You love thinking about things. You love asking questions, analyzing information, crafting arguments and counter-arguments, and wondering about life and its mysteries.
Assuming you don’t always keep your thoughts to yourself, you’ll likely find yourself inconveniencing, troubling or angering people who don’t want to have to deal with the fact that you think about things. I’m not talking about people who get annoyed if you happen to be nosy and intrusive or tactless (e.g. starting a debate about the existence and/or nature of the afterlife at a funeral), or if you’re arguing in bad faith. I’m talking about people who want you to accept things, fit in, do as you’re told, and not make them uncomfortable by exploring alternate possibilities or additional complexities.
Here are some patterns of behavior they might adopt to get you to stop thinking (or at least, to stop inflicting your thoughts on them, which might also discourage you from considering them on your own):
Belittling you and your thoughts
When you’re being sincere and willing to discuss something and learn more, and people tell you things like:
“What kind of a stupid question is that?”
“Would you just shut up?”
“Who thinks about these things?”
“You’re just trying to cause trouble, aren’t you.”
“Only messed up people think about these things.”
“You shouldn’t think about those things. What’s wrong with you?”
“Seriously? You have no life.”
You’re meant to regard yourself as an idiot or a shameful deviant. You’re told these things so that you’ll think twice before sharing your thoughts in the future, and even deeper than that, doubt yourself as a thinking person.
It’s especially terrible to say these things to a child. Children are starting to explore the world, and the questions they ask that may seem silly to us are logical or reasonable from their point-of-view. And notice how I say “seem silly” because many times their questions make us confront day-to-day aspects of reality that we take for granted and haven’t given much thought to. We might not have the answers. We might never have considered these things. But they’re legitimate questions and deserve a response, even if the response is something like, “I don’t know… why not look it up?” Because even if we don’t know the answer, we can at least allow for the possibility of further exploration, rather than shutting down a child’s thought entirely.
Even in the face of a sincere thought that’s based on false or ridiculous assumptions, there are ways of addressing the mistake without belittling the person. Mistakes go hand in hand with learning and growth.
Responding with abrupt finality
Attempts to cut off a train of thought and effectively nip a budding discussion; none of these have to be said in an insulting way.
“It is what it is.”
“Stop thinking about it.”
“That’s how things are. They’ve always been that way. The subject’s closed.”
“I don’t want to hear any more about it.”
“There’s no use thinking about it.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
You can also be told flat-out that thinking itself is problematic.
“You think too much.”
“You have better things to do than think about these things.”
Consistently exhibiting impatience
In addition to cutting you off or possibly insulting you, people can show signs of impatience: looking at their watches, fidgeting, sighing, giving you a look like you’re sucking the life out of their day.
People don’t always have time to hear you out. But if you get this attitude consistently from certain people, every day and at all times of the day, then they very likely don’t want you to bother them with your thoughts.
I’m also thinking of harried parents who’ve got a three-year-old who’s just discovered the word ‘why’. I sympathize with them, I do, but there are ways of dealing with children’s natural curiosity about how the world works that doesn’t involve shutting them down or showing them through impatience and frustration that their questions are nothing but a source of annoyance. For instance, you could use their questions as an opportunity to teach them how to work through problems and find things out on their own. You could also tell them to hold on to a thought and revisit it at a future time (via a book, a movie, a trip to a museum, an outdoor walk, etc.). You could keep a little notebook where you write down unanswered questions that both of you will think about more and return to. Even if you don’t have time at every hour of the day to answer a question or you don’t know the answer, you could still create an atmosphere where thoughts are valued and addressed, if not immediately then at some point.
You and your pesky questions do not exist. Your thoughts are beneath notice. They don’t enter into discussions, either personal or communal. Maybe then you’ll go away.
Denying you access to intellectual resources
You’re denied opportunities for education. You aren’t given the means to try to educate yourself, even if no one around you wants to teach you. You’re restricted in your exposure to various viewpoints, beliefs, and opinions.
Denying that your thoughts are your own
“Who told you to say that?”
“Someone brainwashed you.”
“All those books you read have messed with your head.”
Unlike the examples of belittling above, which can make you feel stupid or wrong and unable to think, this kind of response makes you doubt your agency as a human being and doubt whether anything you think of really is your own. Even if you did hear about an idea from someone else, the fact that you’re bringing it up shows that it matters to you personally. In response you’re getting treated like a passive sponge absorbing and secreting things, instead of a mentally active human being.
Denying that someone like you can think about certain things
“Why do you want to know about that? You’re a girl.”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head.”
“Boys don’t read that stuff.”
A powerful way to get you to shut up and stop thinking is to persuade you that your biological makeup prevents the formation and development of certain thoughts and the acquisition of certain kinds of knowledge.
Even if you demonstrate that you can think and learn about topics that are supposedly beyond your reach, you’ll be told that you shouldn’t learn about them. ‘Can’t’ and ‘shouldn’t’ – two cherished words of people who want to shut down thought and keep you in line.
Making you feel like a social pariah
(Frankly I see this as a compliment, but most people don’t share my enlightened opinion.)
(Not a compliment. Not by a stretch.)
“Who’d want to marry/date/befriend/work with/tolerate someone who cares about these things?”
(There are almost definitely people who would, but unfortunately you might be surrounded by people who wouldn’t.)
“I’m going to fix a label on you so that I can oversimplify everything you think about, and based on that label I will decide whether I like you or despise you, ok? That’ll make life so much easier for me.”
(Granted, usually people aren’t as blunt as that.)
If you’re interested in exploring and thinking about topics that aren’t popular or given broad sanction by your culture (particularly for people of your sex, race, age, etc.), then there will be many who will delight in teasing, belittling, excluding, and/or tormenting you.
Even among circles of people who do care about similar things, you’ll find those who try to ostracize you for not holding the “correct” opinions and subscribing to the “correct” beliefs.
People who genuinely care about discussion and exploration (instead of needing to always be right and overpowering others who think differently) have always struck me as being in the minority.
“Nice brain you’ve got there. Shame if anything should happen to it.”
Threats are the second to last resort of people who’ve tried other things to get you to drop a line of questioning or stop verbalizing your thoughts, and now need to use real fear to keep you in line. Fear of being marginalized or ostracized can be a part of it, but there’s also fear of physical harm to you and others, and the loss of valued privileges or rights.
Why punish you? To hurt you, to drive home the point that you’re wrong, wrong, wrong, and they’re right and just. If you haven’t submitted yet, maybe now you will. It isn’t your place to think, and they’ll make sure you know it.
Enforcing and intensifying mental submission is gratifying to many people. It’s not enough to have control over another person’s body – to have control over the mind, now that’s something. To wrench it down well-trodden paths no matter how hard its trying to weave its way into the deep woods – that takes some persistence and ingenuity. Thoughts are dangerous. It’s best to drive them out, or barring that, keep a lid on them.
Claiming good intentions
In most cases people who do these things will tell you that it’s for your own good. They can be genuinely convinced of that. They tell themselves, and you, that they’re stopping you from wasting everyone’s time, including your own. They’re keeping you from alienating others. They might be convinced that they’re saving your soul or your social status or your happiness. They want you to be normal and keep quiet and be satisfied with what you know; if you must ask questions, ask only the right ones, whatever those might be for a person like you. Think only about the things they tell you you’re meant to think about. That way you fit in and no one is bothered.
If they hurt you, well, it’s for your own good. And for the greater good. For everyone’s good.
That’s what they say.
Do you believe them?