Friday, October 31, 2014

Know? No!?

      A long time ago, at a university far, far away, I taught an course that sought to provide historical context for some thorny contemporary issues. On the first day of class, I handed out a questionnaire that asked that the students locate themselves on continuum lines regarding some of those contemporary issues (e.g. abortion, capital punishment, legalized marijuana, etc.). I took those responses and prepared a chart of where they, as a class, "stood" on those issues. As might be expected, the class members extended both to the right and left from the mean. My purpose in conducting the exercise was two-fold. First, I wanted the class to recognize that not everyone enrolled was in agreement about certain issues, i.e., that not everyone was a "liberal" of "conservative". Second, I pointed out that where folks might place themselves would most likely depend on their personal experience with, or investment in, the issue. For example, Jean might philosophically be opposed to capital punishment, but when dear Aunt Sadie is the victim of a fatal mugging, Jean might say "Fry the murderer!" In other words, our heads and our hearts are not always in agreement.
      This seems to me to be pretty apparent in all of the hubbub about Ebola. President Obama and the Center for Disease Control stress that our response to the outbreak should be informed by science, not fear (i,.e., "head", not "heart"). On the other hand, once the general quarantine guidelines had been suggested, Nurse Kaci Hickox in Maine (who had returned home from treating Ebola patients), claimed that science asserts that she is not contagious until she shows symptoms, and shouldn't be subject to a quarantine (which, at the time of this writing, had just been imposed by a judge in her state). So, whose science are we to believe? Whose motives are we to question? Is "caution" the same as "fear"? Does knowledge "solve" the problem?
      Well, in some cases, I suppose, it might at least help. I heard an interview yesterday with Robert Jones, of the Public Religion Research Institute. He was discussing the P.R. problems facing the Muslim community in the United States. He pointed out that a recent poll showed that only about 40% of Americans had a "positive" view of Islam/Muslims -- lower on the polling scale than atheists. But, he also pointed out that a large proportion of Americans knew very little about Islam, and only 38% say they know a Muslim. He thought that if folks knew MORE about Muslims and Islam, the favorability rating might go up. And, I believe, polls on other issues would support his conclusion.
       On the other hand, mere knowledge can just as easily be turned into a weapon. And, here I think of some of the "new atheists" who want to turn "science" into a means of ridiculing folks who don't place "facts" at the pinnacle of human experience. Yet their so-called "knowledge" seems frequently based on fear, insecurity, caricatures, or incomplete (if not completely incorrect) understanding of those they oppose. Their attitudes, I believe, are as much as product of their experience as their book-learnin'.
       I work at a university. I am a fervent believer in the pursuit of knowledge. I would hope that I have helped contribute TO knowledge. I stand reminded, however, of the ancient Delphic maxim "Know Thyself" (inscribed on the Temple of Apollo in Delphi). There is a humility suggested by rigorous self-knowledge which could lower the temperature of our heated debates. Arguing "facts" seems to get us no place. Comparing experiences and 'fessing up to our hopes and fears, the other hand, might help move us forward.
      So, is it all about what we "know"'? I would say, "No." But knowing that we don't (or can't) always know everything is a start. 

Chaplain Gary

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