents.

The Generation that Doesn’t Believe Helen Keller Existed by Isabella Lahoue

In 2021, then, there are now at least three Hellen Kellers: the historical Keller (the radical socialist and activist), the myth of Keller as rugged individual [1] (the distorted version often taught in school through The Miracle Worker), and the “fake news” Keller who did not (could not?) exist.

At the root of this is critical thinking, how formal education fails to teach it by mis-teaching it (see here and here).

Questioning authority and hearing all sides have long been a part of American culture.

Like postmodernism, “critical” is too often misunderstood and almost entirely absent from formal education.

Traditional schooling has reduced “critical thinking” to skills (such as HOTS, high-order thinking skills). This approach reduced being critical to a checklist of skills and a mechanical approach to interrogating texts and ideas.

But while education has been lazy and superficial in its approach to being critical, popular culture has gone off the rails, specifically because of the power of social media to allow and foster insular communities in which that community establishes truth/Truth and controls what counts as evidence (Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc.).

To be blunt, the anti-vaccination movement has gone mainstream—and widespread [2].

Since the insurrection at the Capitol, I have circled back to 2008, when I was mis-labled a postmodernist.

Not a postmodernist, I am a critical educator, my work grounded in Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy.

Unlike those who suggest I believe there is no truth/Truth, my critical teaching and writing are a pursuit of both truth/Truth and that which is ethical and moral.

Critical thinking, then, is not about rejecting truth/Truth, but acknowledging that truth/Truth is always couched in power. Critical thinking, then, is not about hearing all sides, but recognizing that it is a complicated but necessary thing to recognize what is credible and what is not when interrogating a text or idea.

Critical think allows anyone to realize that Hellen Keller was a real person, a complicated human made exceptional due to challenges beyond her control. But critical thinking also allows anyone to know that rugged-individual Keller is in many ways a lie, part theater and part ideological myth-making—and that Keller denial is a dangerously frivolous thing (several magnitudes less so but overlapping with Holocaust denial).

Critical thinking allows anyone to realize there is a wide and complicated gray area between “Believe no one” and “Listen to everyone.”

Those two extremes, in fact, have joined hands and are poised to destroy democracy and the sort of slow and painful arc of history reaching for justice on a darkening horizon.

If and when Trump leaves office, and if and when he fades from public spaces, we will still have TikTok (or something like it) and Parler (or something like it) and tens of millions of people who don’t believe in Keller but do believe Trump (or someone like him).

It is again a critical time for truth/Truth.

[1] See also how Pat Tillman suffered a similar fate, being misrepresented for ideological/political purposes.

[2] I recommend A Game Designer’s Analysis Of QAnon by Rabbit Rabbit as one interesting look at how this happen with QAnon.