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Question everything

It was the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell who said most people would rather die than think, and many of them do.

In a sensationalist world that operates at breakneck speed, many of us get caught careering between stimulus and response, rarely stopping to think critically about why we do what we do. More fundamentally, with nationalism on the rise, we ask: can philosophy enable us to think differently about our true identity?

Stine Jensen is a Danish philosopher who lives in the Netherlands, a country and people that are not afraid of big or new ideas. We travelled to meet Jensen to learn about the importance philosophy has in our modern distracted world. We also wanted to know if Plato was right. Is the unexamined life really not worth living?

Jensen tells Renegade Inc. that philosophy can help us to untangle some of the chaos.

“It’s true there are so many issues going on,” she says. “There’s fake news, there is a lot of anger in the world. There are migrants, refugees, globalisation, economic crisis continuing. With so many big questions in life I think philosophy can help to untangle a bit of that chaos and see what is going on. Why for instance are many people angry? What kind of an emotion is anger? How can we understand it? Can it be productive or valuable emotion even? Usually, philosophers are good at asking more questions. They will enlarge the chaos.”

But a lot of people don’t want more questions. The pragmatist wants solutions.

“The news is hyping everything and there’s no distance,” says Jensen. “There’s no looking back, no time for reflection and consideration of what’s really going on.

This we really need because nowadays news is – at least in the Netherlands – hyping one thing after the other. There is very little long reflection articles. There’s very little stepping back and looking what is going on.”

In many ways news has become entertainment and drama. Philosophy therefore provides a welcome hand break that allows people to slow down, take that step back, re-evaluate and ask more critical questions.

“Critical philosophy is important as well,” says Jensen “And also asking questions. Like, for instance, fake news. What is truth then? And philosophers are very good at this. So issues about reality, lying, truth, truthfulness. I think these are the key issues of philosophy. They can add critical thinking to all this news as entertainment or hype.”

‘Who am I?’: Identity, migration and belonging

Jensen became interested in identity after a big debate took place in the Netherlands where the Queen claimed there was no such thing as ‘Dutch identity’.

“It caused an enormous crisis in society,” says Jensen. “What does she mean ‘no Dutch identity’? People got really angry and upset. What she meant was that it is very diverse. You cannot pin Dutch identity down to three traits and then say ‘this is Dutch’. But people actually felt attacked and they said, well there is such a thing as ‘Dutchness’. It does exist.

“Then there was another debate about children, teenagers and students growing up that were more and more struggling to find out, ‘who am I?’

“Many young people are depressed, burnt out. We find that the identity crisis is no longer a problem of the middle-aged.

“The issue of life and ‘is this it?’, has become something that younger people are suffering from, even teenagers have identity crises.”

The monarch had some interesting timing, claiming there was no such thing as Dutch identity at a time when nationalism is experiencing a resurgence across Europe.

“It was some years ago that she said it,” Jensen says. “There was also a big debate about migration occurring at the time, so she turned the migration debate into identity debate. Who belongs? Who is allowed to belong in Dutch society? I began to work on identity because I became interested in how people told the stories of their life when people present themselves.

“Most people start with their name and then secondly they will say their work. Work is so prominent and dominant in how we understand ourselves. Why is this? Who are you if you don’t have a job? You don’t have an identity then? Many people are also permanently in search of ‘who am I?’ It’s a project. It’s something you have to to work at all the time. It becomes a second job to find out who you really are. And if you fail, if you fall out, it’s your fault and this, of course, causes a lot of stress, burnout, depression. It’s a serious issue.”

Jensen’s children’s book ‘Alles wat ik voel’ (‘Everything I feel’) makes children aware of their own emotions by exploring questions like ‘why do you feel what you feel?’, ‘is it ok to be jealous?’, ‘can you teach yourself empathy?’

When the noise becomes the signal

Jensen says there are several reasons why so many children are burning out. One of them has to do with the continuous distraction provided by ‘smart’ devices like iPads, and smartphones.

“That is not always a healthy input,” she says. “It’s a lot. They see countless images a day. This is very stressful and extremely addictive. Of course, it’s very worrisome for parents and how they deal with this. Of course, for the parents who have less children these days, for the one or two kids they do have, these children become their projects. They really want them to be happy, but life is not always about being happy. I think children feel this stress, that they have to become something in this world and that it is a difficult world to survive in. Their innocence gets lost at a very young age and they get more and more tests.”

“The iPad is the easiest baby sitter that we have,” Jensen says. “It’s a world that is very much about the outer appearance, visuality. I can see the addictive pull from social media, from the blog culture I can see it especially with my daughter. I wrote a book about Facebook and social media and how we sell out our humanity by being there. It’s really sort of a trade, a friendship trade, and I fall for it. So usually I start by something that I do myself and then I write a book about how I should cure myself.”

The philosopher says that exposing children to rigorous testing at such an early age “does something” to their self-worth.

It does something to their self value, their self esteem and the idea that they are either good or not good, and that they have to be good at something, they actually have to excel and they start to conceive life in terms of right or wrong,” Jensen says.

“There are good answers and there are bad answers. But to many questions there are no good and bad answers.

“We don’t even know what the answer is to big political problems for the chaos in the world.”

But Facebook manages to boil it down to a single like or dislike.

“A like or a dislike, this is a very limited vocabulary to think about the world,” she says.  “Things can be difficult. You are not always happy. There are hardships. And questions can be complex and very difficult. So I think in this sense teaching philosophy to young children can really help them to explore in a very playful and fun way the many questions and answers that can be given.”

