On Not Knowing What You Don’t Know

Image painting of women arguing
Arguing as a form of personal relationship
Follower of Ralph Hedley [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

There are a lot of things I used to be, and one of them was a political science major. Even then, I was not really that interested in electoral politics. The kind of politics I was then and have always continued to be fascinated by is micro-politics: how people establish boundaries and power relations and alliances and movements by what they say and do, and how they say and do it, in personal relationships; how the way people communicate their ideas, and negotiate who’s going to do what around the house, and work out who’s going to go to the parent-teacher conference, and in that conference who’s going to talk and who’s going to listen, is political. I learned “the personal is political” early, and never stopped thinking it or finding it fascinating. I “didn’t do voting behavior.” And I really didn’t do voting behavior after I stopped being a political science major.

I did a lot of voting behavior on Wednesday afternoon. I spent hours reading over the journalists’ accounts of the statisticians’ re-assessment of all the data they had, trying to figure out “how the polls got it so wrong.” Apparently every news outlet in the country and many in the world ran that story. White men without college degrees. People in their little rural hometowns. Who expected them to turn up in the numbers they did? Well, no one, evidently. Who knew they had issues? Although … they’ve been there all along, they just don’t usually … matter that much to … the people who run the polls, and who read them.

When I reviewed my Facebook feed, I found many of my friends were running something like that same story, only at a more personal level. One friend reported a conversation with his daughter, a “millennial,” whose story was something like “we supported Bernie because we know the Democratic Party can’t deliver the goods, hasn’t been able to overcome obstructionism in Congress for the past 8 years of the Obama administration, and wouldn’t have been able to do it under the Clinton administration; the Democrats don’t offer us anything real.” Another friend ran a video of a Sanders stump speech talking about how he would be able to win – according to pollsters – against various Republican candidates, which included some predictions he made about voter turnout and demoralization. A lot of posts feature broad-brush generalizations about “them” – the other side, why they voted the way they did, what it was a vote for and against, etc. (I gently reminded a couple of friends who were encouraging all the people who said they were going to leave the country if Trump won to please do that already that I am hoping to be able to stay married to the woman I have loved and lived with for 35+ years and have raised a child with for the past 17, and that is a little less certain at the moment. Because I’m sure it had just slipped their minds that some people who made remarks about leaving the country are in situations like that.) Other friends are outraged that they keep being lumped in with the racist misogynist homophobic bigots when they don’t see themselves as that evil.

The real story is out there on the ground. It’s exemplified by the families in which college educated millennial children voted for one candidate and non-college-educated moms and dads voted for a different one, and who are struggling to communicate with one another, and to a large degree managing that by not bringing up certain topics of conversation at family gatherings. It’s exemplified by the conversations I don’t have any more with people who used to be members of our church but aren’t any more, I think at least in part because of positions the denomination has taken on some issues that didn’t sit well with them, so they’ve stopped attending church – which means, we don’t communicate. But maybe we weren’t communicating in a meaningful way long before that.

I don’t think of myself as condescending; but I’m beginning to re-assess that charge. I do have a sign on the bulletin board in my office that says “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas.” I bought that sign because it fit me. According to me, I do have better ideas. And, I have data to back them up – at least some of the time. But according to the psychology of climate change denial class I took online awhile back, presenting data and arguments that challenge people’s ideas has the effect – research has shown – of making people more likely to believe the ideas you just tried to refute. And I know people are normally hugely unsuccessful in arguing me out of my [better] ideas. So I’m sure I come across, from time to time, as “knowing more than you about this,” and as “humoring” the interlocutor – that thing I do when I’m not talking when someone else is talking, hearing what the other person is saying, and making mental notes of all the 6 ways from Sunday it’s wrong and reflects an inadequate theoretical paradigm, whether or not I share them all or not when they get done talking. Normally, whether I do or not depends on whether we have a decision to make or not. Because otherwise, it’s just easier to let someone go on thinking what they think, wrong as I think it is. It’s easier just to drop it.

Do you suppose being on the receiving end of that treatment would feel like being on the receiving end of condescension? I do.

