“I know. You believe all women, no matter what.” Those words were flung at me in an argument I had with an acquaintance, not too long after Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony to Congress. They were intended as a weapon and they left a mark. Do I “believe all women” blindly? Am I very easily duped by all the women running around claiming they’ve been assaulted when really they’re just in it for the money? Do I lose my sense of objectivity in the face of women being sexually harassed, assaulted, or abused? Am I so overwhelmed by emotion that my critical thinking skills suffer?
I’ve thought about that barb quite often since that discussion. The acquaintance is still only a person I know, not someone I would call a friend, but he made me push against my own ideals in a way that brought me to a better understanding, so even though he was being a jerk I’m glad he said that to me. The process of thinking and observing has helped me to solidify my beliefs.
Because here’s the thing with me. This might sound uptight or ridiculous, pedantic or overbearing. I might even be a logic bully, I don’t know. But I have a firm interest in critical thinking. I think I already had this tendency, but it was a concept I explored quite a bit while I was working on my English degree. I would sit in class and listen to students interpret literature through their religious lens (I was at Brigham Young University)—this is a “bad” book because bad things happen—and get frustrated and annoyed. I never said anything, though, because I felt so out of place, swamped by the weird culture of the university (all the classes start with a prayer) and unsure of where I even stood on what I knew about my religion in the first place. Then, one of my favorite professors (who actually changed my life in this process) wrote a comment on the essay I had written about the novel Possession.
“You have some wise insights in your essays and you think about things in different ways from your peers but I never hear your voice in class. SPEAK UP.”
That was the first week of my last semester, but I took his challenge and I started speaking up. Many students disagreed with my ideas, in that tone of voice that Mormons are good at, the one that suggests that not only is what I said wrong, but that I was evil for even having the thought. But a few students agreed with me, and that was enough. I also talked with him after class a few times, and he gave me some resources to help further my interest in critical thinking. I’ve been striving for such thought—which starts as an emotional reaction but then seeks rational understanding— since then.
That is why those words found their mark, because they are an accusation of non-critical thinking.
That memory has been bubbling around in my brain this week, because of two seemingly-unrelated news stories: the sexual harassment complaints against Governor Cuomo and the decision by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss books for their racist images.
Last year, when COVID was at its height in New York City, one of the things that brought me a sense of peace was listening to Cuomo. He seemed calm, rational, intelligent, and, most importantly, in charge. Like someone was managing the situation (as obviously the president was not). I would listen to his daily briefing and my panic and frustration would settle for a little while, so his voice and face became associated, in my mind, with calmness. With a sense of hope, even, that eventually we would figure out how to find a new normal.
So when those allegations started to surface, my deepest, deepest hope was that the women were lying.
And then I thought of that argument: You always believe women.
My gut response—my emotional response—this time was not to believe them. Or not to want to believe them. Not because their narratives are not believable, but because I didn’t want them to be true. Because I have this positive association with a person, because in my mind Cuomo is a source of calmness in a storm.
So maybe that acquaintance was totally wrong. Maybe I only believe women when it is easy to believe them.
I think this is one of the keys of critical thinking: being able to see your own weakness and then straightening up your shoulders to hold it out and examine it, instead of ignoring or burying it. Being willing to analyze your own prejudices and to find a way to change them.
If I “believe all women” because it is easy—because clearly the man who harassed or assaulted them was malicious—then am I really doing any actual work? Did I believe the accusations about Kavannaugh because I know his type and thus recognize those actions as something that kind of man is capable of? That is easy belief. (To be fair, the answer to those questions is “no.” I believe Christine Blasey Ford for many reasons, not just because she happened to accuse a vile, wealthy dudebro. And I forced myself to listen to his side of the story as well as hers.)
But when it is hard, when the accused is someone I admire, can I still believe the woman?
I am learning that I can. The Cuomo thing is not the first time I have come across this conundrum in the past six months, in fact. What do you do with people you admire or love when you find out they also did horrible things?