Jensen’s daughter is eight and is currently undergoing a fortnight of tests to determine her intellectual capacity, “to decide whether she ‘fits the norm’,” she says. “If she is above or below. If she is ‘normal'”.

The philosopher began doing yoga and meditation with her daughter from an early age, to provide her with a space that is free of exams and tests.

“It is to provide a space that is free,” she says. “Free of grading, where thoughts are free, where the body is important, to experience the body. Because life is a bodily experience and sometimes we get lost. And all these people with burnout and stress symptoms, depression. Where do they go? They go to yoga classes. There’s a large Easternisation of the West going on where all these people with stress symptoms lie on yoga mats to relax. So I decided to provide my daughter with some of these tools in an early age.”

The yoga and meditation provides Jensen’s daughter with a framework and something else to rely on outside of grades, social-media, consumer culture and the constant exposure to imagery that internet connected devices now provide.  

Jensen introduced her daughter to yoga from an early age to give her a space free from judgement and constant evaluation, be it school tests, the internet, or social-media validation.

Philosophy for children

The stereotype of a philosopher is of that person walking around, weary with the weight of the world on their shoulders, trying to figure out the meaning of it all, but Jensen says there is a lightness and a brightness, a simplicity to it, efficiency even.

“Sometimes I teach philosophy with quite young children between five and eight years old,” she says. “It’s very playful. For instance I asked them: ‘What’s the difference between boys and girls?’ They will say: ‘Girls have long hair, boys have short hair’. They start out like this. And then I have all the girls and boys with short hair stand up, and then they get confused. Oh no, this cannot be it. Then they come up with skirts. So first they come up with all kinds of outer identifiers. We start out with simple questions and it gets more-and-more complicated.

“Then I ask: ‘Does money make you happy?’ Some children would say ‘yes, then I can buy everything in the world’. So then I ask ‘what can’t money buy?’ And then they really have to think. ‘Oh. A friend. I cannot buy a friend with money’.  It can be very playful. And children are very good at this.”

Far be it from the Dutch to shy away from big ideas. Jensen says philosophy seems to be a culture engendered in the Dutch from a young age.

“Maybe also because it is considered maybe a Dutch value and something that Dutch people are proud of,” she says. “This very liberal, free space to express yourself. To express your opinion. To stimulate free thought.

“Freedom of speech is something that is almost sacred in the Netherlands. It’s under huge threat globally, but here in the Netherlands it is very cherished.

“One of the most amazing things in the Dutch education system is that when I was a student they actually stimulated and promoted people to study philosophy. They gave you a whole extra year of finance if you do a double major.

“I think one of the most important things for parents is that a child learns how to express his or her opinion. That’s why the Dutch children, they always end up number one in the Happiness Children’s Index. Some foreigners think Dutch children can be very rude because they express everything like they’re almost equals, but I think in Dutch society it’s also something that is cherished and that is valued.”

There’s an expression from Victorian England that children should be seen and not heard.

In societies that aren’t as open as Dutch communities, children are still, in a sense, at the back of the proverbial queue, talked down to, where the parent is persistently on transmit and barely ever on receive. The philosopher says that parents should be learning as much from their children as the kids are from their parents.

“I think every parent experiences that a child can be the best teacher in the world,” she says. “Of course, you are the primary teacher for your child, but the child can hold up a mirror. I wrote a children’s book about happiness asking many children what makes them happy and is happiness different with grown-ups than with children? They all said ‘yes’. They said that it is so strange that grown-ups can even be unhappy when everything is okay. They have a job. They are healthy and still they are unhappy. A child says this. A child – seven years old – says this, observes this.”

The book asks some of the biggest questions life has to offer, from ‘what happens when a relative of mine dies?’, to what they should wear, to what should they eat in a restaurant.

“It also gives an interesting view on the questions that are in the minds of the children,” Jensen says.  “What keeps them busy? What are they wondering about? There can be very big questions and very basic, benign questions about what pizza should I order when I’m in a restaurant. But even that question is interesting for a philosopher because it’s about choice and how do I make a choice when there are 10 pizzas on the menu? How do I make a choice? What is making a choice? Do I have a free choice? Because this is about choosing a pizza, but then you have to choose your studies. Then you have to choose maybe a spouse. Then you have to maybe decide whether you want children or not.

“Choosing, is it a real choice? How free am I? Who makes the choices for me? Is it the government? Is it the billboards that I follow? How free are you as a human being?

“So these small questions become very big, fundamental questions.”

Jensen’s books explore topics like the special relationship between sisters, philosophy for children and how to negotiate childhood emotions.

The importance of thinking critically

Jensen says philosophy is more important now than ever because children are now growing up in an age that is very confusing, hectic and has enormous problems. 

“There is hardly any space or time to really reflect,” says Jensen. “If you build this in from a young age with children, if you train it as a habit, to let them sit, relax, reflect, think, really think, ask the critical questions, it will be a lifelong help for society as a whole. And the questions are enormous.

“These children will grow up in a society where they will have to share. You cannot have it all. You will have to learn how to share. This is very difficult so you will have to train a skill called empathy because it doesn’t come by itself. It doesn’t come naturally. You will have to think about why is sharing important? So from a young age, you can help children to get the tools that it will take to survive and to think about ‘what society do I really want to live in’?”

Tune into the rest of the episode to find out how to build a society and culture that is unafraid to ask the critical questions. 

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