Showing posts tagged critical thinking.

baubles of my mind's eye

"Beethoven was Black."


First of all, let’s get this out of the way: Yes he was. By today’s standards, based on descriptions from people who met him, if you were shown a photograph of the real Beethoven and then asked to guess his race, I guarantee you 99% would say “black.” It’s a shame photography wasn’t really a thing back then. From a privilege standpoint, even if his ancestors had never set foot in Africa from the second the first humans branched out into other continents, his contemporaries often mistook him for being a member of the Moor society (anyone who tells you the Moors “weren’t black, they were more like Arabs” probably makes the same false assumption of the Ancient Egyptians). In all likelihood, he had a fair amount of African ancestry based not only on his general description, but because of the fact that his family came from Spanish-occupied Belgium when a large number of Spain’s occupying forces in that area were descended from the Moors. But yes, if Beethoven were alive today, ancestry aside, he would be treated as a black man by society. 

However, this post isn’t intended to convince you he definitely had African ancestry. Short of going back in time, swiping a DNA sample, and testing it against other people from the region, there’s no way of actually proving that, especially given how badly-kept, apocryphal, and easily-revised ancestral records were at that time. 

This post is meant to ask the question “Why not?” The only arguments that I’ve seen in favor of him not being black are either flimsy alternate explanations to the evidence in favor of him being black (usually called “rebuttals” even though they’re no more provable than the arguments they’re meant to refute), or “Prove to me he was.”

“You prove to me he wasn’t!” is my automatic response to this. 

Here’s the thing about history: It can’t be trusted. It’s written by the people with power, and people with power, believe it or not, generally do not care about lying if it means keeping that power. The contributions of People of Color in history are almost always marginalized when a white man can be given credit for them. This is why the ancient Egyptians are shown as being incredibly light-skinned and the Moors are barely mentioned in many academic historical discussions. 

Which brings me back to my oft-visited, favorite form of horrible sneaky racism: Thinking of white as a “default race.” The only evidence that Beethoven was white comes from paintings and busts, most of which were painted either after he died by people who’d never met him (destroying their credibility as historical evidence) or in a society where black people would often “present as” white (which, if someone were attempting such a presentation, it would make sense for them to commission portraits where they look as white as possible, also casting doubt onto their credibility). There’s the word of almost everyone who ever met the man describing him as black (in more detail than Rue and Thresh were described as being black in “The Hunger Games,” although of course, some people assumed they were white as well), and this portrait of Beethoven, which was his favorite, and he considered so accurate that he gave copies to his friends and family who wanted a picture of him:

The point here is that even though the evidence in favor of him being black is overwhelming and the evidence against is insignificant at best, people are eager to overlook the descriptions of people who met him face-to-face and the portrait he regarded as most accurate in favor of the assumption that he was a white man. 

It’s fair to say that many white Americans assume everyone is white until given direct indication otherwise. I’ve met many people to whom it had never occurred that Jesus might not be white until his birthplace was directly brought to their attention. Hell, I’ve met people who (having only heard his voice) were surprised to find out James Earl Jones was black.

So to assume Beethoven was white based on nothing but people coming up with possible other explanations for everything else is a little problematic, because at a certain point, it’s like you’re trying to look for reasons he can’t be black that aren’t there. 

If he has no African ancestry, then all of the following must be true:

  • His skin was so dark that, despite not being black, was often mistaken for being black.
  • The rhetoric used to describe him matched up perfectly to then-contemporary description matched that used to describe the Moors completely by coincidence.
  • Despite the following two things, his family came from Spanish-occupied Flanders (now Belgium) during the Moors’ reign over Spain without including any African genetics. 

Or, the following one answer to all points of evidence:

  • He was black. 

So basically, my problem here is that people are more willing to accept multiple coordinating outlandish explanations that reassure them Beethoven might not have been black (and, in their minds, the fact that we can’t empirically prove it means we should stop talking about it completely) than they are to accept one simple explanation that wraps everything up in a nice bow and changes nothing other than reveal historical whitewashing and increase awareness that yes, Africa was a major player in World history rather than (as it’s so often erroneously cast) a secondary character in a Eurocentric version of World history. The fact that people need empirical proof he was black but don’t even need a logical argument to convince them he was white is all kinds of problematic. I could write a book on how racist that is. 

