Divided we stand: Understanding our ignorance
Gabriel Scorgie // Columnist
If Socrates was correct and true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing, then it’s no wonder university students are so opinionated. It’s a trap that myself and many people I knew fell into during our first years of university. Having had our first taste of knowledge we thought we’d already drank the bar dry, not realizing we hadn’t even had a proper sip. As Donald Rumsfeld would’ve said, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
When the late journalist, Christopher Hitchens was asked if he’d ever encountered an argument in a debate that he didn’t have an answer for, his reply was no. Having spent much of his professional life reading, writing and talking about religion, he was educated enough on the subject that there wasn’t an opposing argument he hadn’t heard before. Hitchens only applied this to religion, however, admitting that for almost every other subject there were questions he wouldn’t begin to know the answer to. His advice was that, “If there’s something where there is doubt, don’t claim you’re certain. It’s amazing how relaxing it is to not pretend to know more than you do.”
In 1936, George Orwell spent his days working in a second-hand bookstore. During his time there, he noticed that while the classic English writers such as Dickens, Thackery and Austen were always quick to sell, if he put them in the lending library, they would never leave the shelf. For that reason, Orwell determined the lending library was where people’s real tastes were revealed. He said it was easy to sell Dickens because he was one of those authors people were always meaning to read, but never did. It looked pretty on a bookshelf and as long as it was in their possession, there remained the chance they might one day read it. In contrast, when someone borrows a book, they have a limited time to go through it, so they pick something they know they’ll read.
Many of us, when we’re feeling particularly reflective, will admit that we’re not doing everything we can to become the person we’d like to be. We know when we get home from work or class we should pick up that book that’s been lying on the coffee table for months, or put on those running shoes that are still in their box. Yet, we end up watching the latest TV show on Netflix instead. We understand exactly what Orwell meant.
The problem occurs when we talk about subjects like we’re the well-educated authority we wish we were instead of the uneducated student we are. We are so damn ignorant, even on subjects we’re passionate about. There’s no other way to change that than to read, write, listen and ask questions. We’re all on the wrong end of an argument from time to time, what defines us is our ability to admit our ignorance and change our position.
In an earlier column, I wrote that society needs to argue instead of talk. On reflection, I don’t believe that’s entirely the right prescription. A debate implies that one side wins. This leads to debating styles and the idea of getting at the truth is quickly tossed aside in the name of victory. The idea that one side is always unequivocally right and the other irreparably wrong is part of the issue.
Instead, we should make a deliberate effort to replace brazen certainty with a desire for truth. Have your opinions and argue the best you can in defence of them, but don’t talk with people you disagree with, so you can win and prove your intellect. Do it to learn.