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People who don’t think

Back when the Vietnam war — and opinions about it — were raging, I volunteered to help conduct a door-to-door survey about it on behalf of a peace candidate.

This was at the stage when being anti-war could still get you labeled a commie-pinko-traitor who ought to leave the country if you didn’t love its politicians and generals, so I got a lot of doors slammed in my tender little teenage face.

I’ve long since forgotten all the door-slammers and insult screamers. But one woman, I’ll never forget.

I knocked on her door, asked if she’d be willing to take a three-question survey, then fired off question number one: “Are you in favor of the Vietnam war or against it?”

The woman stood there a moment with an utterly blank expression, then turned and called to an unseen person in another room, “Honey? What do we think of the Vietnam war?”

I don’t even remember what “honey’s” answer was, though it was almost certainly either pro-war or just anti the little high school hippie chick standing on the doorstep. I was and to this day remain gobsmacked by the woman’s response.

This was a time when friendships and families could shatter over the war — a time when Vietnam, the first “TV war,” was blasted into our faces every day of the week, when tens of thousands of young Americans and millions of Vietnamese were dying. “Honey? What do we think of the Vietnam war?”

It was inconceivable.

That was the first time I realized some people simply chose not to think. Hardly the last.


Nowadays I have a friend who is a kinder, sweeter person than I am by far. And she’s not stupid. But she doesn’t think. She doesn’t question.

She’s a Christian and one who truly strives to live in a Christian spirit. But when I twice asked her the basis of her beliefs, her answer was the same both times: “When I was a little girl, somebody” — she doesn’t recall who — “told me Jesus loved me and it made me feel good.”

And that was good enough for her forever.

I’m not disparaging her beliefs; they’ve gotten her through some very hard times and they’re part of what makes her so kind. But I’m just mind-boggled at the way she believes.

She “knows” that the bible is true. But when I try to discuss the bible or its history with her, it’s plain she hasn’t read the book and knows little about it beyond the few standard texts taught in her church.

When I mention controversial passages she’s never heard of them. Nevertheless, she remains completely unflapped.

“Oh, you should ask my pastor about that,” she says. “I’m sure he has a good explanation.”

Despite her hardships, her life sails along easily because “authority” — be it pastor, book, police officer, or television commentator — has all the hard stuff well in hand. When conflict or contradictions arise, she doesn’t worry much about it because she figures that people wiser than she have got it all worked out.

This works for her though her outlook is so alien to me that I just have to try not to get obnoxious when she gently tries to proselytize me or makes some TV-engendered claim about current events that I know not to be true.

But sometimes when she talks I feel as if I’m looking through a window into a parallel reality. One that scares me.

I had that feeling a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about people we know who handle terrible suffering with grace and others who fly into drama-queen mode over hangnails.

She mentioned someone on TV. “I never watch that show,” she said (she always says something like that when talking TV to me). “But on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ there’s a soldier who got his face all burnt and instead of whining and crying, there is is on national TV.”

I learned later she was talking about J.R. Martinez, who with his partner eventually won the competition. I agree it’s a touching story and Martinez must have a lot of grace.

But then after making that (for her) vigorously opinionated statement, she paused a few beats and in a flat voice I barely recognized as her own she recited:

“He’s a soldier. So he’s one of our heroes.”

I knew better than to ask the (to me) obvious question: “What specifically did he do as a soldier that made him ‘our’ hero?”

She would have considered such questioning absurd. But now, weeks later, I can’t get that strange, flat tone of her voice out of my head.


  1. Joe
    Joe November 28, 2011 4:06 am

    J.R. Martinez is a hero simply for surviving the US Military and US Foreign Policy, need there be any more reason?

  2. Bill St. Clair
    Bill St. Clair November 28, 2011 4:40 am

    Actually, that woman’s non-opinion of the Vietnam war doesn’t surprise me. If you didn’t have a son or brother over there who came back in s box, or a wheelchair, the war had no real effect on you. It was s story on the TV, like Star Trek.

