What does it mean to ‘rethink’ something?

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Rethink Speech aims to help our society to rethink its ‘common knowledge’ about speech.

But what exactly does that mean?

‘Rethinking’ is quite a popular concept these day, and you undoubtedly have a good understanding of it. But let’s run through a few key ideas about rethinking in general that are worth keeping in focus, before looking at what is involved in rethinking speech.

True rethinking affects behaviour

Rethinking basically means ‘changing your mind’ about something at a deep level of embodied, experiential understanding, in a way that affects your behaviour towards it.

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Just learning some new facts is rarely enough to bring about true rethinking. Many of us know scientific facts showing that something we do is bad for our health, yet still continue to do it. That’s because knowing facts doesn’t necessarily affect behaviour.

One classic example is smoking. Learning the facts about smoking and health might make us say, and even believe, that we want to quit – without helping us to actually change our behaviour and stop smoking.

Why? Because just learning facts doesn’t bring about true rethinking. How do we know? Because it doesn’t affect behaviour.

Rethinking requires personal experience

Why does simply knowing the fact that smoking causes cancer not cause us to quit? Because the scientific fact has only been laid on top of deeper beliefs (smoking relaxes me, smoking makes me look cool, or whatever) without disrupting them.

In order to rethink something in a way that really affects your behaviour (at least according to cognitive behaviour therapy, widely regarded as the most effective way to bring lasting personal change), you need to disrupt old knowledge to reduce its potency and make room for new knowledge.

That requires a process of unlearning

So how do we bring about that kind of disruption? We need to unlearn old knowledge before we can properly learn new knowledge. And unlearning has a few stages.

The first stage is recognising existing beliefs

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When we really know something deeply, we don’t walk around stating our knowledge as a series of propositional facts.

The deepest level of knowledge, it is often said, is like water to a fish. It affects our lives and our behaviour without us having much, or any, conscious awareness of even having specific thoughts about it.

That’s great when the knowledge is valid. But it is possible for invalid knowledge to become entrenched at this deep level, affecting our behaviour and a whole web of other ideas, without us even being aware of it.

So the first stage of unlearning is to become aware of existing beliefs. How do you do that? Well there’s a bit to say about that – but that can wait till a little later.

The next stage is challenging the beliefs

Sometimes just becoming aware of a false belief brings instant realisation that it is false. But that is not the norm. Usually we need to really ask some challenging questions, and figure out whether we really believe these ‘beliefs’, or whether we’ve just accepted them as true without sufficient enquiry. Once we undertake the relevant enquiry, we can decide for ourselves what we really believe and what we don’t.

To stick with our example, this kind of enquiry might make you realise Smoking doesn’t really relax me or make me look cool. It is actually really bad for me. It benefits tobacco companies a lot more than it benefits me! Seeing that for yourself is heaps more powerful than being told it by someone else (even if the someone else is actually right!).

Then we can start rebuilding knowledge on a better foundation

Once we’ve really seen for ourselves that we have some beliefs that are false, we can start to find solutions for ourselves too. Maybe I should look for another way to look cool, feel relaxed, etc.

Does all that sound kind of familiar?

Interestingly, all these ideas about rethinking are just as relevant for academic theorising as they are for personal development. Even scientists don’t change their minds by laying new facts on top of false beliefs; they too have to unlearn to a point where they come to see things differently in their personal experience.

So what comes after unlearning?

Good unlearning is really essential, but of course it is not the end of the story. Now the decks have been cleared of false beliefs, we want to start building up some reliable knowledge through rethinking.

And again, there are a few things worth noticing about this process.

Rethinking often involves some backsliding and cognitive dissonance

Sometimes rethinking happens in a flash of insight that changes everything. We see the false beliefs, and the new path, so clearly that we never go back. In fact we may wonder how we ever managed to get misled in the first place.

Sadly, however, that seems to be the exception rather than the rule

Far more commonly, we have an experience that helps us ‘get it’ so strongly you think we’ll never forget it – and then a surprisingly short time later, find ourselves back in our old thinking-ruts, creating our old behaving-ruts. What am I doing with a cigarette in my hand – I decided to quit!

Sound familiar? It’s not pleasant to dwell on, but if we want to get good at rethinking, it is worth acknowledging!

By the way, Rethink Speech isn’t trying to pick on smokers. Smoking just a convenient example to illustrate unlearning and rethinking in a way we can all relate to.

And in fact, there’s something even worse that can happen

Most of us, if we’re honest, would have to admit the occasional moment of self-deception can creep in when we are rethinking something. It’s just one little ciggy, I’m not really smoking. Well, maybe. Or maybe it’s the beginning of a bit of backsliding. To really complete our rethinking, we’ll have to go back re-affirm the insights it started with.

Or maybe, even worse, it can be the beginning of a period of cognitive dissonance, where we say we believe one thing, but our behaviour suggests different, incompatible, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance can make effective rethinking very difficult.

Interestingly, all these things can happen with intellectual rethinking too. To complete the rethinking process, we need to be aware of them, and actively look out for signs they might be happening.

So, what has all this got to do with speech?

Our society’s current common knowledge about speech is full of false beliefs. Before we can rethink them effectively, we have to recognise that we think them in the first place.

So what do you think about speech?

Come to think of it, what does it even mean to ‘think about speech’? That’s the question we go to next.