Everything, and Nothing, and Citizenship, and Us All

I don’t want to rant. Ranting makes it sound angry, and colors the statement with a lack of reason, of thoughtfulness, of dispassion. And dispassion is usually the route I prefer to take in discussing matters of politics. It makes the most sense to me, because these matters are typically those that incite such extreme passions in those who engage them. They are not only sensitive issues; they are at the core of many people’s fundamental beliefs. They are important. And so, as a matter of respect, I try to be circumspect in the way that I encounter people’s views, arguments and ideas on politics.

But here is my problem of late: I’ve found myself facing, with ever-increasing frequency, viewpoints and arguments that simply do not merit the kind of serious reflection that I usually like to employ. The knee jerk reaction of some reading this may be to call me arrogant: “who are you to decide which and whose arguments are worthy of reflection??? What happened to tolerance and open-mindedness??”

Perhaps they are right. Perhaps I am arrogant. Or perhaps, as I believe, there are some viewpoints that truly do not merit the decency of a tolerant reception. These include views that are based in falsehoods, racism, sexism (or any other discriminatory ideology), or that are concerned more with distorting an existing viewpoint than in offering any original content that’s put forth in the spirit of genuine reflection.

The last point mentioned above is a big one. This distortion of viewpoints is becoming a commonplace tactic in oppositional politics today. If one party presents an idea or platform, those against that idea will twist it into a warped alternate, and ultimately opposite, version. When Black Lives Matter, suddenly All Lives Matter; when political correctness becomes prudent, its overapplication quickly becomes lambasted as oversensitivity and weakness – leading to the implicit acceptance of racist, extremist language that proper political correctness is designed to reduce.

When the rise of “fake news” sites makes the rounds of popular culture and punditry, actual news sites suddenly become the targets of such a label. The tactic of twisting a message into its exact opposite has proven to be an effective means of both undercutting the original idea and motivating supporters to rally behind ridicule.

The consequence, of course, is that when ideas lose their meaning, and truth becomes relative, we become lost in a great churning sea of myths, falsehoods, and hubris.

Indeed, absolute certainty is perhaps the last thing I would expect of any notion worthy of serious contemplation. Even in the realm of science, when an overwhelming amount of carefully documented evidence leads to the acceptance of a theory, the notion of 100% certainty does not exist. From inertia to gravity, the most we can get out of the scientific consensus is near-certainty. 99.9%, perhaps, but never 100.

And even in writing the last paragraph, I can see the distorted message taking hold from those who don’t agree with these thoughts: if even SCIENCE isn’t certain, then surely ALL science must be questioned….isn’t that the real takeaway? We must be skeptics! We must revolt! Down with the scientific establishment and their “theories” of no real value!

I’ve written on skepticism before. I’ll leave that for my prior post to discuss. But the short answer to this objection is no. Of course we should not discard established scientific methodology, which yields as close to certain results as we can get, in favor of impulsive appeals and random thoughts. The point that is intended here is that while little is indeed certain, much can come close; and moreover, that the PATH to determining what we can state with the highest degree of objective certainty is crucial, perhaps even more so than the ultimate result.

The process of investigation into any idea – scientific, philosophical, moral, religious – is the most critical part of its development in an individual as well as on a societal level. We must think deeply and reflect honestly on the issues and notions that affect us in any significant way. We must ponder what concepts matter, and why; we must question things, without prior motive or intent to distort. We must come to understanding in a way that befits our honor and integrity not only as citizens, but as human beings.

Perhaps this is becoming too lofty of an exhortation. Perhaps the appeal sounds overzealous. But I can only assure you that the intention behind it is honest. Critical thinking is, perhaps more that anything else in modern society, left behind in the midst of technological life. We exist more than ever in a world of sound bites and momentary interactions. We pass memes to one another without investigating even for a moment whether they are based on facts. We desire ‘cliff note’ versions of speeches, articles, books, and events. We cast judgments quickly as a result of those fragments; we eschew nuance for a world of black and white, good and bad, wrong and right, with little in between.

And our discourse, as a people and as a civilization, cannot help but be stunted as a result of this. The meme-ification and connectivity of society has led to a culture of conceit, where everyone has an opinion and no expertise is as valued as much as one’s own inclination. If I can Google it, I can understand it. And don’t bother to counter my “researched” opinions, for once formed, they are eternally set in stone, no matter how much counterevidence may be presented.

I don’t have a definitive answer to this problem. For the problem, it seems to me, is not the access or inquiry into information, but rather the generalized tendency for all of us to accept without true consideration any morsel of knowledge that first piques our interest. How do we change a culture? How do we encourage careful thought? How do we move from sound bite reflection to full and serious contemplation of issues, with all their relative nuances and complexities?

Without recognizing the many facets and complications that exist in nearly every issue facing our nation at this moment, we cannot help but to reduce these issues to mere caricatures of themselves. And our elected leaders will reflect these tendencies: they will embody the bold certainties that we embrace, without the critical study that they require.

I don’t have the answer. I can only continue the dialogue. What do you think?

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