Even before he became pope, Pope Francis spoke of self-referencing and even a certain narcissism in the Church, and of the need to stop looking inward and embrace the outside world. There is no doubt that the erstwhile cardinal’s opinions were certainly well founded. There may also be justification for a similar denunciation of certain groups in the secular world in which corporativism and sociocentrism appear to hold sway. Certain assemblies, groups, associations of all different sizes and profiles can be said to adopt a self-referencing view of reality, and –yes– a sort of narcissism.
The risk of sociocentrism
We regard this tendency toward sociocentrism as being only natural in groups of any kind, be they social, religious or professional, but we need be alert in case it becomes necessary to neutralize certain excesses. Although the common themes of the members of these groups are complex to analyze and synthesize, the following features can be observed in the most notable cases of sociocentrism:
- They have a narrow-minded perception of reality.
- They cultivate an almost arrogant self-referencing.
- The Other –anyone who is different– is observed with suspicion and mistrust.
- They are convinced they are in possession of the truth, that they are right.
- They may hold extreme positions and aspirations.
- Leaders are invested with generating collective thought.
- They adopt a certain proprietary, all-pervasive and sometimes outrageous rhetoric.
The profile of the critical thinker
I was pleased years ago to come across the term in question while I was browsing documents related with the critical thinking movement. The experts Richard Paul and Linda Elder (“The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking”, available on the Internet) underlined the need for critical thinkers to overcome the habitual tendency to egocentrism and sociocentrism. By the way, the adjective “critical” is sometimes used to define a thinker whom we perceive as independent, rigorous, inquisitive, well-informed and prudent (as indicated by another expert, Peter Facione, in “Critical Thinking: What It is and Why It Counts”). So it may be worth briefly insisting here that the critical thinker:
- Does not look for failures or errors but for truths.
- Does not take a superficial approach, but looks deeply into the issues.
- Does not display a negative attitude but an exploratory one.
- Does not automatically accept information before verifying it.
- Does not make hasty inferences, but takes time to be sure.
- Is not stubborn and inflexible, but reasonable and open-minded.
- Does not believe in his own good judgment, but aspires to it.
- Does not tend to formulate reproaches, but hesitates and reflects.
- Does not generate mistrust and insecurity but quite the reverse.
- Does not search for scapegoats, but analyzes the causes and consequences.
- Does not allow himself to be caught up in prejudices and mental models, but is aware of them.
- Does not allow anyone to think for him, but cultivates sensitive cognitive independence.
You will note that this profile of the autonomous thinker, someone who is markedly self-critical and aware of his prejudices, has little to do with the sociocentric scenario described above. Critical thinkers logically form part of groups, but do not adopt the weaknesses of sociocentrism; if they feel uncomfortable, they usually end up distancing themselves, perhaps after being perceived with suspicion, rejection and even hostility by the group.
Critical thinking is a pending task in the field of education, and is a critical strength in our professional profiles in the 21st century, as highlighted by the Davos forum. Personal development can be said to involve assuming control of our personal lives, and of our perception of reality and our thought processes. We should all be able to reach –always with a solid basis– our own truths (conclusions, opinions, beliefs, values, moral principles and so on), while being aware that they are merely our own, although we can be satisfied with this fact.
Even though we may be secretly certain of possessing the truth or of being right, we must be able to respect other points of view without being tempted to impose our own. We must be capable of acquitting ourselves with convincing arguments when defending our positions, but we should do so (without compromising our assertiveness when necessary) with caution, conciseness, respect, and a willingness to listen to others. Our growth and development as human beings appears to be based on coexistence grounded in respect, and even empathy and solidarity. The reader must excuse this theorizing in the above paragraph, but it paves the way for what follows.
It was my own personal experience that led me to see Pope Francis’s self-critical position as being justified. A new statute of the World Confederation of Past Pupils of the Salesian Missions (drafted in Rome, the site of the congregation’s headquarters) encouraged us to “defend at all costs, with a spirit of social, political and financial commitment” such “non-negotiable” values as “life, freedom and truth”, and also to “fight against injustice, indifference…”. The association of ex-pupils assumed the solemn promissory manifesto of defending the truth at all costs, which produced in me a certain feeling of discomfort I have yet to shake off.
No, we cannot believe ourselves to be in possession of the truth, although we may seek it and value it, and even though it may be shared with a group. If we are members of a group –social, religious or professional, with either a high or low operational intensity, big or small–, we must be aware of this natural tendency toward sociocentrism, toward self-referencing, toward seeing things in a particular light and believing that this is the right and only legitimate way. In the name of equanimity, of objectivity, of respect for others, we must all practice critical thinking; that which allows us to be the protagonists of our own thought processes and our own lives, to think for ourselves, and to arrive at more personal and solid conclusions.