    Which is how they get away with it. Until we really feel whats going on, which those if us with good imaginations and healthy consciences do very early, war over there has no meaning.

  3. Water Lily
    Water Lily November 28, 2011 4:51 am

    Ha, I can write a book on this subject. Oh wait, I am writing a book on this subject… 🙂

    One of my greatest frustrations in life is over people who refuse to think.

    Fear is a powerful weapon.

    This fear of thinking for oneself, (and then taking responsibility for that chosen way of thinking) is widespread. I’m a Christian, and I must admit that this is very common in Christian circles. It is also common in very liberal folks who have been raised to automatically oppose anything a conservative says, even if they agree with it.

    Asking the questions “why” or “how” draws blank stares, or anger at a perceived offense at the person asking those questions. One cannot come to conclusions based solely on emotions, as emotions can sometimes lie.

    If people don’t truly know what they believe, how they came to that belief, and why they believe it, – doesn’t matter what that belief is, there will come a time that they will not be able to stand on those beliefs. At that point, they’ll once again look for someone to tell them how and what to think.

    Great post.

  4. Pat
    Pat November 28, 2011 6:56 am

    Apathy and fear aren’t the only excuses for non-thinking; sometimes pride lends a hand. My father was called home from college to help on the farm, and he never got the education he felt was needed to make something of himself. Forever after, he viewed other people’s ideas as his own, and never accepted that they (or he) may be wrong. It didn’t occur to him to get his own education, nor could he admit that he didn’t fully understand the historical perspective taking place during his lifetime. If “authority” (political, religious or societal) said it was so, who were we to question it? He wasn’t dumb, but he was foolish. By choosing to rely on hearsay and opinion rather than investigating the facts, he became static and a believer in a hierarchical society, surrendering his integrity to others he thought might know more. In that sense he was an elitist, though he thought he was a proletarian.

    “If people don’t truly know what they believe, how they came to that belief, and why they believe it, – doesn’t matter what that belief is, there will come a time that they will not be able to stand on those beliefs. At that point, they’ll once again look for someone to tell them how and what to think.”


  5. Matt, another
    Matt, another November 28, 2011 8:17 am

    Soldiers are heros because they have unquestionably offered themselves up as sacrifices for the current corporate warfare. If asked, they fight for patriotism, keeping america safe, because they started it, etc. The most honest will admit they don’t know why, but are fighting for the great pay and benefits, or their buddy next to them. The fact that they might be fighting to secure mineral rights for U.S. corporations before China can make a bid is not something to be considered.

    Our society historically has put a lot of effort in not deeply thinking, or looking at what is going on in a critical fashion. Thinking like everyone else, believe like everyone else, don’t question authority etc has been heavily indoctrinated since WWII. Without it politicians would not get relected and the marketing strategies for our mercantile society would fail. The funniest part is the fact that group think is one of the few things the “left and right” actually agree on.

    As far as religion goes, the experience with your friend seems about par for the course. In my experience most self identified christians hold their beliefs as some type of social talisman, being involved with a local congretation is their social life and outlet. Kind of like being the member of a country club. Very few christians know what they believe, or why and many pastors would have difficulty explaining it beyond the generic doctrinal passages.

  6. bumperwack
    bumperwack November 28, 2011 8:19 am

    This police state propaganda is pretty effective …on some people

  7. Mac the Knkfe
    Mac the Knkfe November 28, 2011 8:20 am

    Scares me too Claire. I think the zombies are taking over.

  8. Mark
    Mark November 28, 2011 9:19 am

    There’s a simple explanation: pod people. 🙂

  9. Woody
    Woody November 28, 2011 9:53 am

    Appeals to authority by law and order folks make me crazy. When asked to explain the basis for their belief in the rule of law or why being a nation of laws makes any official proclamation lawful, non thinkers are usually silent. Or sometimes some wildly creative interpretations of the constitution will be forthcoming.

