Friday, May 6, 2016

Suspicious Minds?

We can't go on together
With suspicious minds
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds*

       When I was preparing for my doctoral exams, I put together a "summary sheet" for each of the books/articles I had to read. It had all the "normal" things one might record when reading:  title, date of publication, summary, strength of argument, etc. I had come to learn, however, that there was another question that needed to be asked, and it often required a bit more thought:  "Whose voice is not represented?" Certainly every author is trying to make a point, and there can be limits imposed by editors as to how much can be written. But it is often helpful to know whether there are counter-arguments. What is left un-said can be as telling as what is said.        I was recalling that experience earlier this week in two, unrelated, contexts. The first was while listening to an interview with Stanford professor Robert Proctor, a co-editor of the book Agnotology:  The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance.** Proctor argues that there is often a willful construction of doubt on the part of advertisers, corporations or politicians. He gives examples of the tobacco industry or the climate-change deniers -- those who would create doubt that the negative effects of tobacco or fossil fuels were "real." The implications of this promulgation of misleading or inaccurate information are pretty frightening -- even as we see them employed all around us.       The second situation that brought my doctoral preparations to mind was the monthly book discussion I host. Last Wednesday we read chapters from Robert Gregg's Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.***  We focused on the stories from the book of Genesis about Sarah and Hagar. Gregg's task in these chapters was to tell how the three religious traditions re-told the stories (both in words and in figurative art), re-tellings that served the purposes of those traditions, while omitting or altering portions of the story that may have been "problematic".  
       I had to wonder whether or not Proctor would read Gregg and conclude that agnotology has been around a LONG time! I suspect he would see some similarities, of course, but he might argue that the telling of stories within a group serves to strengthen that group's inner cohesion. That process is a different task than deliberately fiddling with, or omitting, facts to keep outsiders ignorant and, thereby, to influence their behavior in one direction or another.
       Proctor's overall argument was one I found quite compelling, and, as I noted above, frightening. We already are surrounded by "story-tellers" on all sides of the religious and political spectrums. They, of course, are framing arguments that will serve their purposes or strengthen their communities. But in a world where we can often get away with listening only to our own 
group-speak -- whether it's from our "friends" on Facebook, or the cable news channels that suit our political tastes -- we run the serious risk of heading into a future woefully unprepared for what we might face.        It may be heresy to argue with "The King", but I think that if we really want to "go on together," to "build our dreams", we have to have "suspicious minds."


* Elvis Presley, "Suspicious Minds"
** with Londa Schiebinger, Stanford University Press, 2008*** Oxford University Press, 2015.

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