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I Don't Know

I've noticed a phenomenon in many areas of my verbal life wherein the phrase "I don't know" opens, closes, or rests in the middle of a phrase.  The more I listen for it, the more I am struck by its ubiquity, yet these phrases have nothing to do with the parameters of the speaker's knowledge.

In a seminar:  "I don't know, but I think he's saying..."

Among friends discussing the news: "Um, I don't know, but I feel like this could have been avoided..."

Two girls shopping:  "Is this cute?  Right?  I don't know."

Some guys on a walk: "I mean, I don't know, but was that the best choice..."

High school students in class: "I don't know, but don't you kind of feel like..."

Are we really so tentative?  Is our own knowledge so slippery that we cannot be certain of our opinions?  Do we doubt our own knowledge, we who may spend about 15-20 years of our lives in full-time, formal education or many hours a day reading and learning in other ways?  I use this phrase all the time (I'm in my 20th year of full time school and have 4-5 more ahead of me), and observe that this has nothing to do with what I do or do not know, but is rather a linguistic tool to exhibit deference.

Deference, courtesy, and humility are all good things.  However, when someone insults and enrages me and a fire ignites in my gut, I am most likely to reply with, "I don't know about that..." When I am most sure of my thoughts, I present them with the least force.  What is this?

If I express my deepest convictions with uncertainty, is it about laying down my weapons?  Am I being compassionate toward those who do not agree with me?  I use this phrase to make myself approachable, to not sound angry, not like those people you can't talk to.  I say "I don't know" when I want to appear humble, teachable, rational, or to look like I am still in deep contemplation and not yet decided.  I want to invite the shared acknowledgement of, "this is a really hard topic, isn't it?" with my interlocutor.  If we can be friends in our joint intellectual struggles - pilgrims along an arduous ethical journey - maybe our conversation will be more productive.  All of these may be well-intended, but as I type this, something just doesn't feel right.  Ultimately, I am not being honest.

There are moments when I do not know my own mind about an issue and genuinely want to invite a conversation that will help me consider all sides.  More often, however, this phrase hangs most heavily on my lips when I am completely convicted about my own opinion, and feigned uncertainty will make me appear to be deliberating.

Do we privilege the deliberating mind more than the convicted mind?  Convictions are scary if they are bad, but their total absence is even scarier.  We do not want to seem like we are digging in our heels, that we are fundamentalists, that our affiliations with cultures, parties, or identity groups are not thought-out.  We hide within the "I don't know" to mask the strength of our beliefs and defend ourselves from charges of bigotry.

The bigot knows.  The bigot is certain about their own correctness and the incorrectness of someone else.  The open minded person maybe doesn't know.  They are not certain that anyone else is better or worse than they are, and at any moment could be supplied with additional information that could change their mind completely.  The jury is always out.  The open mind is perpetually prepared to pivot; the key fact could be dropped or posted at any time that would change everything.

Facts.  I continue to think about the issue of facts in the latest election and the great concern over fake news. I wish everything we read online was true.  Would that we had some magical entity that could supply us with truth whenever we needed it!  I can't imagine why people think there is an entity in the world that could possibly deliver this service of perpetual truth-publishing, but I am interested in the strength of the wish for it.

But are our facts more important that our ideas?  Facts do matter.  False stories are not helpful for anyone.  And yet - are there not ideas that arc above the truths and untruths that fill our screens all day?  Are there not ideas that make facts just a little bit irrelevant?

I'm reminded of a section from my favorite Edna St. Vincent Millay poem:

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the oarlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind -
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Falls from the sky a meteoritic shower
Of facts...they lie unquestioned, uncombined.

This furtive age never speaks its mind.  While facts and un-facts swirl around us all the time, we cannot question, combine, organize, verify them.  Facts lead us to our great scientific accomplishments, to be certain, but there is another level of thought that facts simply cannot attain.  It is the realm of truths.

It is also the realm of conviction.  Of belief.  Of values.  And while we spew "I don't know..." after "...I don't know" into the verbal arenas of our lives, we enshroud this realm within our own fear of judgment.  I use this phrase to appear undecided, to bow down before my opponent with my power of deliberation raised on open palms to be assessed.  Our world loves a person on a journey in search of epiphanies about food, stuff, yoga, new cultures - whatever.  As long as I am in progress in my thoughts and am willing to give them up, I cannot be judged for them.  And yet, my heart pounds within my chest as I enact this theater, my expressions of certainty - the bold articulation of that which I believe, have always believed, and will always believe  - is forced to writhe through the labyrinth of feigned deliberation.

Empathy, courtesy, and consideration are all very important.  I will even say they are essential.  But I need to use a different phrase to communicate this that does not submit my knowledge to my wish for respect and civil discourse.  Much of the time, I do know.  I suspect that you do too.


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