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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Henri Poincaré

Henri Poincaré: “To doubt everything, or, to believe everything, are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”

I saw this quote on a New York City subway one week ago and have not stopped thinking about it. After I pick up The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal from my front door every morning, I read about the same world, from different ideological perspectives. What’s true anymore? This or that side? Does it even matter? Are we talking to each other anymore, trying to convince the other of our point of view? Or are we just pontificating?

This week The New York Post also ran a story about life inside our media bubbles. Yes, incredibly, I read the Post, as well as about a dozen other online news sources, from the BBC to The Kansas City Star. Fox News or MSNBC? Conservative or Liberal? Hate Obama or love Obama? That’s our opinionated, but not necessarily enlightened world. We live in self-selected bubbles that reinforce what we believe already.

So what happened to real thinking? What happened to pondering the other side’s perspective, to listening, to proffering careful to-the-point arguments, and to occasionally changing our minds due to reason and discourse? We live instead in an intellectually small world. We react. We don’t give each other the benefit of the doubt. We judge by appearances, and later fit the facts to our prejudgment.

As I learned long ago at Harvard and Yale, you can choose the same set of facts to support radically different arguments. So is all discourse rhetoric? Do we inhabit a Nietzschean world where the nature of truth is murder? I think certainly in the public arena, among the politicians and pundits on TV and radio, the exchanges are little more than fifteen-second rants. The proof of your argument (i.e. whether you ‘killed’ your opponent or not) is a successful election, or passage of a bill into law, or defeat of a proposal or Supreme Court justice nominee. The proof is not whether your argument is right, but whether you gained power in the exchange.

Why is the public arena of discourse so pathetic? One reason is the lack of time to argue, in large part because time is money on TV and radio. Another reason is the focus on appearances in the media, not on substance or nuance. But something subtler is also happening to us: we are beginning to forget that life was once otherwise, not media-saturated, not celebrity-infatuated. At what point will our brains devolve to where the corpus of James Joyce is unintelligible? Perhaps we are already there. But at least we will be oblivious to what we have lost.

If you are like me, the private arena of your family is where the real arguments occur. Why? For one, your opponents live with you, and can keep responding for years, and so you need to sharpen your arguments and reasons. There is no cut to a commercial. Second, you care about your opponents, and you’ve seen them at their best and at their worst; you know them as complete human beings. It’s not easy to smear someone like that. Finally, with your family you can experiment with positions, follow the consequences of your conclusions, retract, and renounce. They will still love you.

Those of us in the Poincaré middle, who may doubt and believe different parts of one argument, are not indecisive. The truth is that in the private arena our families have given us a strong enough sense of self to doubt and believe as we see fit, even against the crazy mobs of the public sphere. We have been taught to think for ourselves. There is no better gift.

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