In my teens, one of the reasons I wanted to be a journalist was that I believed that writing about complex social and humanitarian issues would make people think. For me, the truth was paramount, hoping that communicating what others believed, thought and experienced would stimulate and challenge readers to entertain different perspectives than their own. Moreover, these readers would transform their attitudes with understanding, compassion and empathy for others. But it didn’t take more than a few months in the job to realise I was so incredibly naive; even stupid to think that. Certainly, I persisted, albeit in and out of media jobs as my idealistic commitment ebbed and flowed, and it was a male director colleague, many years my senior, who told me during my years in TV in London, that if I made just one person think something they had otherwise not thought, then I had achieved something. That idea was somewhat comforting, until later back in Australia, I was forced to write stories I had already reported many years before, where the truth was too often shrouded in ‘off the record’ comments or transparent lies. Names changed and locations changed, but the underlying reality was too much the same, time and time again. So, I asked repeatedly, had our society changed at all over more than two decades, when the same social issues were still being paraded in pages of print? Did anyone, I posed, think at all? If they did, were their thoughts any different because of what they had read, or were they just unwilling to think at all, albeit lazy, uninterested and uncaring? Why, I wondered, did they read newspapers in hard copy or online and/or watch the news on TV or listen to the radio? Was it just so they could know what was happening to pretend intelligence, when they just devoured what they read or heard without bothering to think about the news at all?
Now, more than forty years after I started work on a newspaper, I can still feel too sad about many people’s bad experiences around the world; be it on the doorstep outside their suburban homes, in bloody conflicts and wars where murder, rape and abuse are all too commonplace or behind closed doors in both our private and public domains et al. The old cliché about newspapers that ‘bad news is good news’ is axiomatic; a reality I always found hard to accept. And even worse in this 21st century, is the number of stories that repeat themselves over and over again, ad nauseum. Have any of us learned anything? Do any of us think at all, and if not, why not?
Thinking, off the top of my head, is a process that demands concentration, patience and intelligence; the ability to absorb ideas, toss them around in your brain and try to unravel their complexity to attain some new level of understanding and empathy. Be it about homelessness, unemployment, poverty, or the many ISMs that pervade our society today. There are a myriad of issues that journalists report, much so-called news just details the facts, but even these basic stories require us to think about what we read or hear. But do we think about them past our initial reaction, be it outrage, shock, horror or pity? Do we think about why or how people have come to these situations? Facts are just the tip of the iceberg; the surface shell concealing layers of psychological, physical and emotional realities that demand to be thought about. Even in a supposedly simple, but serious car accident where if excessive speed was the problem, do we ever know why the driver was speeding? What was his/her problem? And was that problem previously obvious to others who might have known him/her? Was she/he just a thrill seeker, reckless, too selfish and self-centred to care about others on the road, or was there a far more disturbing, underlying problem such as too much drink or drugs? Police bombard our TV screens with ads telling us boldly that speed skills, but do our drivers think about this at all? Is it just a case of cheating the speed cameras and not getting caught? Or just a heightened sense of personal immortality as many young people entertain? The reality is that more often than not, there’s always far more to understand than what we quickly, even glibly, read; indeed, far more to think about than what we peruse. So what’s going on behind the obvious? Yes, there is analysis, comment and opinion, in print at least; even readers’ letters can be thought provoking, but do we stop to think about what we read? Do we blindly accept media print as the gospel truth without question? What do journalists’ know about complex experience, let alone understand? And what now of social media? Is that indicative of a new era of personal thought and opinion? And how well-informed and intelligent are tweets and Facebook prose? And what about the books we choose to read, or perhaps more importantly, even ignore? The movies we watch, the theatre we attend etc? And the conversations we partake in?
One of the things I realised as a young girl is that thinking can be damn hard work; mentally wrestling with complex concepts you don’t easily understand is certainly demanding and challenging and often far easier to avoid altogether. Thinking new thoughts can often involve jettisoning comforting thought patterns and behaviours that have governed our lives for many years, ushering in a different era of the unknown which can be alarming and at times, even frightening. Better to adhere to the familiar, trusted ways one might say, rather than confronting a whole new paradigm for life. Of course, that can be a very convenient excuse for eschewing thinking at all; along with claiming ‘I’m just not interested’ when you don’t even know what the issue is about. How can you contest you’re not interested if you don’t know what you’re supposed to be interested in in the first place? Ignorance is NO justification for not thinking; though it’s oft levelled by those who can’t be bothered exercising their mind. There are others who lament I’m just too busy or too tired when again, it’s just a ploy to appease their apathy.
