Monday, June 05, 2017
Empty Boxes of Certitude
In the marketplace of ideas, the easy way to success is to feed your audience information that reaffirms their prior biases and beliefs. In essence, this is how Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly achieved their fame. All they do is wrap traditionalism, racism, nationalism and revolutionary populism in shiny and entertaining gift paper. They are not advancing any new (or real) information, with the possible exception of trending conspiracy theories and political scandal. They tell their listeners, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that 1.) they are "smart," and they are "winners" for listening or watching, and 2.) their preconceived notions and prejudices are good, healthy, normal, even virtuous. In the end, their listeners and viewers usually gain nothing more than headlines, and an empty box of certitude.
This happens on the left, too. Liberals and conservatives have competing media megaphones. For people like Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Joy Reid, their aim is also to reaffirm and praise the worldview of their liberal viewers. The path to success is exactly the same. The wrapping paper may be different, but the underlying empty box is surprisingly similar.
It happens in academia, too, I think. Healthy scholarship is supposed to add to the overall extent of human knowledge -- it is expressly charged with creating new knowledge. What often happens instead is that people get tunnel vision within their own discipline, and do not bother to question the guiding knowledge paradigm wherein they exist. They speak only to other scholars in their field, and often in lengthy, dense, pedantic and impenetrable academic jargon. Regular people, like those who listen to Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, often can't access the new knowledge, if indeed it is there. It makes one wonder if the various academic disciplines, not unlike various religious traditions, are just brightly colored empty boxes?
In the world of ideas, creating new and accessible knowledge and information that can help a person rethink their prior biases and prejudices, and escape their empty boxes of certitude, is the harder thing to do. As I look around, I see most of us trapped inside respective two-dimensional squares of self-imposed limitation, where we can choose to hear only what we want to hear. But that is becoming harder, as voices on all sides seem to be increasing in volume, intensity, anger and fear. Samuel Huntington, historian and political scientist, wrote about the clash of civilizations. Today, we see a clash of realities, a clash of completely differing explanations for how the world is, and why it is that way. There is no longer an authoritative neutral arbiter of reality and fact. Both science and religion aspire to that position, but so far neither is winning.
This lack of agreed upon truth, combined with the cacophony of clashing realities, is creating a sense of unease and insecurity. Our nation now has a Homeland Security division, ostensibly to protect us from terrorist attack. It also serves as a very real manifestation of our sense of insecurity. We are collectively floundering. We have lost any cohesive identity. We are afraid of what might happen next, at any moment, to our nation, our homes, and our families. These symptoms can all be attributed to the fact that we seem to be missing a central authoritative and secure truth.
Bill Clinton once said, "When people are insecure, they'd rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who's weak and right." This seems to be a common theme in human societies throughout history. The cultural norms which seemed to stand for so long suddenly start to falter. The central truths that everyone previously agreed to follow are questioned, and so too are the gods. The Greek tragedy Oedipus the King informs us about a similar time in Athenian history, when the gods were questioned, and there were strange things afoot in the kingdom. It is in these moments when the strong man arises, and a portion of the people may seem suddenly ready to accede to almost anything in an effort to secure a little more security. They are all too ready to crawl into an empty box of certitude that has been garrulously gift wrapped for them. They may then listen only to the strong leader who is wrong, and become all too happy to completely ignore, or even crucify, the weak leader who is right.