Back when I made my living as a journalist editing a weekly newspaper for which I wrote the editorials, I noticed something over time.
I got far and away my most laudatory feedback when I was the most certain of my position and conveyed as much in no uncertain terms. When I fired away with all guns blazing, rat-a-tat-bang with an occasional grenade of humor, I would draw admiring comments from a cohort of readers who collectively said, via one expression or other, “You go, Boy! Take it to ‘em!”
And when the subjects deserved to be taken to, as in the stupidity and just plain heartlessness of so much of the AIDS-phobic anti-gay rhetoric of the time, it was easy—bringing a kind of smug satisfaction—to carpet-bomb the opposition and consider it a good day’s work.
It bothered me a little that in cases where I wasn’t nearly as certain of my “position,” where there were at least valid considerations on both sides of an issue and I acknowledged as much, I tended not to get anywhere near as much feedback or even interest, even though I did my best to avoid the dreaded Wishy-Washy Editorialist Syndrome. (“On the one hand A, on the other B, only time will tell whether…”)
But here’s the deal with that:
Human beings love certitude. We love confident leaders or spokespeople whom we think know their mojo, have studied the issues, come to conclusions about them, and stand ready to stride onto a podium or to their computer to enunciate them clearly, with passion and conviction, to the roaring approval of crowds.
Whatever our age, some part of us still really likes adults taking over and letting us know what’s what in that way they do, and what the solution is going to be to any given problem.
If only the real world bent so tidily to the passion of our certainty.
In David Brooks’s The Road to Character, he discusses the great English writer Samuel Johnson, who is noted approvingly by a critic for his frequent use of the words “but” and yet.” They reflected, says Brooks, “the substance of (Johnson’s) writing, part of his sense that to grasp anything you have to look at it from many vantage points, seeing all its contradictory parts.”
Now, to say that every position entails its own contradiction, its own variables that need to be examined before their legitimacy or applicability to a given problem can be determined, is to admit that life is complex, our vision is limited, and what we need more than quick, rip-roaring judgments, however cleverly propounded, are time, patience and humility. (Some unbiased research and careful reasoning don’t hurt, either.)
And even as we amass our case, we must acknowledge that a significant amount of it could be faulty or underinformed. This opens the possibility that we will actually listen to countering viewpoints instead of already framing our withering retort while the words are still coming from an interlocutor’s mouth.
The essence of this matter opens up the formidable challenge of epistemology, a dazzling-sounding graduate school word that asks the sometimes inconvenient question: “Exactly how do we know what (we think) we know?”
This all fits with the growing realization as we age that the more we know, the more mysterious things become. That culture and politics and economics and, Lord knows, the human psyche, are unfathomably complex, unwieldy organisms that can behave in contradictory, unpredictable ways, subject to a thousand variables that play off of each other like cosmic billiard balls untethered to conventional laws of cause-and-effect and gravity.
It is to let go of the intellectual arrogance that we see most disturbingly on display when academic and other leading lights of the intelligentsia take to the pages of learned journals in raging, merciless disputes that resemble full-on pub brawls, only with more multi-syllabic grunts.
Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, for all his worldly acumen and searing intellect, held a deep distrust of certainty, whether propounded by an individual or supposedly explained by a “system.” Brooks writes:
“He was a fervent dualist, believing that only tensions, paradoxes and ironies could capture the complexity of real life…He liked science but thought it a secondary concern…He had a deep distrust of intellectual systems that tried to explain all existence in one logical structure.”
Darwinism, Marxism, Christianism, Islamism, Freudianism, Scientism, Existentialism, New Ageism: “Sit down, child, and let us explain the world to you.”
But the truth (as I see it, using as much of my critical faculties as I can bring to bear on the matter) is that every “ism” provides but a window, a vantage point, into the many-roomed mansion of truth, of which we can attain but glimmers if we are motivated, focused and lucky in this world.
Yet if we are to attain such glimmers, it is essential for us to make liberal use of “but” and “yet” (as I did at the beginning of these last two sentences, ha ha!), our two humble spear-carriers on the road to whatever redemption might be awaiting us.
At least I think so.
“And there is so much we don’t know
So we love and we hope that it holds…”
Never heard of The Fray before, but one thing I’m certain of is I’ll be looking into more of their work:
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Wonderful, Andrew. Here are the three little words that I try (try!) to remember to murmur softly to myself when puzzled, conflicted or confronted (every day, in some fashion), or when I’m so damned certain of something: Not always so.
Nice little mantra, Alec, I like it! Strange and paradoxical that the smarter I get, the dumber I feel. (Works in the reverse, too, though I have to be careful not to pat myself on the back too strenuously about it…)
I think you have hit the nail on the head with regard to our evolving understanding of truth and fact. Many years ago, when I was in the early years of my fundamentalist faith, I recall that it was common for parishioners to boastfully speak of how a hell and damnation sermon “stepped all over their toes.” As I grew older and wiser I came to understand that these people were actually extolling their delight in words of absolute certainty. It seems to me that the Donald’s approval ratings are related to the discomfort that many Americans feel about uncertainty. It’s not so much the correctness of Trump’s words that appeal to many, it is the hubris and certainty he projects. It seems to me that many of us are willing to sell our souls for the pseudo power of “absolute truth.” But I may not have adequate information to make such a statement. Yet, I think there may be something to my observations (ha, ha).
Thanks for a great article, Andrew.
Robert, I’ve been trying not to write (or even think) anymore about Trump, for all the dismay that it engenders regarding our great nation, but you may be forcing my hand here! We seem to have come to a point where politics is indistinguishable from entertainment, a kind of ultimate reality show where we vote thumbs up or down on our favorite or most objectionable characters. And in the entertainment domain, Trump trumps—like Ronald Reagan, without the well-honed, back-slapping niceties. Perfect for our ever coarser age.