Do you suppose that attitude would make it more likely to learn some things, and less likely to learn others? I do.

Something I think I know about the difference that college makes in the way people think is that going to college teaches people to be comfortable with relativism, perspective-taking, commitment to a position for reasons, and accepting the socially-constructed nature of knowledge. I think the curriculum along those lines is more intense and persuasive in the social sciences and the humanities, less so in the physical sciences and business. This is one of the things college actually does pretty effectively, I think – that is, teach people to have different ideas about the nature of reality. I am confident that if someone went out and did research – and perhaps someone has already done this research – they would find that college-educated white people are more likely to accept institutional racism, white privilege, and racial micro-aggression as realities, and non-college-educated white people are more likely to say they are nonsense, excuses thought up to explain away more real realities, like laziness and criminality. (Although I still think how likely will depend on what a person majored in.)  This education is not universal; we have paid a steep price for that.

I detect a common theme in the post-event analysis of the election, the failure of predictions, the comments on Facebook, the politeness of our conversations at church, the withdrawal of challenging voices and perspectives from certain conversations – which does not mean those voices are not in conversation elsewhere – and that theme is: we don’t know what we don’t know. Moreover, we don’t know it because we don’t think knowing it matters, and because, in a sense, we don’t want to know it. It doesn’t affect us, it’s “their” business, it doesn’t involve us. Except that, since we don’t know what we don’t know, this puts us in a position to find out that the not-knowing we thought didn’t matter actually did – we just didn’t know it.

I think we sense that acquiring the form of knowledge I’m talking about – namely, how the people who are not us are feeling and thinking, what the people who are other than us are going through, who they are and why they are that way – would be a hassle and a pain. To know some of the things we don’t know we’d have to talk to people whose communications we find distasteful, or ignorant, or annoying, or incredible, or baffling, or ludicrous, or … I don’t know. We’d have to learn how to have conversations with the relevant people on the relevant topics without shutting them down, but without giving up our own souls in the process – and I know enough to know that this would be challenging, but I haven’t had much practice doing it, either.

As a friend of mine said yesterday, “we have to get personal.” Because the personal is political. In the face of everything I thought I knew that is obsolete or becoming so, and of everything I didn’t know that matters more than I realized, I suppose I should be glad to be reminded of something I do know that is still true, and seems likely to remain true for a long time to come.

4 responses to “On Not Knowing What You Don’t Know”

  1. Thank you for this, Heather. It rings the bells of this Presbyterian, and maybe it does because we both belong to a tradition which has somehow managed at the same time to laud Jesus’s instruction to the sinner to take the log out of our own eye, while assuming the other (usually defined as not as progressed as we) the one to whom the instruction is meant. We do no listen. We do not see. We stigmatize the people you describe. In effect, we disdain them as the uneducated, homophobic, racist, nationalistic enemies of Christ and all things good. We assume the worst. We brand them. Label them. Dismiss them as uneducated barbarians.

    Last night a new neighbor, a locksmith whose wife died of cancer a year ago and who put his son though the University of Chicago, dropped by to do a neighborly thing. He came by to fix a broken lock in our basement, and to repair window mechanisms that had broken. Great guy. A working class guy who actually knows how to do stuff! We invited Paul to stay for dinner as a way of thinking him. We didn’t talk about our votes last Tuesday, but we did talk about the television ads and how many of them were funded by PACS, not the campaigns themselves. Paul said, “I don’t know how you voted or what you think about Donald Trump, but he refused to take PAC money. He sent it back.” Interesting. Perhaps Paul is one of us — a guy who is sick and tired of Citizens United and the dirty politics. Perhaps, unlike us, he voted for Trump.

    I don’t know.

    Thank you for the thoughtful piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post reminds me of some stuff I’ve been reading recently about Pope Francis’ calling for a new “culture of encounter.” He sees the future of the church in new and genuine encounter between people, and this drives his approach to being pope.

    Maybe that is part of how we can begin to understand the personal dimension of politics; through genuine encounter and sharing?


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