    Such interesting times we live in.

  10. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal November 28, 2011 10:11 am

    I think I think too much. I’m not sure if all that thinking accomplishes anything good, though. It may be that there is a happy-medium somewhere that is difficult to balance on.

    On the other hand, I enjoy thinking, and enjoy things (like this post) which make me think, and think about thinking. Yeah, I’ve got a problem. 😉

  11. Scott
    Scott November 28, 2011 10:18 am

    I used to work for a Christian(specifically, Methodist)college,and there were very few “Bible Thumpers”-most could clearly answer any question I might have(and I had a lot of them),and carry on a decent conversation-because they knew their subject!Far too many Christians never read their own instruction manual, or too often just pick the verses they like. Or accept someone else’s views as fact. Same applies to politics-it’s just a substitute religion. If religion is the opiate of the masses, than politics must be the crack of the masses. If it sounds like BS, look closely at it-the chances are good it is BS. Maybe Mac the Knkfe is right..The zombies rule..

  12. Claire
    Claire November 28, 2011 11:18 am

    Pretty clear the non-thinkers don’t hang out hereabouts.

    Kent — I wonder how many of us have been told throughout our lives, “You think too much”? I think the only time that’s actually true is if we’re so busy thinking we fail to act — and I don’t think that’s the case with you.

    Other times, though, I know we’re encouraged to think for ourselves — then get smacked down when our thinking or resultant actions don’t agree with the authority figure who urged thinking upon us. Or thinking gets us in some other kind of trouble. So yeah, it can feel as if we’re thinking too much.

    Water Lily — I concur with Pat; excellent quote. And I want to read that book one of these days.

    BTW, I added a line to my post after the fact. I thought I should explain why I’m recalling a single example of non-thinking from lo those many years ago.

  13. NorthIdaho
    NorthIdaho November 28, 2011 11:20 am

    To find an example, or several examples, of self-identified Christians who are ignorant about the Bible is not proof that all who claim to be Christians are ignorant about their faith (and the Bible).

    To find that this same individual, ignorant about the Bible and the tenants of her faith, is also ignorant about other areas such as politics seems to me not at all surprising — the common thread being self-chosen ignorance.

    Christians who are able to defend their faith and the Bible, and freedom-lovers are two separate characteristics — like someone who has both brown eyes and blonde hair.

    I am a Christian and I understand freedom. You’re welcome to email me if you have questions about the Christian faith, or the Bible.

  14. Ellendra
    Ellendra November 28, 2011 12:34 pm

    It’s not just christians who often believe without reading. A soldier friend who had been stationed guarding captured militants in “someplace ending in -stan” said that one thing they’d done that had the most effect on the prisonors was teaching them to read so they could read the Koran for themselves. He said most of them had been lied to about what it said by people who wanted to manipulate them. Reading for themselves didn’t always change their beliefs, but it sometimes changed what they did with those beliefs.

  15. Claire
    Claire November 28, 2011 12:35 pm

    NorthIdaho, I hope nobody thinks I was making any general statement about Christians. I wouldn’t do that — even if this blog didn’t have so many Christian readers. I know too many people of all beliefs who are deep thinkers.

    I thank you for your invitation to talk about Christianity or the bible. But until about 10 years ago I studied and read and discussed a lot on Christianity. I never heard anything that sounded like capital-T Truth to me and ultimately it was just a head-banging experience for both me and the people trying to convert me. These days I avoid the discussions — unless somebody else brings up the subject, as the friend I mentioned sometimes does.

  16. Matt, another
    Matt, another November 28, 2011 1:15 pm

    Everybody is welcome to be a free thinker or a critical thinker as long as the conclusions reached match mine, or at least are within acceptable parameters, as defined by me.

    Seems to sum up what I’ve experienced over the years whether in the religious arena, political arena, military, corporate, or society in general. If you think and come up with differing conclusions, and can (horrors) explain and defend those conclusions, you stand a good chance of being burned at the stake, at least figuratively for now.

