Saturday, July 17, 2010


"Everybody's ignorant, only in different areas." ~anon.

The line that is the title of this piece occurs near the beginning of James Dickey’s “Deliverance.” It is the response of a mountain man to city-slicker Bobby’s smart-aleck comment about the man’s hat. In the novel, the comment can almost be overlooked as a kind of throw-away; in the movie (especially after a couple of viewings), it becomes a Delphic omen, foreshadowing the what and the why of the disastrous events the bright young urbanites are about to experience in the backwoods.

But the warning of “Deliverance” is not just that the smart guys don’t know –- it is that they think they do: An almost perfect application of Jesus’ pronouncement to the self-assured folks in John’s gospel: “If you were blind, you would have no sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

I don’t claim to know Dickey’s literary intent with this line, but it strikes me as being an apt description of all who seek to navigate their way through the city streets or the backwoods of the human condition. We set one toe outside the bounds of our familiar experience, and “we don’t know nuthin.” The wisest among us are not those who actually do know – but those who know that they don’t know.

There is a discouraging new study in this area, reported recently on NPR, which indicates that when we’re wrong we don’t want to know. The facts will not dissuade us from clinging to the beliefs that –- one way or another –- we have come to hold. The emphasis of this study was on political thought (the findings were born out all along the liberal-conservative spectrum), but I have no doubt it also applies to religious belief, non-belief, health issues, science, education, and….

We are left with the irony that, although the wisest possible thing to say in a given situation may be, “I don’t know,” that is the very comment that is the kiss of death in electoral politics. (Any politician hapless enough to utter such a line will find it re-broadcast in and out of context until the cows come home.) In a similar vein, we get inane scenarios such as having a Supreme Court nominee defend a position she took in a college paper. A college paper! (My favorite professorial comment on a returned college paper is this: “Dick, you write very well. One would hope, however, to find your writing undergirded with the structure of thought.”) I was amused to note that nominee Kagan replied to the inquiry by saying, “If you really want a defense of a thirty-year-old college paper, here goes….”

Statements such as, "You have a good point there, my friend," or, "I've never thought of it that way..." are considered "waffling," and of course admitting that one has changed one’s mind on any issue is tantamount to treason. I am reminded of Homer Simpson’s declaration, “I never apologize. I’m sorry, that’s just the way I am!”

I read an article recently about the “myth of the decisive leader.” The most successful leaders, it turns out, are not those who use their giant intellects and charisma to make unerring spot decisions, but rather probe with trial-and error, advice from multiple points of view, planning, precedent, etc. (I won’t bore you with a repetition of the joke for which the punch line is, “The smartest man in the world just put on my backpack and jumped out of the plane.”)

According to David McCullough’s “1776,” George Washington was such a decisive leader that he barely – just barely – pulled off more revolutionary victories than (blundering) defeats. Neither I (nor McCullough) take anything away from the fact that Washington was the right leader at the right time when I observe that he probably wouldn’t recognize himself as the paragon of military leadership that storybook history has made him out to be. In fact his ultimate victory had much to do with his British opponents' arrogant assumption that the colonists, well, didn't know nuthin," (spoken, of course, with a British accent).

I once heard the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin advise that a good thing to have in the back of one’s mind in certain arguments is, “I could be wrong.” I pay lip service to that advice, but I wonder how often I actually apply it. Yet it does seem that if there is an antidote to hidebound ignorance in relation to the facts, perhaps it is humility. In regard to the question of ultimate origins, for example -- and other questions of mystery -- the theologian, the philosopher, and the scientist are brought together in mutual humility.

The eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley’s famous contribution to philosophy is to conclude that we can know nothing except what comes to us directly through our senses (even then, says Berkley, all we know is the sensation –- we can make no conclusions about any concrete reality behind the sensation). A less cerebral way to apply this is to make the common-sense observation that I am formed by my experiences (and sensations) and you are formed by yours. How to bridge the gap? True openness of communication.

Perhaps this openness begins by acknowledging that, in fact, I do not know what you know. As John Updike, another chronicler of the human condition, has said, "We are all so curiously alone, but it is important that we keep making signals through the glass.” Otherwise, as with the mountain man and the city slicker, "We don't know nuthin'," and disaster ensues.

I continue to be intrigued by research that suggests that our deep-seated political and religious attitudes may be, at least partly, genetically based, as I mused on in an earlier post

Jesus' quote from John 9:14


Joseph G. Crippen said...

My father was fond of quoting Oliver Cromwell, a quote he discovered via some learned justice of the U.S. Federal court who revered this quote: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ - think it possible you may be mistaken." (Letter to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. 1650.) Now Cromwell didn't always take this advice; still, it's worth holding as a reminder. (Wish I could remember the justice who loved it. . .)

jessewinsell said...

Abraham Lincoln was another political leader who led with humility. I am reading Team of Rivals, a biography about Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln created a cabinet full of people who were absolutely convinced that Lincoln was the wrong choice for President, and that they instead were destined to be the saviors of the country. Lincoln's success in keeping the Union together was due to his willingness to let others believe he didn't have a clue about what direction to take (even though he usually did). This allowed Lincoln's rivals to guide him to places he probably would not have gone had he been more dictatorial and less humble.