Understanding others’ situations requires knowledge and empathy; the ability to think outside your own realm of experience, but stepping beyond what you know by thinking about what you don’t know can be unsettling. The first thing demanded is that we must WANT to know; WANT to think and WANT to learn about issues, theories and ideas as well as about others; without projection, without fear and without prejudice. Of course, there are those who claim they DO think; but so often these thoughts are based on what they’ve always thought, without allowing themselves to entertain new ideas and concepts, far less troubling, without doubt. There is so much uncertainty in this world that too many people opt for the certain; the tried and for them, the true ways of living, without countenancing the uncertain or the unknown. That’s why so much in our world remains unchanged; the same stories repeating themselves because people can’t or don’t want to embrace any new thoughts about how things might be different, indeed, better! Fear of change is a huge factor in maintaining the status quo; be it about the diversity of race, religion, gender or age. Labels remain sacrosanct; human individuality doesn’t warrant thinking about as it’s too complex and too difficult to contemplate, involving too much hard work and effort, so issues such as black inferiority, disabled worthlessness, gay abnormality and aged incompetence et al persist unchallenged. The list of labels is endless, limiting all who fall victim to these thoughtless applications. And when one person thus labelled manages to transcend these limits then of course it’s news of another kind; hailed as extraordinary, unusual, heroes or heroines for beating the odds, without anyone thinking that it might have been the spurious, albeit negative label that impeded their development in the first place.
Too often, society places certain people on pedestals; at times invisible, but nonetheless real in ascribing the power of knowledge and intelligence to these people; many of our medicos, our lawyers, our politicians, our journalists and media moguls, our religious leaders, our businessmen and women, our academics and other so-called experts who parade their wisdom without question or thought. Thinking about their knowledge or intelligence and what it may be based on remains sacred; dare to think about it, let alone confront it and you’re simply written off as jealous or with some other equally derogatory comment. These pundits of the apparent known are beyond thought; beyond question; and for me, their lauded wisdom goes some way in explaining why our society has remained stagnant in many of the areas we should have changed decades ago. Too many people just accept the wisdom of these experts as if it’s inviolable; simply because they cannot think anything different than what’s passed as wisdom throughout history. Does anyone, I have often wondered, really have a mind of his/her own? Or do most people simply absorb, even echo, the enshrined wisdom of these respected fonts of wisdom? The history of humankind thankfully DOES feature many thinkers who challenged the conventional wisdom of their time to arrive at new insights and new understandings about people and our world. Indeed, it was their original and innovative thinking that achieved this. The mind’s restless quest to think beyond the accepted norms of behaviour, be it about people, our planets and universe or the animals that inhabit our world; thanks to people such as Einstein, Marx, Freud, Madam Curie, Da Vinci, Dickens, Orwell and Tolstoy and all the other genius, creative thinkers who have changed our horizons to enrich our lives, despite me not always agreeing with their perspective. Without doubt, I am indebted to these and so many others for giving me the pleasure of their thoughts and ideas.
I am currently reading, or I should say more accurately, grappling with a book called A Universe from Nothing by American physicist and cosmologist Lawrence Krauss. When I told my sister I was going to read it, hoping I could understand at least some of it, her response was ‘you won’t understand any of it’. My sister is a medical doctor, a retired GP, who has always lauded it over me with what I believe she considers her superior intelligence and wisdom. I failed Year 11 physics because I didn’t want to be a doctor as physics was then compulsory for entry into medicine and I stopped trying to understand it. Her negative attitude to my reading the book was completely predictable, and while I have had to re-read and re-read information within it, there are parts of the book that have made me think about concepts and ideas I have never entertained. It is a brilliant book; simply written and explaining complex scientific theories lucidly and comprehensibly, even though my mind struggles to easily understand it all. But I am challenging my brain with these new thoughts; hopefully, understanding some of them. It is hard work; it is demanding, it is challenging; but I am enjoying it too. And what I derive from this book is a new learning experience. How many of us really want to broaden our horizons; stretch our minds, abandon our comfort zones to reach out for the new and unknown? I return to my original idea and say not that many of us; but there ARE always people who DO think, question, challenge and confront what is, to arrive at what might be! For more and more of us, I think we need to find the time to think; to learn and to experience, enabling us to understand further not just humankind, but the complex world we live in.
Without thinking, we will be subjected to the same stories each day in our newspapers, on the TV and radio and in all the literature, drama, music and art we enjoy as well as watching the same old sport we’ve been watching for years. Our lives would be a closed and uninspiring, boring tedium; traversing the routes of routine without novelty or imagination. It is AN effort to think; not just old, familiar thoughts for easy reassurance, but new thoughts to enhance not just our own lives but others’ too if we can. I might still be naive; even idealistic, but thinking afresh keeps your mind alive to appreciate all the amazing attributes of our world.