In a world of misinformation, disinformation, and eroding civil liberties, what’s the special ingredient to keep our democracies safe? Fortunately you don’t need to go far to find it: it’s buried just under your skull! Yes, it’s your brain—and its incredible ability to engage in the practice of critical thinking. Here are 7 important reasons why your critical thinking skills are essential for democracy.
Photo by William Felipe Seccon, Unsplash.
But what exactly is critical thinking? Contrary to common belief, it doesn’t actually mean constantly criticising and looking for flaws. It’s more about being creative, reflective and adaptable. Most importantly, it’s about evaluating evidence to decide whether it’s accurate and relevant—and weighing up whether there’s sufficient information to even decide at all. Essentially, it’s about knowing how to ask the right questions!
And the good news is, the more we flex our critical thinking muscle—putting it to work in our engagement with decision-making at all levels—the stronger we make our democracies. Every critical thinking workout we put our brains through adds an extra layer of protection to our democratic processes—especially when we act on our thinking to call for positive change.
As Nadya Melati, social activist and participant in our ongoing Democracy Defenders Accelerator explains in her recent Instagram post:
“The democratic system requires citizens as active participants, who contribute within the process. In order to contribute, participants are assumed to be willing and able to think critically—to be able to make a wise decision. So, an ability to think critically helps the voters think rationally about the benefits and impact of their decision for larger society.”
Inspired by her message, we’ve come up with 7 important reasons your critical thinking skills are exactly what the doctor ordered, if we want to keep our democracies in full health.
1. Weighing up arguments
The nature of discussion and debate in democracy means we’re constantly exposed to a barrage of different arguments and viewpoints, on a whole host of often complex topics. Take the topic of sustainability, for example—an issue which touches all areas of all our lives, but is full of conflicting viewpoints and vested interests trying to push for the solutions that benefit them the most.
Thinking critically about environmental solutions—and all complex policy topics alike—means we can carefully examine conflicting perspectives, assess the credibility of information presented, and identify biases in both ourselves and others. We can then make decisions based on evidence rather than emotions or uninformed opinions. In a world filled with fallacies and biased viewpoints, critical thinking transforms us into skilled debunkers, capable of unravelling the webs of flawed reasoning. That said, it’s good to recognise that having biases is part of human nature. But while we can never fully avoid them, being aware we all have them is already a big step towards being better critical thinkers.
2. Outing fakes
While social media has brought many benefits to the world of civic engagement, its role in exposing us to a proliferation of mis- and disinformation (often referred to as “fake news”, but that’s a term with its downsides) and poses a big threat to our democracies. If democracy relies on a well-informed citizenry, but citizens are frequently duped by falsities, lies and conspiracy theories, what then?
Fortunately, a little critical media and information literacy goes a long way in shielding us from the potential damage. By fact-checking information and scrutinising sources, we can flag up false information, see through misleading campaign materials, and call out propaganda. And by scrutinising candidates’ policies, track records, and campaign promises, we can make sure election candidates don’t compromise with the truth. With our critical thinking hats firmly on, we’re much less likely to be fooled.
Photo by Austin Distel, Unsplash.
3. Building bridges
We’ve all heard about the “echo chamber” effect of social media, that’s bringing a growing polarisation of public opinion—with populations being more and more frequently split across two opposing extremes. As social media algorithms expose us predominantly to information that aligns with our own worldview, we lose touch with different perspectives and miss out on meaningful exchanges with other opinions.
But what can be done about it? By fostering open-mindedness, empathy, and respectful dialogue, critical thinking helps us build bridges of understanding—connecting diverse perspectives to find common ground. As a result, democratic processes are more likely to work for the greater good—with decisions made benefiting the many, not just the few.
4. Sparking discussions
What we often forget in our day to day lives, is the power of public opinion in a democracy. The attitudes and discourse of the general population lie at the heart of media and politics. And critical thinking plays a huge role in sparking public discussions—prompting us to question the status quo, debate with our peers, and raise our collective voices to call for change in society.
When public opinion starts to shift, the media picks up on these changes, and brings them into the political spotlight. And initiatives like citizens assemblies and Opinion Festivals—such as the Citizen OS-led Indonesian Opinion Festival—give us more formal channels to turn public discussions into concrete policy change.
Participants of the Democracy Defenders Accelerator (DDA) discussing during the Bootcamp in Estonia. Photo by Meelika Hirmo.
5. Questioning authority
We all know that “power corrupts”, and a crucial role of the citizenry is to keep its elected representatives in check! A population that’s engaged in thinking critically about its government—and not just accepting their words and actions in blind faith—helps keep elected representatives accountable, and working in the interests of the people. With a critical mindset, we’re more likely to spot potential abuses of power, inconsistencies, or breaches of trust by those in office.
What’s more, to bring about progressive change, society needs people willing and able to challenge the social norms set by the authorities or wider society—highlighting social inequalities or injustices, and calling for change. Over the years, critical thinking has fuelled grassroots movements and driven positive change, in areas such as gender equality, civil rights, diversity and inclusion.
6. Protecting freedoms
Around the world, many countries are witnessing a rise in the suppression of civil liberties—with decision-making becoming increasingly autocratic, and civil society being increasingly restricted. A population devoid of critical thinking will have a hard time protecting itself against such threats, and be at risk of gliding down the slippery slope to authoritarianism!
But all is not lost—fortunately, critical thinkers everywhere are calling out these infringements of our rights, and fighting to keep our democracies safe. With a critical mindset, we can detect threats to democratic principles, such as censorship, voter suppression, or erosion of the right to protest. Critical thinking allows citizens to recognise when their rights are being infringed upon, and take action to protect them.
7. Maintaining trust
Politics can be a messy game, with the potential of deception, broken promises, and mis- and disinformation breeding distrust in institutions and elected representatives. And when distrust runs high, disenchanted citizens can often disengage from the process—losing faith in the system entirely. At times, this can even lead to falling for conspiracy theories, which offer a simpler way of understanding the complexities of the world.
But in the face of all this, critical thinking allows us to navigate politics with confidence! Rather than becoming disenfranchised or losing faith in the system, critical thinkers hold politicians accountable and steer public debates along evidence-based, well-reasoned lines. And what’s more, we’re able to critically analyse competing narratives and their evidence, to make sure we’re protected from the often alluring appeal of conspiracy theories.
Photo by Anna Oliinyk, Unsplash.
Bonus Track: All-round life improvements
While it’s pretty clear that critical thinking is crucial to democracy, that’s not its only charm! Embracing critical thought in our everyday lives can bring us so many other benefits. For example, it can help us become discerning shoppers—unswayed by slick marketing tactics or greenwashing attempts. By critically evaluating product claims, considering alternatives, and aligning our purchases with our values, we become more conscious consumers.
It can also help us in weighing up financial decisions, career choices, relationship and family decisions, and much more. By getting into the habit of looking at decisions from all angles, weighing up any assumptions or biases at play, looking out for vested interests, listening attentively and empathising with others points of view, we can navigate life’s decisions more smoothly and effectively.
So all in all, if there’s one new workout habit to jump on this Summer, it’s got to be getting your critical thinking muscles trained up and ready for whatever life may throw your way!
Level-up your critical thinking with Citizen OS
Looking for a handy tool to think through complex decisions with others? Try our free open-source Citizen OS platform for collective discussions and decision-making. It’s a secure, ad-free tool for groups with differing opinions to engage in meaningful discussions—weighing up pros and cons, backing up arguments with evidence, and voting on the best way forward.