Saturday, August 30, 2008


So today, I got to thinking about the contour of ignorance.

And this is not an excuse to bash other folks. I'm talking only about my own ignorance.

Lots of folks wonder about the future. I can't say I spend a lot of time thinking about it. I believe I've reached my very own "End of History," as Francis Fukuyama might say. He was naïve to say it when he did, and maybe I'm equally naïve, but all I'm really saying is that the future isn't that interesting to me. Instead, I wonder about what I don't get.

A lot of folks wonder what tomorrow will bring. If they just hold their horses long enough, they find out. Even quadriplegics in a persistent vegetative state make it to tomorrow in no more than twenty-four hours. It's a singular stream with a single current and fewer surprises than we like to pretend there are.

What interests me more is what I don't get.

I notice that a lot of folks oversimplify matters that I know to be complicated. Here, in Oregon, when people find out I'm from Texas, they oversimplify what Texans think, believe, experience. People of just about any political stripe oversimplify their opponents. People who are scared of any discrete group oversimplify their motives, ideas, behavior. People who aren't sure how to tackle a problem are often the first to oversimplify its essence and the proper solution. And, of course, me being an academic and all, I have this terrible bent toward spotting the complexity in things, sometimes needlessly, so all those oversimplifications stand out to me like signal flares at midnight. Hazard of the trade.

But what I've noticed is, for any human experience, there are those who level it down to something manageable and comforting, and there are those who grapple with it in its endless complexity, usually because they have no other choice. And as I see people around me respond cluelessly to others, to situations, to phenomena, I wonder what it is that I'm clueless about. I have absolutely zero doubt that I have many, many clueless spots; I'm just unsure what they are.

I've taught my students for years that whatever opinions they have about culture, and the typical habits and behaviors of other national/ethnic/racial groups, I can identify another group who has the same reaction to them. A lot of my students are Caucasian and sheltered, so they sometimes report that they think African-Americans are belligerent, hostile, abrasive, and otherwise discomforting. And it startles them when I tell them that some Japanese folks would regard them with identical discomfort, finding them too aggressive, too belligerent, too likely to invade their space, be uncomfortably direct, show overt hostility when it wasn't called for, etc. Instead of thinking of themselves as an endpoint against which others' behavior ought to be measured, what I want them to understand is that they occupy a spot on a continuum, and there are people groups in spots on either side of them.

That truth strikes me as powerful enough that I'm pretty certain that others have much greater insight than I do into the very moments of other people's cluelessness that attract my attention. My gut tells me that the simple distinction between cluelessness and savvy actually conceals an identical geometry of situatedness: I'm not the enlightened one; I'm just further along the spectrum than some, while not as far as others. And I'm sure I display my cluelessness to those others.

My instincts tell me that those who have direct experience can claim a certain gold standard of authentic understanding, but in my less sure moments, I doubt even that is true. People who are outside observers can chip in yet another kind of wisdom, yet another stream of clues, which put experience into its proper perspective, while those who actually live through the experience, who distill it out of their sense data and interpretive filters, are actually at a disadvantage in understanding what their memories have recorded. If I were to sketch a Johari window, I'd now be talking about the blind self.

And the interesting thing about cluelessness is that it's much more multivariate and multidimensional than the future. As I said earlier, the future emerges from the present, even if sometimes we completely overlook the elements of the present that converge to create that future. But overcoming ignorance isn't a simple forward motion. Instead, I think of it as a point in endless space, from which there is the opportunity to push outward, as light from a candle, propagating in all directions. I can be clueless, I can have potential to overcome my limits, in empathy, in aesthetics, in reasoning, in prediction, in ethics, in grasp of natural forces, in any of a literally unbounded set of types of knowledge. The possibilities sprint out in front of my imagination, even in its most febrile explosions.

It's a lot more interesting than the future. And besides, there's no need to worry about tomorrow. Today has evil enough of its own.

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