Challenging Eurocentrism in history is going to uncover a lot of times when whitewashing has occurred (see: How just about everything good Abraham Lincoln did for black people was something Frederick Douglass told him to do). While yes, there is a chance Beethoven was completely white, that answer is less likely than “historians intentionally left out certain details to keep people from challenging the stereotypes about black people they were spreading to ensure their continued ability to oppress them,” or, as it’s more commonly known, a “dominant narrative.”

So maybe Beethoven wasn’t black. Maybe he was. The evidence presented wasn’t an attempt to convince you one way or another. It was intended to show you that while someone who says “I believe Beethoven may have been black, and not, as previously assumed, white” can answer the follow-up question of “why do you believe that,” a person who says “I don’t believe Beethoven was black” can’t. There’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t have been black. They could argue “I believe Beethoven might not have been black” and present alternate lines of reasoning, but since that’s the dominant narrative already, you’re not challenging a well-established assumption, and you’re not going to get any disputes because “might not” is implied in the “might” argument. 

(via deletingunfollowthis)

— 2 years ago with 2599 notes

#white hegemony  #beethoven  #critical thinking 

—Bill Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics
[Learning stuff is the easy part, and yet that’s all our schools obsess about. Thinking is tough, feeling is tough, and that’s what I’m interested in.]


—Bill Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner, To Teach: The Journey, in Comics

[Learning stuff is the easy part, and yet that’s all our schools obsess about. Thinking is tough, feeling is tough, and that’s what I’m interested in.]

(via rematiration-deactivated2013111)

— 2 years ago with 60 notes

#school  #education  #thinking  #critical thinking  #feeling  #liberal arts 
"Within the last 30 years, the United States under the reign of market fundamentalism has been transformed into a society that is more about forgetting than learning, more about consuming than producing, more about asserting private interests than democratic rights. In a society obsessed with customer satisfaction and the rapid disposability of both consumer goods and long-term attachments, American youth are not encouraged to participate in politics. Nor are they offered the help, guidance and modes of education that cultivate the capacities for critical thinking and engaged citizenship."
— 3 years ago with 110 notes

#free market  #democracy  #consumerism  #learning  #ethics  #happiness  #critical thinking  #citizenship  #united states 
"The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are."
H. L. Mencken (via jonathan-cunningham)

(Source:, via bohemianarthouse)

— 3 years ago with 98 notes

#critical thinking  #independence  #self  #social conscience  #government  #authority  #anti-authoritarian  #hierarchy 
"Today I live in a world in which most people see by command. Whatever they know, whatever they learn in school, whatever is communicated to them by the media, has been carefully planned and structured. Screened images tell them how to see, what to see, and what not to see."
Ivan Illich (via codeduellofsp)

(via earlyfrost)

— 3 years ago with 53 notes

#critical pedagogy  #cultural conditioning  #critical thinking  #education  #media 
"Feminism is not a replacement mindset for patriarchy, which tells you what to think via media mouthpieces and politicians: feminism involves thinking critically, which is why there are such a variety of contradictory opinions among feminists."
— 3 years ago with 89 notes

#feminism  #critical thinking  #diy  #anarchism 
Top 10 Thinking Traps Exposed

Via Litemind.

1. The Anchoring Trap: Over-Relying on First Thoughts

“Is the population of Turkey greater than 35 million? What’s your best estimate?” Researchers asked this question to a group of people, and the estimates were seldom too far off 35 million. The same question was posed to a second group, but this time using 100 million as the starting point. Although both figures were arbitrary, the estimates from the ‘100 million’ group were, without fail, concomitantly higher than those in the ‘35 million’ group. (for the curious, here’s the answer.)

Lesson: Your starting point can heavily bias your thinking: initial impressions, ideas, estimates or data “anchor” subsequent thoughts.

This trap is particularly dangerous as it’s deliberately used in many occasions, such as by experienced salesmen, who will show you a higher-priced item first, “anchoring” that price in your mind, for example.

What can you do about it?

  • Always view a problem from different perspectives. Avoid being stuck with a single starting point. Work on your problem statement before going down a solution path.
  • Think on your own before consulting others. Get as much data as possible and explore some conclusions by yourself before getting influenced by other people’s anchors.
  • Seek information from a wide variety of sources. Get many opinions and broaden your frame of reference. Avoid being limited to a single point of view.

2. The Status Quo Trap: Keeping on Keeping On

In one experiment a group of people were randomly given one of two gifts — half received a decorated mug, the other half a large Swiss chocolate bar. They were then told that they could effortlessly exchange one gift for the other. Logic tells us that about half of people would not get the gift they prefered and would hence exchange it, but in fact only 10% did!

