This post is part 3 in a three-part series. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.
Being wrong doesn’t feel good. In this series, I have expressed my views on some complex topics – Israel, race relations, the possible connection between Islam and terrorism – and expressing these views makes me very uncomfortable because I know they are likely inaccurate. But even more so, I would like to be right about the things that I have said, and I will probably feel even more uncomfortable when my positions are critiqued by people on both sides of these issues. I will do my best to take these critiques seriously and learn from them rather than just shutting them out. Of course, it can be hard to tell when a critique is well-founded and when one’s critics are even more wrong than you are. Did you see that? What I just wrote there? That’s me, bobbing and weaving, trying find ways to justify my own rectitude. I know a world-class bboy (breakdancer for those who don’t know) who once said that there is nothing he likes better than losing a battle. Because only losing truly motivates you to practice harder and improve your craft. Can we learn to lose political debates just as gracefully? Can we find a way to look at the mistakes of others as forgivable and correctable rather than as personal deficiencies? Can we learn to see our own mistakes as opportunities for learning rather than as devastating fissures in our already fragile egos?
Last fall, I heard a speaker from Black Lives Matter Toronto talking about naming anti-black racism for what it was and pointing it out whenever it appeared in the words or thoughts or actions of either friends or strangers. What was most interesting to me was how she described these ‘call outs’ as areas for improvement, as places where work still has to be done. Here was a way of saying ‘that’s racist’ that was meant not as a critique of an individual’s very humanity, but as a helpful pointer, something more akin to a gift than a condemnation. Now there are both moral and practical arguments to be made about who should take responsibility to ensure that criticisms are heard as advice — but the case I’m making here is that we will have better dialogue if speakers learn to say ‘yes, but’ and listeners learn to consider everything they hear as potentially true, even if our instinct is to reject it. What does it mean to think of something as potentially true? It means to really sit on it, to hold it in one’s mind as a true statement and see how the rest of one’s beliefs would have to adapt for it to be true. This is what has been described in the philosophy of science as a paradigm shift — the fact or bit of evidence that doesn’t fit into the current model and requires everything to be rearranged, the peculiar planetary orbits that suddenly simplify if the sun, rather than the earth, is at the centre of the universe. Paradigm shifts often take a generation to come about, because many scientists are deeply committed to an older model of the world. If they see a particular model as their life’s work, they may dig their heels in to defend it. Many people feel the same way when told that their success is the result of race and class privilege, rather than their own hard work. If we want to have dialogue on difficult issues we must grapple with our fragile human egos. We have to find ways to admit it when we are wrong and to honestly consider the possibility that our apparent opponents might be allies in our quest for understanding.
We need to learn to really listen to each other. Not just listen to capture what is being said to us. Not just listen so that we can respond. But really listen. Let the words that you hear into your soul, hold them somewhere inside yourself so that they can grow and change just as your own thoughts do. A call-out is an opportunity to grow, not an attack. This comment stuck with me partly because of the way it mirrored something I was grappling with in my own study of philosophy.
Gilles Deleuze’s early work was about ontology — the question of what we mean when we say that something ‘exists’ or has ‘being. For Deleuze, and for Spinoza and Neitzstche before him, to exist is to change.1 As a result of this view, Deleuze argues that ‘the power to be is also the power to be affected.’ What the hell does that mean? To exist in this world is to change and to express ourselves. But how and why do we change? What are we expressing? We change because we see and hear new things that affect us. We express what has been impressed upon us by our personal experiences. Our existence and beliefs do not come from somewhere deep within ourselves, we exist because we reflect the world around us. We reflect the world around us in our very molecular composition, but also through our ideas and feelings. So let yourself experience new things and ideas and viewpoints, allow yourself to be changed by those around you, because that is how you grow. To be changed by the world is to exist more fully. And in order to be changed by the world, we have to admit to ourselves that we don’t know everything.
Each of us carries around inside us a little model of the world. And all of these models have some truth to them, because they reflect real experiences we have had, but they all have errors too, because none of us will ever experience the entire world. The world is always more complex than our internal models of it. The only way to be true to the infinite and miraculous complexity of our world is to doubt what you already are so that you can become something better. When we allow our models of the world to grow more complicated, we reflect the world more truly and our world becomes richer. When we double down on our existing beliefs, when we insist that we have seen and heard everything, we stop growing. If a human being were a tree, than our perceptions would be our roots and our thoughts and words and deeds would be our branches. We will not grow if we try to nourish ourselves with our own thoughts, if we waste our lives confirming how correct our first impressions were. To hide behind simplistic models of the world is to limit our own existence. When we insist that we already understand the world, we are chopping off our own roots. We are ending our own lives. Perhaps we will do and say a few more things, our leaves might produce one last spectacular spread of autumn colour, but there will be no spring. Instead we must learn to seek and understand the unnatural, alien bits of truth that exist in the minds of people we disagree with most vehemently. We must allow our roots to split and weave, to penetrate even into rock and drink deeply from hidden aquifers, so that our crown of leaves will grow ever more glorious and intricate.
- Interestingly, for Spinoza, this great, unfathomable complexity and ongoing change that underlies all existence is God. So my praise for”doubt” need not be seen as a critique of religion. Self-doubt is also a form of faith in God/the world.