Critical Judgment: The Challenge for Youth

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Reuters
La Jornada Maya

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

For the past few months, I have been visiting Mexican universities presenting my new book Trump vs Trudeau: Discursos Opuestos (Trump vs Trudeau: Opposing Discourses).

After forty years in diplomacy, I still find these exchanges invigorating. Students represent the future, and those with whom I interact are concerned about the world that they will one day inherit. Their questions are pointed, and their worries provide much food for thought for those with more of our lives behind us than ahead.

Invariably, at each university, the final question from students in the question and answer session generally revolves around how can we prepare ourselves to recognize true leadership and not fall into a trap of following the wrong individual?

Many countries that lack good leadership seem stuck with populists who seek power at any price, authoritarians who rule by force or through fear, or politicians who tell voters what they want to hear or simply play to their political base rather than set out bold and realistic paths that can address both short-term and long-term challenges.

Unlike the past, many leaders today do not appear to place the national interest over their personal ambitions. While one might argue that personal ambition is more important than a national vision in getting elected, I believe that a combination of both is essential in order to govern and develop society.

A few days ago, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was interviewed on Canada’s CTV network and made an interesting observation. In his view, the world lacks leadership today because of our collective emphasis on opinion polls and focus groups that lead to popularity contests between candidates rather than serious discussions about the issues that concern voters and solid, albeit sometimes difficult, proposals that can provide real solutions. Often times, the solutions to these issues are neither easy nor attractive vote getters. But a true leader must know how to craft a vision and a series of messages that will inspire others to follow their course and do so effectively.

Mulroney quoted former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s definition of leadership -- the ability to “see around the corner at what is coming up”. The ability to look beyond the immediate and the visible and identify challenges that may not be readily apparent but that have to be managed and explain ways to achieve goals is the sign of a true leader.

A leader must be able to listen to voters while shaping their vision of the future and providing guidance necessary so that they can manage the challenges together. A good leader understands that telling voters what they want to hear may get them elected, but that without well-crafted proactive policies explained beforehand, the result may well be a mediocre, reactive government and a disappointed and possibly cynical electorate.

Hence the cause of the political alienation many people feel around the world, and the growing discomfort with politics and politicians who seem to accomplish little.

Vision and substance are key to leadership, as is the ability to effectively communicate and convince others to follow and adopt those same strategies and goals.

Leaders can be forces for good or evil.

It takes the same qualities of leadership for a Hitler to have taken people along the road to hell as it did for Churchill to motivate the British to expect and accept blood, sweat, and tears in order to achieve their salvation.

Both kinds of leaders connect with their audiences and employ the same techniques in getting their messages across while pushing the right buttons with to motivate their followers.

Whether preaching love or hate, their appeal lies in being true to their beliefs and in sharing them openly.

From the very start of his campaign in 2015, U.S. President Donald Trump spoke his mind and his heart. While this turned many people off, it also connected him with a broad swath of the public who shared his disdain for politics as usual and political correctness and who shared the nostalgia, fears and hatred that he projected.

In 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promoted a vision of inclusivity and of a government willing and able to work with all Canadians to promote a vision of a united and welcoming country.

Two leaders, two diametrically opposed visions, and two election victories.

Our youth have excellent examples of both kinds of politicians. Telling the difference between good and evil, between truth and lies, between inclusion and division, is the principal reason for the need for them to develop an ability to think critically.

I remind my audiences that, although they are in university to learn facts and gather information, facts and information without judgment and experience can never become wisdom.

I underscore the fact that the most important element that they can develop is critical thinking – the ability to discern between the wheat of wisdom and the chaff of ignorance. The ability to tell the difference between truth and lies.

I remind them that they themselves have a leadership role to play as well.

Knowing whom to follow and which ideas are worth following and developing are the first steps to personal leadership. Those are the steps that they must take during their university years if they are to develop the kind of critical judgment required of every thinking adult. Knowing the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, truth or lies, is fundamental to any decision-making capability on the part of all of us, and in this critical judgment plays a crucial role.

If one analyzes politics today, one sees a number of leaders espouse ignorance or fear as the bases for their policies. They ply ideas of division and hatred, convince their followers to ignore knowledge, deny science and rely on visceral instincts rather than sound judgment. Some also tend to appoint incompetent sycophants to positions of power and influence rather than trained and proven experts, believing that blind loyalty is better than knowledge and proven experience. Finally, some, when faced with a challenge, they incite fear in the electorate with claims of hidden agendas and economic ruin if they are removed from power.

By telling them what they want to hear and offering easy solutions these leaders are in fact manipulating voters. This can be far easier to do rather than to demonstrate the personal commitment, discipline and hard work required by all to address the major issues of the day.

Opinion polls and focus groups are limited in their ability to provide a way towards the future. They can show leaders voters’ opinions at a given point in time, but cannot tell them if these opinions are right, are long-term in their perspective, or are based on fact or intelligent analysis rather than emotion or fear. They can indicate what is there, but not, as Bill Clinton observed, what is coming around the corner.

So, my message to my students and to my audiences is simple.

Develop your critical thinking skills daily, seek knowledge wherever you may find it, use good judgment in applying that knowledge, and the result eventually will be wisdom.

Learn to identify the “fake news” so prevalent on social media and to fact check before retweeting or sharing on Facebook. Social media is today’s idiom, one that is both used and misused by politicians of all stripes. Critical thinking and fact-checking can help us navigate these waters and not fall for lies or insinuations.

A true leader knows that respect is achieved through neither force nor fear.

It is only earned through effort and example.

And informed voters know how to apply critical judgment in taking decisions that affect their future.