  17. Karen
    Karen November 28, 2011 3:24 pm

    Somewhat like Kent, I sometimes think too much. My father was Jesuit educated and he never stopped pushing me to think things through, not just from the standpoint of the accepted propoganda, but also from the position of devil’s advocate. He was insistent that I couldn’t ever really understand something until I thoroughly understood both sides of a story, or the history behind the story, or the unintended but not unpredictable consequences of the story.

    While I was in school, he’d sort of quiz me about what we were being taught. I can’t count the times his comment was “That’s what you need to know to pass the test, but let me tell you the rest of the story.” And there’s almost always a “rest of the story”. It becomes almost impossible to wear a label or truly join a group of like-minded folks. It would be so much easier to latch on to Rush or Chris Matthews or someone and just blankly parrot dogma. It would be so much easier to just go along to get along, never questioning. It would be so much easier to just swallow hook, line and sinker. Even when I can go for the hook and the line, something about that sinker usually sticks in my craw.

    I’m inclined to agree that JR Martinez is a hero, but it has nothing to do with military service. I think that because he has overcome and is a survivor. His S seriously HTF and he’s gone on to show what he’s made of. Exemplar extraordinaire.

  18. Gary
    Gary November 28, 2011 8:18 pm

    Walter Cronkite was the propaganda mouth piece of the Vietnam Communists.

  19. Claire
    Claire November 28, 2011 9:50 pm

    Huh. And here I thought that was Jane Fonda.

  20. naturegirl
    naturegirl November 28, 2011 9:57 pm

    “Honey? What do we think of the Vietnam war?” ~ that comment reflects an era when women weren’t asked their opinions that often, or dared not blatantly go against what their husband’s were…..the 60s were an awakening time that either people never figured out or didn’t put to use the way they should have, the only excuse for not thinking and questioning now is lack of responsibility….especially when it’s easier now to find out all sides of things, then it was before when it was one sided/dimensional…..

  21. David M. Brown
    David M. Brown November 29, 2011 4:32 am

    “Let’s see,” I said to the job interviewer. “Hmm… My biggest flaw. Well, I have many. But perhaps the biggest is that I think too much. I really feel I’m too honest and deep a thinker, and independent-minded a thinker. It gets me into trouble sometimes. And my nobility and integrity, these also afflict me. I know I can go overboard, too, with my great courage and steadfastness in the face of insurmountable odds. And…”

  22. A.G.
    A.G. November 29, 2011 11:23 am

    I find it good policy for a wife to run opinions by her husband. It makes it easier all the way around. That way a man doesn’t have to invest more time and effort correcting her down the line, after things have progressed.


  23. A.G.
    A.G. November 29, 2011 11:28 am

    That was a joke, of course. Please don’t show it to my wife. She is armed!

  24. Claire
    Claire November 29, 2011 11:29 am

    Good thing you put that there smiley at the end, A.G. …

  25. Richard
    Richard November 29, 2011 11:42 am

    Superstition, fear, misunderstanding resulting from years of government and media propaganda and willful self-delusion are all common attributes of 21st century ‘creatures of north america’.

    It is almost never surprising to encounter this and I suppose it explains how a person can cause himself or herself to vote for someone who obviously can’t or won’t do his constitutional duty in office. Of course the presumption that people have read the constitution proves that I am self-deluded.

    As I was about to write that even some of my true friends from the past, people who seriously engaged in costly and hard fights against oppression were not ALL that well read, it occurred to me that they were all well read, and that we commonly had discussions which demanded knowledge and thought.

    Maybe that is one of the things I like about being an engineer and working with people who won’t accept unfounded opinions as if they were facts. If you are not willing to teach yourself the truth, and you need to have the facts to get to it, then of what value is your opinion?

