Sunday, November 24, 2019

But I Already Know The Answer

These remarks have been sitting in draft form for a while, but in the light of the most recent commentary on the little note Donald Trump was holding in the picture mentioned in the previous remarks, this seems like an opportune moment to drag this out.

There is a pretty large community out there that appears, at least superficially, to be widely read and at the same time to know almost nothing about anything. People who claim to be Rationalists, or Atheists, often appear here. They cite a broad range of sources to support their weirdly narrow and frankly blockheaded theses about, well, about almost everything. There is no topic which cannot be discussed stupidly by some Rationalist, at great length.

I have puzzled, in some sense or another, for years over how someone can read so much and yet have learned to little.

My working theory is that it comes from knowing all the answers beforehand.

Let us suppose, for instance, that you are an Atheist (not an atheist, an Atheist) and you know of a certainty that religion was a deliberate invention of a few power-mad individuals as a tool for controlling the masses. I can assure you that this is a belief held by people who exhibit no other symptoms of schizophrenia, as outlandish as that may seem.

Suppose now that you go ahead and read the bible. Well, let us be honest, you're a lazy shit, so you skim a few bits and pieces. You probably consult a few online guides and skip the genealogies, and dig right in to the juicy bits. Regardless of how you go about it, though, you're not really reading in any useful sense. You're looking for confirmation of your pre-existing biases. And, by golly, the bible has a lot of words in it, you're gonna find it. Especially if some like-minded simpletons have gone ahead of you and marked the good bits with large red Xes.

You can do this for anything. Was Jospeph Conrad a racist? Why you needn't read past the title of of The Nigger of the "Narcissus" to find confirmation, and of course everyone knows that "Heart of Darkness" is terribly racist, and if we are honest with ourselves he didn't write anything else. Is Obama a Muslim? Are black, whites, or arabs, actually an inferior species? Is David Foster Wallace overrated? Yes, yes and yes! Naturally!

For the purposes of this blog, this matters in the ways people approach photographs.

People with axes to grind approach photographs one way, and people without approach them completely differently.

The people with axes to grind are, in general, completely wrong. They find in the picture the answer they sought, virtually every time. Photographs allow a great deal of room for interpretation, for "reading," and if you are committed to any particular project, you can read the photograph that way.

If you wish to know more about a photograph than how you, an anorak, read it, then you cannot approach the photograph this way. If you pretend to the role of critic, it is quite literally your job to know more about the photograph than the way some doltish anorak (you) read it, and therefore your job requires you to approach the photograph differently.

Which is, of course, merely to bang on one of my two, or maybe three, little drums once again. You have to set aside your preconceptions, and flip on your Empathy switch, if you want to dig in to some sort of picture, to guess at any kind of ground truth, and to guess at what people might make of it.

I am rather fond of flippantly dismissing books I have not read. It is a character flaw, and I do try to mark those remarks carefully so you don't get fooled by them. This isn't as good as simply shutting up, but I have so much fun being flippant that I can't. So, pointing out what I am about is the best I've got.

Nobody's perfect, but we can make a bit of an effort, you know?


  1. Not THAT Ross CameronNovember 25, 2019 at 2:56 AM

    Re “I have puzzled, in some sense or another, for years over how someone can read so much and yet have learned to little.”
    It’s the dichotomy of having knowledge / information vs being knowledgeable / informed. I think it’s also about the gaining of wisdom and judgement - the critical thinking and empathy that you refer to.
    I don’t know what the cure for that is.

  2. Then we have the "Trust your elders/leaders" which causes many problems. When young it is natural. As we get older few question though many may rebel for a while. Overall, those who lead are still there and still in charge and you go along, to get along.
    Religious leaders: a recipe for disaster in too many ways. Am familiar with the Mormons and the Book of Mormon. Justify murder and explain how dark skin came about, it is there plain as day.
    Friends who are Catholics have their own sanctioned myths and negative teachings.
    Few actually check past asking a question and settling for any answer, often those that fit their prejudice. Going deeper is frowned upon in most groups.
    It is no wonder that few move past 'what to think' to 'how to think'.

  3. A refreshingly self aware post for all us know it alls. �� Thank you.