First thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts

I’ve often said that Terry Pratchett was one of the greatest Pagan theologians, although he wasn’t a Pagan. In his books Small Gods, Pyramids, and the series about the witches, he often explored ideas about how gods might might come into being, and how they interact with the world. He was also, in a quiet and humorous way, a passionate advocate of thinking about things more deeply, looking beyond the surface of things, and being compassionate. (If you missed that about his writing, read it again.)

In the Tiffany Aching series, there’s a great passage about first thoughts, second thoughts, and third thoughts:

“First Thoughts are the everyday thoughts. Everyone has those. Second Thoughts are the thoughts you think about the way you think. People who enjoy thinking have those. Third Thoughts are thoughts that watch the world and think all by themselves. They’re rare, and often troublesome. Listening to them is part of witchcraft.”
Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The way I see it is this: if you look at a situation and ask yourself why it is happening, the first thought is the immediate surface appearance of the thing. The second thought is, why is that the case? And the third thought is, what are the systemic issues that give rise to the situation?

For example, I ended up having a conversation about homelessness with a random man at the bus stop, who was a lawyer (so we can assume a certain level of educational attainment, I suppose). I mentioned a major cause of the rise in homelessness in the UK, being sanctioned by Job Centre staff for being five minutes late for an appointment, and therefore not getting housing benefit. The lawyer guy said he assumed it was because they were all on drugs. So much for first thoughts. You see how the cause that I mentioned had second and third thoughts built into it – why were they late for an appointment? Because they had to walk, or they were on the bus but there was a traffic jam, for example. However, even if someone was homeless because they were on drugs, the question is, what was so despair-inducing about their life that they ended up on drugs? Second thoughts – what caused the lateness, or the drug-use, or the mental illness that caused the homelessness – almost inevitably lead on to third thoughts, the systemic question, what caused the despair that led to the bad timekeeping, or the drug use, or the mental illness?

This is why a university education (especially in social sciences) tends to move people’s thinking to the left. It teaches people to think systemically.

Right-wing thinkers almost invariably talk about people making choices, without discussing the way that poverty and systemic oppression close down the number of choices available to people. If you cannot get a job and there is no social safety net to ensure you get enough to eat, you don’t have a lot of choice other than to turn to crime. Yesterday I saw this tweet:


Similarly, people who have suffered decades, centuries, of systemic oppression have their choices and opportunities severely curtailed by all sorts of factors. This lack of choices in situations of poverty, homelessness, and oppression was first pointed out to me by Ted Lumley, a profoundly systemic thinker.

Indigenous people in Turtle Island (North America) and in Australia were forced off all the decent agricultural land – which they had been cultivating where it was suitable – and corralled into reservations, mostly located on marginal land that was not really much use for either hunting or farming. The people of Attawapiskat used to fish in Hudson Bay, but mercury levels in the water have made it unsafe to eat the fish.

Take for example the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois or Six Nations). They fought on the British side in the American war of independence, and so Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) asked the British for a tract of land in Canada, as they feared reprisals from the nascent USA. A tract of land six miles either side of the Grand River was purchased by the British from the Mississauga people (the Haldimand Tract). Brant realised that it was not going to be big enough for hunting, so he decided that the Six Nations should sell some of it and farm the rest. (John Graves Simcoe tried to talk him out of it.) However, the government of the day collected the proceeds on behalf of the Six Nations, and “held it in trust” for them. They have never seen a penny of it. Similarly, the Toronto Purchase (the land on which Toronto sits) was only recently paid for, after the Mississauga people had been campaigning for it for years (they were moved way up North, away from their ancestral lands, too). Look at how choices were limited for the Haudenosaunee in this scenario. They had to waste a lot of energy getting the land grant from the British; then it was not big enough to continue their traditional lifestyle, so they were forced to sell bits of it. (The story is a bit more complex than the outline I have given here – please read the Canadian Encyclopedia entry on the Haldimand Proclamation for more detail.)

Another example of being between a rock and a hard place is what happened when the buffalo were slaughtered on the Plains. Suddenly the traditional food source of the indigenous people of the Plains was gone. An American policy of slaughtering the buffalo in large numbers was intended to starve indigenous people into dependence.

More recently, the severe trauma inflicted by residential schools has resulted in diabetes, psychological issues, cultural genocide, and intergenerational trauma. The sheer hopelessness caused by unemployment, isolation, racism, and powerlessness has resulted in numerous suicides of Indigenous youth, and other signs of trauma and despair. Again, people’s choices are limited by ill health, systemic oppression, poverty, a system of police and courts that is weighted against them. See the recent verdicts on the murders of Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine, for example. The system failed them. And racism, and the indifference to, and contempt for, indigenous people that it propagates was evident in many of the online reactions to both verdicts. But there was also a lack of systemic thinking, or ‘third thoughts’.

Recently, Kayla Chadwick lamented in The Huffington Post, “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about other people“:

I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people.

Personally, I’m happy to payan extra 4.3 percent for my fast food burger if it means the person making it for me can afford to feed their own family. If you aren’t willing to fork over an extra 17 cents for a Big Mac, you’re a fundamentally different person than I am.

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education. If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

If I have to pay a little more with each paycheck to ensure my fellow Americans can access health care? SIGN ME UP. Poverty should not be a death sentence in the richest country in the world. If you’re okay with thousands of people dying of treatable diseases just so the wealthiest among us can hoard still more wealth, there is a divide between our worldviews that can never be bridged.

Me too, Kayla.

But maybe, just maybe, we could teach systemic thinking in all subjects and levels of education, not just in university-level social science courses? If we can’t teach people compassion, we could at least teach them to look beneath the immediate situation to its context and long-term causes.  That does seem to have the effect of making people more left-wing, and it’s not just because universities are a ‘hotbed of left-wing radicalism’ or whatever (just look at Jordan Peterson – ugh). It’s because people engage in detailed analysis of complex situations.

A former colleague told me that she tried to teach risk analysis to engineering students. Risk analysis necessarily involves the technique of fuzzy thinking (not to be confused with woolly thinking). It’s all about context, and complex causes, and the probability of different factors and events. The engineering students, who tended to think in a binary either/or way, had real trouble getting their heads around fuzzy thinking and risk analysis. Similarly, the lawyer who assumed that all homeless people were drug addicts, probably came from a tradition of binary thinking.

There is a very strong correlation between engineering and science education and extremism. (Although the linked article is about the prevalence of jihadism among engineering and science students, the same very likely applies to white terrorists – think of the École Polytechnique mass shooting, for instance. There is also a high correlation between mass shooters and perpetrators of domestic violence.)

So what can we do about it? Teach kids to think second thoughts and third thoughts. Teach them to look deeper than what seems obvious. Teach them critical thinking. Teach them the real history of Black and Indigenous people. Teach them about systemic oppression. Teach them about complex ecosystems. In this way, you’re giving them a whole toolbox of ways to be compassionate.


If you want to find out more about Indigenous history and the current situation, check out the excellent and free online course from the University of Alberta on Indigenous Canada.

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