How Problematic Thoughts Can Make You a Better Person

A few weeks ago, on the raised section of the Hoch-Shanahan dining hall, a very wise Scripps upper-classman uttered ten words that made me think differently about my life: “You don’t have to beat yourself up to be successful.” 

For a moment, I was so shocked that I couldn’t fully comprehend what she had said. “But how will I change my actions if I don’t criticize myself?” I asked.

“By being compassionate—recognize your mistakes without punishing yourself,” she replied. “Positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement.”

My uber-competitive private school brain fired neuron after neuron trying to fathom this advice. It went against an ingrained notion—criticizing myself for mistakes in order to improve—that I had never before questioned, an idea that I had taken as a given. 

Though this idea is challenging to implement in my real life, I was able to apply this idea to speech and thought censorship. Readers of the Claremont Independent may remember that, in the beginning of the year, I wrote an article about Scripps first-year orientation forbidding students from even daring to voice any idea about colonialism (in this case, British colonialism of Antigua) that went against the established “colonialism is bad” narrative, even if the idea was well backed. I was livid at the idea that students weren’t allowed to express their opinions, that students with truly hateful views would never have the opportunity to air them, and then perhaps hear a reason to shift their positions. Instead they and we  simply hide behind a wall of silence, and risk never fully understanding the narrative we are taught, having never had the chance to confront the real-life counterarguments. 

In my process of considering this issue, I found myself thinking, “Could colonialism be… not all bad?” I froze. “I can’t believe that I would think something as awful as that,” my next thought chided. “Stop being racist,” continued that inner voice. 

I’m sure this sort of episode has happened to just about everyone attending college in America right now. You have a thought, then reject it out of hand as morally wrong, or against everything you’ve been taught. Then, without mincing words, you beat yourself up for even thinking it. You forbid some of your own thoughts. This internal process, by definition, is thought censorship. 

Thought censorship is an even more serious issue than speech censorship because the idea is never even considered, let alone voiced and possibly discussed. This form of censorship seems fine with certain issues such as racism, but it gets into very dangerous territory when we self-censor thoughts that might be looked upon by history as “morally right.” For example, if Americans during the McCarthy era had forbidden themselves from considering that communism might have had some good points, we might still live in a Cold War witch hunt state today. On the other hand, if citizens of the Soviet Union had forbidden themselves from thinking that communism could be wrong, the Iron Curtain may never have fallen. Without fully considering these kinds of thoughts, we really have no way to evaluate if we’re right or wrong. We just accept what we’re told; we become sheep. As John Stuart Mill stated in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” By censoring thoughts, we cheat ourselves from exploring counter-arguments and may brazenly end up understanding nearly nothing at all. 

Students shouldn’t beat ourselves up for thinking problematic thoughts. We should accept ourselves. We should be compassionate, recognize our mistakes, and realize, crucially, that we have no malicious intent. Instead we should consider why we had that thought, and even more importantly, consider the thought’s possible justifications. Failing to consider an argument because its a “problematic” idea is just as harmful as censoring it. Voicing an idea or point of view does not necessarily mean it’s your opinion — it’s only your opinion when you deem it so. 

Similarly, we shouldn’t beat each other up for voicing half-thought out ideas in the classroom. You may not necessarily agree with all of your own thoughts, and just because it came from your mouth as a consideration or argument doesn’t mean it should be taken as some kind of truth. Chances are, in a classroom setting, the intention is not to offend anyone and the thought was offered in good faith; we should keep this in mind as we confront uncomfortable ideas. We’re all here to learn; we simply cannot run from  “bad” or unpopular thoughts if we’re ever going to truly form and fully understand our own opinions on anything.

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