The dangers of certainty | Pakistan Today

The dangers of certainty

  • Considering the opposing view is necessary for meaningful discourse

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” These words from Bertrand Russell continue to ring true. Curiosity and unorthodoxy are constantly under attack. One would think that we wouldn’t have this issue in 2020, but here we are, where stifling and shaming is still going strong.

The art of discourse across the world is falling by the wayside. There is more emphasis on being right than being effective, which is a symptom of identity politics. It has all become too heated and divisive on both sides of the aisle. The lightness of touch has disappeared from discourse. GK. Chesterton once said “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” Belligerence has a short expiry date, and history usually does not remember belligerents fondly.  It is through humility, creativity, re-examination and in this context, doubt, that we can strive for a better world.

Russel’s quote above can be applied through many moments in history. If we go through the past, we can identify many extreme instances of how certainty has been very pernicious and dangerous; the white man’s sense of superiority over the black race for one.

During the times of slavery in the U.S, Christian slave owners were so convinced of their superiority that they used the Bible as a means of justification to enslave and punish Africans. Clouded by their pomposity, slaveholders believed the Bible was on their side, citing passages that commanded servants to obey.

During the times of slavery in the U.S, Christian slave owners were so convinced of their superiority that they used the Bible as a means of justification to enslave and punish Africans. Clouded by their pomposity, slaveholders believed the Bible was on their side, citing passages that commanded servants to obey. Some ministers promoted the idea that Africans were the descendants of Ham (son of Noah), cursed in the book of Genesis, and hence their enslavement was justified; a gross misinterpretation. Abolitionists made arguments against using the Bible to justify slavery, but they were in a minority. They were considered radical and blasphemous, thus their objections were dismissed with disdain for a long time.

The historical example above is not a direct comparison to what’s happening now of course, but we continue to see how alternative views are downgraded due to a strong sense of certainty and a lack of humility. When you look at American networks, it is clear that they are increasingly becoming more tabloid and one sided. On both sides of the political spectrum, there is more focus on defending their ideology and tearing down alternatives. Since President Trump’s arrival, the divide has become more transparent. Many liberals fail to recognize that the triumph of the right is not because of some grand conspiracy, it’s because of the failures of the left. There came a point where the left became so wrapped up in sanctimony and assurity, that they neglected the views of others and made people feel alienated. We have seen over the last decade how liberals across the Western world are falling into the trap of the radical right by becoming intolerant of different opinions. They call for diversity, but not diversity of opinion. They are now exclusive in their demand for inclusiveness, which is not what true liberalism stands for. It seems as if members of both sides of the fence are lost in the haze of divisiveness.

Certainty is not just a problem in the West needless to say. There are many examples across the world where a strong sense of certainty is damaging the political and social fabric of nations. Before we can work together to implement new ideas, it is crucial that people with different political outlooks see each other as allies not foes and then, of course, having the humility to not be so certain. This is not the time to be afraid of doubt. It is high time that individuals on both sides make a concerted attempt to actively engage in civilized debate with passion and most importantly, positive doubt.



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