    “The quality and influence of an idea, Ortega saw, was not so much in the idea as in a man’s relation to it. Has he made the idea his own, or merely inherited it? … The man born into a culture confident of its knowledge is in danger of becoming a barbarian.”

    I think the quote is attributable to Leonard Reid.

    Sorry for your friends and mine who won’t (or forgot how to) think. Just when we needed them most…


  26. Gary
    Gary November 29, 2011 9:04 pm

    Hanoi Jane didn’t have a nightly ‘news’ program.

    I was active duty Navy from 61 to 81. Never was sent to ‘Nam though.

  27. clark
    clark November 29, 2011 10:06 pm

    Water Lily said, “One of my greatest frustrations in life is over people who refuse to think.”

    You can say that again.

    Water Lily said, “I’m a Christian, and I must admit that this is very common in Christian circles.”

    That is a more terrible thing, imho.
    As if they’d never heard the arguments/pleadings of the likes of Laurence M. Vance
    Or paid attention to anything,… ever.

    Matt, another said,… and i FIXED IT: “The fact that they might be fighting to secure … rights for THE BANKING FAMILIES THAT TRY TO RULE THE WORLD is not something to be considered.” fOr MORE info, see The Daily Bell.

    I think I think too much too.

    Gary Says:
    November 28th, 2011 at 8:18 pm

    Walter Cronkite was the propaganda mouth piece of the Vietnam Communists.
    Claire Says:
    November 28th, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Huh. And here I thought that was Jane Fonda.

    Reply by me:

    Post-Boomer view. No way, it was Walter, in our living rooms every evening bringing it “home” Jane was a nobody to me until this decade,… she wasn’t the mouth.

    Nice comment, David M. Brown.

    Thanks for the laugh, A.G.

    Richard said, “The man born into a culture confident of its knowledge is in danger of becoming a barbarian.”

    We’ve been there for a long time then?
    Wouldn’t today’s headlines be of barbarians?

  28. Quincy
    Quincy November 30, 2011 7:52 am

    Hi folks.
    I was sent this link and decided to renew my old acquaintance with Claire, et al. Hi Claire! Montana misses you, and I do too.

    I quit watching TV in 1964, at the tender age of ten, for some of the reasons enumerated in the above comments. IMHO there are very few of us that really “think”. Mostly what we do is mentally review bits of information – mostly incomplete, inaccurate, or misguided – and then rearrange these bits in ways we hope will satisfy (1) our revulsion with the parts of reality we find unacceptable and (2) our craving for order and continuity in an apparently chaotic world. Kind of like trying to pick up trash in the midst of a twister: inherently futile, and potentially dangerous.

    As Michael Singer writes, in The Untethered Soul: “By watching the mind, you will notice that it is engaged in the process of trying to make everything okay… When you see the mind telling you how to fix the world and everything in it in order to suit yourself, just don’t listen. The key is to be quiet. It’s not that the mind has to be quiet. You be quiet. You, the one watching the neurotic mind, just relax. You will then naturally fall behind the mind because you have always been there. You are not the thinking mind; you are aware of the thinking mind. You are the consciousness that is behind the mind and is aware of your thoughts…”

    The solution to all of our problems begins with personal awareness of reality (NOT our thoughts) and equanimity. Based on this awareness and equanimity, we can then decide what part of reality we can meaningfully interact with, and what part we must simply accept as ‘not my business’. Only then are we qualified to act.

    Remember, each breath is a gift. Enjoy it fully.



  29. Claire
    Claire November 30, 2011 12:15 pm

    Quincy! How wonderful to see you here. Excellent observation and a fine quote. I especially like, “It’s not that the mind has to be quiet. You be quiet.” Just put a hold on Singer’s book at the library.

    I may have met you “only” twice, but there’s no “only” about you and your family.

  30. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau November 30, 2011 2:48 pm

    I saw this on the Montana list too.

