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Aviva Rubin Headshot

Do We Suffer from Botox of the Brain?

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Hundreds of policy analysts including economists and social scientists are losing their jobs in the latest rounds of cuts to the federal public service. The most popular response to the news on the Globe and Mail site was the sarcastic type: "Who needs policies based on facts and figures when you have dogma and ideology?"

The feds clearly believe thinking is overrated. Haven't they learned that knee-jerk political fidelity and dogma -- in pill form or injected -- rarely serve us well?

Blanket disregard for differing ideas and perspectives, not because they are flawed, but because they contradict our own, is the easy route. When there's no space for disagreement, debate, or messiness, we've chosen idea botox -- an effortless, comforting state, with like-minded friends, no wrinkles, no loose edges, no dangling bits.

In addition to the policy cuts, a number of things converged this past week to support my "Brain Botox" theory. An article by Konrad Yakabuski in the Globe arguing the transformation of the American Republican party from centre-right into an ideologically homogenous movement, one that tolerates no deviation from the doctrine of tax cuts and Christian values, happened because politicians outsourced the ideas portion of their job.

Katrina Onstad's column titled "The Wrinkle Revolution," examined Hollywood's obsession with youth and beauty, and the fact that actors need facial flexibility to show they are thinking and feeling. Frozen doesn't work so well for that, and the results (see Sophia Loren) can be more freakish than beautifying.

Last week I wrote an article about being naked in front of my kids for the New York Times titled "Naked, With Children," and a column for the Globe on the same topic. The response was a wholesale attack on me, both sides of the border, for writing about family nudity with claims that flapping naked in front of innocent children will put them at risk. For at what was unclear, and doesn't seem to matter.

Lest you think I'm one-sided in my critique of immutable belief, and much as I'd like to believe it, Conservatives don't hold the patent on outsourcing thinking and choosing pre-packaged ideology. Yes, despite the findings of a recent study linking low-effort thought to political conservatism. Bottom line is you don't have to be right wing to be conservative.

We all fall prey. Life is busy. We can't formulate personalized, thoughtful responses to everything. But too many of us eagerly take our attitudes and speaking notes from ideologues, tyrants and fanatics great or small whether they be Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Marxist, capitalist, environmentalist, vegan, or holier-than-thou -- who claim indisputable rightness.

Maybe prêt-a-porter works for fashion, making pretty things more democratically accessible to the masses, but in the realm of ideas, hands-on custom designer tailoring is the way to go. I was shocked but not surprised by the thoughtless, off-the-rack judgment thrown my way.

It's simpler to hide behind ideology and political affiliation, to replay the sound bites, chants and party lines, and use them as shields as we stand arms linked, responses synced, in what we perceive to be, but often neglect to define for ourselves, as "The Struggle."

Breaking ranks is hard. It takes work and guts. When we identify contradictions that set us apart from our posse, we invite vilification. Not everyone has the constitution for it.

We are a society obsessed with sex, youth, beauty and "immorality," happy to use others' definitions to pass our own judgments. No surprise that "Brain Botox" is even more desirable and prevalent than its cosmetic cousin. No money or time required. But a quick review of fascistic revolutions whose totalitarian outcomes crushed the very people who supported them highlights the cost.

Ideological knee-jerk reactions should give us cause, at least occasionally, to examine our barricaded viewpoints, confirm they can withstand the pounding, and ensure they have not gelled into a tyranny of their own. Occasional complex, messy self-doubt, combined with a willingness to discard or revise what no longer works, can only be a good thing.

When did thinking become a radical act? I'm relieved some people agree that at the very least it's humiliating to look like a thoughtless fool. "Someone is stupid enough to read the article?" one man asked about my Globe piece. To which someone else responded: "Someone is stupid enough to comment on an article they haven't read?"