This is hard. And it is painful. Every time a news piece comes on about Cuomo, I want to change the channel. But what keeps me listening and trying to understand the women’s stories is, strangely enough, Dr. Seuss.
Or, more specifically, the illogical way many people are responding over the company that owns the copyright of Seuss’s work stopping the publication of those six books that have racist images in them.
And it isn’t exactly the same, but it is the same: Dr. Seuss is associated with good things in people’s memories (like Cuomo is in mine), so how dare those “others” suggest he did anything problematic?
To be completely upfront: I have a clear childhood memory of looking at that illustration of the black people in If I Ran The Zoo and thinking “I wonder where in the world black people look like that, I didn’t think that’s how they looked.” I wasn’t precociously anti-racist as a six-year-old but I remember feeling that the picture was wrong somehow. So maybe I am not using critical thinking by not having a problem with this, because of my childhood emotional response.
But as an adult who, as both a bibliophile and a librarian, has a vested interest in not only reading books but understanding as much as I can about books as an industry, as a force for social change, and as a tool for enlightening individual minds, I am annoyed with the pushback. With the lack of critical thinking. This isn’t leftie culture erasing literary history. This isn’t “cancel culture.” Dr. Seuss isn’t canceled. (He is, in fact, the second-richest dead person, behind only Michael Jackson.) It’s just that the company that prints the books has realized the racist issues and decided to do something about it.
Someone actually told me that he couldn’t believe I wasn’t upset about it. “I’ve read your blog posts and Facebook threads about book banning, so how can you be OK with this?”
This isn’t book banning. Libraries aren’t pulling the books from their shelves. No one is piling them up and burning them. They are just being allowed to die a natural death. (Something that happens to books all the time. Books go out of print.)
But I understand. It forces you to grapple with something hard: Dr. Seuss was both “good” and “bad.” He has some amazing books that I have spent countless hours reading and laughing over with my kids. He also drew some racist illustrations. Were they based on the social mores of the time? Maybe. Did Cuomo talk about how big of an age difference is too big with his pretty, young assistant because he’s a powerful politician who didn’t know any better? Probably not. I don’t want to admit that, but there it is: Cuomo knew better but he did it anyway.
It’s painful to deal with the reality of people. People can be amazing and horrible all in the same body. People change, and not always for the best. But to me, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is trying to change for the better. They are doing what Maya Angelou said we should do: “When you know better, do better.”
This, to me, is part of being a functional adult human being in the world we’ve constructed. It is a necessary skill, to be able to understand that nothing is ever really black and white. No one is all good or all bad. It is hard and sometimes (often) painful, to have that person you admire be brought down.
But we still get to have new copies of the non-racist Dr. Seuss books.
And Cuomo’s actions toward women? I cannot condone them, I cannot excuse them. I do believe the women. I think far less of him and I am disappointed in him.
But it doesn’t change the fact that he helped me through a difficult time in my life. The comfort that happened during that time still, actually, happened, whatever is happening now. It helped me in real ways at that time, no matter what is happening now.
Just like I learned to love books by way of some stories with racist ideas.
I could follow the example of the conservatives shouting “UNFAIR” about Dr. Seuss. I could say “I think those women are lying,” but I would be doing that not with my critical thinking self, but with my emotional self. And that is not the sort of person I want to be. Whether or not it’s painful doesn’t matter.
It’s part of being human, and being human is messy and confusing and sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes you have to wrestle really, really hard with the bad things done by people you loved or admired. But your feeling for them doesn’t change the truth of their actions.
Racism exists. Men sexually harass women. Looking away or pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t change those facts.
So call me uptight or pedantic. Say I am blinded by my liberal idealism. But I’m going to continue trying to be objective, even if I fail and have to try again, because critical thinking is, I believe, necessary for a society to function within its good and bad qualities.