Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Cocktail Party

I had drinks with a friend after a long seminar tonight, and for the first time in a while, I didn't stagger to my car exhausted and then sit in traffic for 90 minutes (that's right, it takes me 90 minutes to go 11 miles #LosAngeles) and then collapse for an hour and then go back to work for another 3 hours before crawling into bed (I am taking too many classes this quarter).  Instead, I had two glasses of wine and a little dinner, and I got to talk to a great person who is willing to share a lot of knowledge with me as well as some genuine pleasantness.  It reminded me of the olden days when my social life and my academic life were centered around the same place and task, and it lightened the load quite a bit.

That moment of levity at the end of the day.  Ah.  We need it.  No reading.  No striving.  No obligations.  The wine or cocktail is key.  You're always pausing when you have a drink.  You're being a little bad.  You're working against your evening productiv…

The Comic Mode

As I think about the Decameron this week, I've discovered a wonderful book written in the 1990s by Caroline Walker Bynum about gender and the human body in Medieval religion.  In the introduction, she writes about the way scholars like to identify little conclusions in their analysis, as if the moments in history they write about lead to an ending of some kind like a Shakespeare play.  She permits scholars to do this, so long as they recognize that their conclusions are contrived like the sudden occurrence of four simultaneous weddings at the end of any number of happy plays and stories.  They're not real, but they can serve a purpose nonetheless.  
She calls this tendency to invent conclusions the "comic mode."  It is uncomfortable to live in the tragic or historic mode all of the time, and the comic allows for a certain lightheartedness and chorality - we can try on different voices and allow for the fact that other people will disagree with us and see things from …

Life Craft

Finals weeks are misery for me.  Sometimes I catch a wave of inspiration and weep into my keyboard, but those moments are rare.  I am not having one yet this time around.  I took too many classes this quarter and thus couldn't start my papers until it was too late to wait around for Muses.  And when I say I took too many classes that is not a request for applause at my ambition.  It was a mistake.  A mistake that reflects how desperate I am to be finished with my coursework so I can move on to Dante and do some real thinking that is not geared toward a 3AM slapdash 25 page paper.  And hopefully then this program will become enjoyable for me and not a daily reminder of the huge mistake I made deciding to go here.

As I have been trying to piece together a Boccaccio paper over the past three days, I've spent way more time on the internet than I normally do.  Especially Vogue, a publication I used to read regularly and haven't honestly read in several years.  I watched a bunch…