Thoughts Out of School

Several incidents in the past few weeks have sparked ideas for posts, but they’re not coming together as coherently as I’d like. Hence, a few thoughts related, if at all, by their occurrence outside my usual academic milieu.

People who don’t write think writing is easy. Is there any other activity that the general public treats this way? Does anyone think they have a few good tennis games in them even if they’ve never picked up a racket? Or that they could solve a few calculus equations even if they haven’t done any math since high school algebra?

Recently over drinks, someone who doesn’t write–but plans to, someday, really, when she gets around to it–asked my advice on writing. My main comment was, writers write, after which I tried to change the subject. Following some more persistent requests for advice, I may also have added something like, they don’t just sit around in bars talking about what a fascinating story their lives would make if they ever found the discipline to sit down and actually write. The person didn’t like my advice. Maybe it was my tone. Whiskey might have been involved.

Skepticism is an acquired trait most people don’t acquire. Perhaps it’s not a trait conducive to human flourishing. It didn’t help Socrates much.

Same bar, different evening, I inadvertently stumbled into a political argument with someone whose statements I should have ignored out of friendship and kindness. The argument ranged over several issues and it became clear to me that the person held very strong beliefs with almost no facts, evidence, or reasoning justifying them. Blind faith in God is one thing, but blind faith that people regularly receive preventive health care at emergency rooms or that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks is something else, unless perhaps they are the same thing. The claims about reason and reality made during the attempts to evade my questions grew ever more surreal, which shouldn’t have surprised me. When people’s beliefs are challenged, they tend to cling even more tenaciously to those beliefs regardless of the lack of evidence supporting them. Eventually, I realized the pointlessness of the debate and gave up, though I learned two important lessons. First, my tolerance for people spouting nonsense gets lower all the time. Second, saying “Do you really believe that nonsense or are you just fucking with me?” is an ineffective rhetorical strategy.

Dialectic isn’t popular outside the academy. When challenged about their beliefs, people often avoid answering direct questions. If you ask, “what about this,” they will almost inevitably reply, “well, what about this other tenuously related thing instead?” When someone can’t or won’t answer a direct and easily answered question, I sense both victory and stalemate. People panic. They sense the conversation is going in an uncomfortable direction for them. They probably think I’m trying to get them to admit they believe something which contradicts something else they’ve already claimed to believe. To be fair, I am.

Political and religious disagreements are often about method, not belief. Some people are disturbed that other people don’t believe what they do. In contrast, I’m more concerned with the way people arrive at their beliefs. The two points of view don’t mix well.

In conversation with a conservative fundamentalist Christian minister in rural Mississippi (don’t ask), I was asked what I thought about New Jersey’s current governor, Chris Christie. My opinion is that he’s an improvement on the last two New Jersey governors, but that’s damning with faint praise. He called Christie a rhino. I thought to myself, well, Christie’s got a weight problem, but that hardly seems the Christian thing to say. It turns out he meant RINO, or “Republican in Name Only.” What folly to treat political parties as if they had eternal essences. The party of Lincoln is now the default party for southern racists. Political parties change. For that matter, religions change. To myself, I thought this. To him, I merely nodded and smiled. Some worldviews are so hermetically sealed it’s pointless to engage them.

Trying to see the world from the perspective of someone unlike yourself is difficult. It requires curiosity, imagination, and sympathy. Maybe that’s why so few people try. Maybe that’s why all of us give up sometimes.

Some people question whether you can ever really understand the world from the perspective of others, or perhaps The Other. If that were true, most literature would be impossible. I’m a tall, smart, white, heterosexual man with symmetrical facial features and a full head of hair living in a society that often rewards those arbitrary characteristics. How could I possibly understand what it’s like to be a member of an oppressed group of any kind? Maybe I can’t. But I know what it’s like to be poor, to be unfairly judged, to be ridiculed, to be feared or hated because of a perceived difference, and even to be harassed by the police. If I consider my worst experiences and magnify them considerably, I can imagine what it must be like to be routinely on the receiving end of American oppression. I’ve never been stupid, but I’ve been stoned. I assume being stupid is like being stoned all the time. What I can’t understand is a white southerner who claims to be unaware of racial discrimination in the south. Maybe it’s like being stoned all the time.

All that stuff academic librarians try to teach about searching for evidence, critically evaluating it, and integrating it into your worldview–that’s a lot tougher than it looks. Even tougher than writing.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts Out of School

  1. I had a laugh with the part of your post that says: “Do you really believe that nonsense or are you just fucking with me?”

    Despite knowing that question to be an “ineffective rhetorical strategy”, it’s sometimes hard to keep that sentiment from actually coming out of my mouth.

  2. This post reminded me of these lines from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ch. 13).

    “You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

    Thanks for posting your thoughts in and out of school. I enjoy them all.

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