In my teens and early twenties, I held the view that it was my duty as an educated citizen to discover the answers to life’s questions, and live by those answers. To engage in anything without having the answers was self-evidently morally and intellectually dishonest.
So, whether the topic at hand was scientific, political, philosophical, mathematical, economic – my goal was to discover ‘the answer’.
Over time I’ve come to realise that the world is sufficiently complex and changing, that we’re not capable of properly ‘proving’ answers to most questions. We make simplifying assumptions to allow us to get answers and allow beliefs to influence our views. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do these, but having done so, we lose the ability to insist we have ‘the answer’.
So, I’ve come to accept a default response whenever I hear any statement that sounds like it is pretending to be an answer: It isn’t that simple. (To be clear, I’m not arguing that there is no such thing as truth, just doubting the views we’re likely to hold or hear contain the whole truth.)
It upsets me, on an intellectual and moral level, how many people, on Facebook and Twitter, or even in general conversation, speak as if issues are simple, and that anyone who doesn’t see it their way is obviously ignorant, bigoted, and/or subhuman, and undeserving of their place in the world.
Each person is a human, and even if their views ultimately prove wrong, they deserve some respect as a person. It is easy to dismiss them, but ultimately far better to work to understand them. I’ve learned far more from engaging with people whose views I disagree with, and I’m yet to talk to anyone whose view was actually motivated by hatred or a desire to remain ignorant.
Demonising our opponents also makes it less likely that we’ll end up with consensus. History is filled with examples of opponents to a cause that have gone on to become great advocates, but this requires engagement. History is also filled with examples of more accurate answers that have managed to incorporate elements from opposing arguments.
Respecting others and holding back from the arrogance of thinking you’re right and they’re stupid is crucial for our relationships – with partners, friends, and with others in the community.
Saying that we don’t know the full truth isn’t to say that we should never take action – not acting is itself an action. I am just saying that we should keep in mind that our actions may be based on views that ultimately prove simplistic, and be open to listen and learn.
And not having all the answers doesn’t mean not having anything to say (some of you may think it hypocritical to write a blog post about not having the answers!). There are plenty of bloggers that are appreciated by their readers for their approach: they don’t act as if they know the answers or trying to oversimplify life – they just share a perspective and engage their readers.
Good luck, and enjoy the experience.