We tend to repeat established behaviors, unless we are given the right incentives to entice us to change them. The status quo automatically has an advantage over every other alternative.

What can you do about it?

  • Consider the status quo as just another alternative. Don’t get caught in the ‘current vs. others’ mindset. Ask yourself if you would choose your current situation if it weren’t the status quo.
  • Know your objectives. Be explicit about them and evaluate objectively if the current state of affairs serves them well.
  • Avoid exaggerating switching costs. They frequently are not as bad as we tend to assume.

3. The Sunk Cost Trap: Protecting Earlier Choices

You pre-ordered a non-refundable ticket to a basketball game. On the night of the game, you’re tired and there’s a blizzard raging outside. You regret the fact that you bought the ticket because, frankly, you would prefer to stay at home, light up your fireplace and comfortably watch the game on TV. What would you do?

It may be hard to admit, but staying at home is the best choice here. The money for the ticket is already gone regardless of the alternative you choose: it’s a sunk cost, and it shouldn’t influence your decision.

(This example is from an earlier article which focuses entirely on the sunk cost effect. Check it out if you want to know more.)

What can you do about it?

  • Be OK with making mistakes. Examine why admitting to earlier mistakes distresses you. Nobody is immune to errors, so you shouldn’t make a big deal out of it — just make sure you learn from them!
  • Listen to people who were not involved in the earlier decisions. Find people who are not emotionally committed to past decisions and ask their opinion.
  • Focus on your goals. We make decisions in order to reach goals. Don’t become attached to the particular series of steps you took towards that goal; always consider how you can better fulfill that goal from now on.

4. The Confirmation Trap: Seeing What You Want to See

You feel the stock market will be going down and that now may be a good time to sell your stock. Just to be reassured of your hunch, you call a friend that has just sold all her stock to find out her reasons.

Congratulations, you have just fallen into the Confirmation Trap: looking for information that will most likely support your initial point of view — while conveniently avoiding information that challenges it.

This confirmation bias affects not only where you go to collect evidence, but also how you interpret the data: we are much less critical of arguments that support our initial ideas and much more resistant to arguments against them.

No matter how neutral we think we are when first tackling a decision, our brains always decide — intuitively — on an alternative right away, making us subject to this trap virtually at all times.

What can you do about it?

  • Expose yourself to conflicting information. Examine all evidence with equal rigor. Don’t be soft on disconfirmatory evidence. Know what you are about: Searching for alternatives or looking for reassurance!
  • Get a devil’s advocate. Find someone you respect to argue against the decision you’re contemplating making. If you can’t find one, build the counterarguments yourself. Always consider the other positions with an open mind (taking into account the other mind traps we are discussing here, by the way).
  • Don’t ask leading questions. When asking for advice, make neutral questions to avoid people merely confirming your biases. “What should I do with my stocks?” works better than “Should I sell my stocks today?”

5. The Incomplete Information Trap: Review Your Assumptions

Harry is an introverted guy. We know that he is either a librarian or a salesman. Which one do you think he most probably is?

Of course, we may be tempted to think he’s almost certainly a librarian. Haven’t we been conditioned to think of salesmen as having outgoing, if not pushy, personalities? Too bad this reasoning may be dead wrong (or at least incomplete).

This conclusion neglects the fact that salesmen outnumber librarians about 100 to 1. Before you even consider Harry’s character traits, you should have assigned only a 1% chance that he’s a librarian. (That means that even if all librarians are introverted, all it takes is 1% of introverts among the salesmen to make the chances higher for Harry being a salesman.)

That’s just one example of how overlooking a simple data element can make our intuitions go completely astray. We keep mental images — simplifications of reality — that make we jump to conclusions before questioning assumptions or checking whether we have enough information.

What can you do about it?

  • Make your assumptions explicit. Don’t take a problem statement as it is. Keep in mind that for every problem you’re using implicit information — your assumptions. It’s usually not hard to check the validity of assumptions, but first you need to know what they are.
  • Always favor hard data over mental simplifications. Our preconceptions — such as stereotypes — can be useful in many situations, but we should always be careful to not over-rely on them. When given the choice, always prefer hard data.

For five more thinking traps, check out part II.

    — 4 years ago with 15 notes

    #critical thinking  #psychology  #life  #decision making  #cognitive biases  #thinking  #mind  #assumptions  #heuristics