The other side of Knowing Nothing
Recently I wrote about the difficulty I have accepting the current anti-intellectual, anti-thinking culture promoted by the conservative media. Now, I would like to talk about a separate issue, one that is more dominant among liberals, and indicates the failures of modern liberals to engage with the public in meaningful ways. Conservatives attack liberals as elitists, and they are right. Liberals are elitists, and their defense of their own superiority is based on a claim to greater understanding, to a greater intellectual grasp of reality, than that held by their conservative opponents, and often greater than that of the public they address.
Science is a very important endeavor in modern society. However, it is also a complex endeavor, and it seems to be increasingly difficult for scientists to convey their key discoveries and beliefs, their theories and the importance of those theories, to the rest of us. Indeed, many scientists and other academics in the "soft" sciences, seem to believe that their ideas, their perceptions, are unavailable to outsiders, and form an exclusive gnosis of the well-educated and specifically trained. They hold to this so firmly that they abandon the attempt to communicate with the public, staking a claim to exclusive understanding as professionals and demanding our faith. They do this despite the continuing contradictory positions scientific study and engagement permit, for it is rare in science that a 'truth', solid and not subject to refinement, or transformation, appears.
Laymen and women, however, do contribute to this tendency among scientists and academics to exclude the rest of us from their circle of knowledge. In the political world, in the drive to devise effective policies and initiatives, and in the continuing demands the public has for immediate solutions to long-term, multi-faceted problems, the answer, the solution that promises salvation, is privileged over the question, and we demand of science what it is very rarely able to give us: surety, certainty, immediacy, simplicity. We have no patience for lengthy exposition, for what one respondent to my previous post called "footnotes". We want the truth, we want it now, and we are quite certain that the truth, once known and felt, will save us, our nation, and our world.
In order to achieve a dialogue between intellectuals and the larger public, mutual respect and attention has to be achieved between the parties. The people do not need to be led by the priest-leaders of modern science to the future, but the truths of the heart and of the narrow field of one's own home and neighborhood are insufficient in the larger world of nation and planet. They are not without value, but they are not the only value. Both intellectuals and the lay public have to make efforts to understand one another, to speak to one another. Intellectuals, especially scientists, must recognize the importance of communicating effectively. This is of vital importance in societies guided by democratic principles.
We, the lay people, the people outside the universities, research institutes, without degrees or external validation of our intelligence and capacity to understand, must reject the idea that not having a degree, being merely a citizen without the training to pursue science as a career, excludes us from understanding what scientists have to say about the world we live in. It does not. We can become informed, but we must be willing to invest time, energy, and will in the process. We have to stop expecting solutions and "truth" to fit in a 30-second sound bite, immediately and transparently felt to be true, valid, and presumably universal. Knowledge and understanding are far move provisional than faith.
I am not personally a person of faith. I do not consider this a virtue, nor a vice. It is a fact. I do not object to the faith of those who have it, although I do reject their claim to power over me, my beliefs and actions, based entirely upon the dictates of their church, their community, their understanding of the divine. It should guide their own actions, or it is without value, but there is no justification for it to command me. As far as I have been able to tell, it is not the faith, or lack of it, in my friends, acquaintances, and fellow community members that proved their worth or ability to contribute meaningfully to individual and social life, but their actions. Action, engagement, empathy, effort to understand and to be understood--I can see the value in this process, in this commitment, without asking what faith is involved, if any. I allow the space for faith to exist in society, and expect that I will be allowed the space for its absence in this country, based upon the ideal of liberty that is said to inform it.
That said, I have liberal friends who are highly impressed by their lack of faith. Their atheism has become a proof of their superiority, of their higher intellect, of their value. I cannot agree with this. Just as having faith does not prove to me that you are more moral than I, or possess greater worth, the lack of it is not proof of intelligence or of a better nature. One believes, one does not believe, but neither is the most important element of one's character. Deeds, those count, but beliefs, or the claim of belief/dis-belief, are of limited virtue. Civil discourse is not formed by what I believe, but by how I express what I believe, the rhetoric I use and the judgments I convey. Civil discourse requires respect and a recognition of the individual space and freedom allowed to each participant; it is an effort to come together, to reach agreement, not to increase division or uphold one's own superiority. Faith is not something that can be commanded to appear, nor to disappear. It is wholly personal. Neither Christians who attack others for not possessing it, nor atheists who attack those who have it, are behaving civilly. They are both damaging our public discourse.
First, do no harm. The Hippocratic command works well for engaging in civics as well as for medicine. I will not assume you are malicious, unless you display malice. Do me the same favor. Admit we can disagree without either of us being demonic or unpatriotic. We come from different conditions, different backgrounds, and deal with different problems in our present. Requesting an explanation, pointing out a fact that is not easily subordinated to a position you hold, or expressing doubt are not attacks. They are the very substance of effective communication that is more than verbal pugilism.
I hope this country will pursue a civic discourse that is also civil. I hope that we will abandon the easy demonization and denigration of our opponents. I hope, but I see little indication on either side that this will be realized. The one place I can realize it is in my own communications, my own efforts to engage with the world and to think things through.