    I prefer not to look at this in terms of “people who don’t think”. For one thing it is a fairly snooty attitude, isn’t it? Then, to function with the rest of humanity we have to conceal our true attitude about them – that is, we have to not be genuine, or honest.

    The other thing is that I had this attitude most strongly when I was a teenager and really knew nothing at all.

    Finally I have run into enough cases of being corrected by someone I first thought didn’t know anything.

    Nowadays I prefer to say that it is impossible for any individual to know everything. Thus, people specialize (division of labor, a good thing). Almost everyone is an expert at some part of his existence on this earth. One guy might be a good mechanic, another a competent sales person, a third an expert bird watcher. In areas outside their expertise, people default to some conventional wisdom or other, some worldview. Even we do this at times. Needless to say, few people are experts at political philosophy. We’d be silly to expect them to be.

  31. Pat
    Pat November 30, 2011 4:14 pm

    It’s not snooty when it’s obvious a person is only spouting bromides and can’t explain what he’s talking about. If he doesn’t comprehend the what, why and how of his own opinions, he should shut up.

    Knowledge and non-thinking are two different things. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing; there’s a lot wrong with relying on others to do your thinking for you, and carry you through society. It’s the non-thinkers who got a free ride since homo sapiens began, riding on the backs of human minds. Those who couldn’t keep up — Neanderthals, anyone? — died out.

    All the non-thinkers can do is find fault or spout silly alternate suggestions that have been proven non-workable throughout history (witness politicians at work), while those who can think — and imagine, and plan — lead us forward.

    If that attitude makes me snooty, then so be it.

  32. Claire
    Claire November 30, 2011 8:38 pm

    “I prefer not to look at this in terms of “people who don’t think”. For one thing it is a fairly snooty attitude, isn’t it? Then, to function with the rest of humanity we have to conceal our true attitude about them – that is, we have to not be genuine, or honest.”

    Really, Paul? But the friend I wrote about and I are very honest with each other. We’ve talked about the fact that she’s not a deep thinker while I “think too much.” I’ve told her exactly why her arguments on religion will never persuade me. She’s told me my politics and my blog bore her silly.

    I agree with most else that you said, Paul. But I do think you misread my viewpoint a bit. I totally acknowledge that my friend has virtues that I don’t and OMG, the world of skills that others have that I don’t possess would … well, fill a world.

    I still think it’s creepy that uninformed, unthinking people stand by smiling and believing all is well as tyranny prevails. I’m just not comfortable with refusal to face reality — though I admit I sometimes envy the peace it enables.

  33. Ellendra
    Ellendra December 4, 2011 11:08 am

    Even the Bible says to be prepared to explain why you believe what you believe, and “because my pastor said so” is not an explatation.

  34. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau December 12, 2011 7:46 pm

    “I still think it’s creepy that uninformed, unthinking people stand by smiling and believing all is well as tyranny prevails.”

    Well, yes. But they are not after all unthinking, uninformed people. They do know a lot about some things. Just not about political philosophy. Again, they are defaulting to a defective worldview.

    I’m very uncomfortable with this notion. Just think how much evil has come into this world via people who thought they knew better than others. Lenin, Marx, they all were “scientific”, weren’t they?

    Let’s step down from our pedestal of superiority, and try to relate to other people and point out that errors in worldviews, particularly those that make excuses for violence, are what cause all the trouble in the world. Even unsophisticated people can understand no good comes from violence.

  35. Claire
    Claire December 15, 2011 1:59 pm

    Good article, Paul. I think you’ve read too much into my words; there’s a huge difference between “people are idiots” and “some people choose not to think.” Still, your points are definitely well-taken. Thanks for the link.

  36. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau December 15, 2011 4:39 pm

    Sorry about going overboard on you. Your article acted as a trigger for me, to generate my article. As you know, a trigger is an amplifier…

  37. Claire
    Claire December 15, 2011 6:23 pm

    Paul — Yup. Understood. I’ve been triggered in the same way many times. Part of being creative …

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