In Praise of Doubt

Dec 30, 2016

The political cataclysm that recently landed upon our collective heads is a dangerous call to attention but also an opportunity. We are currently facing a crisis in the guise of a future that may be considerably more hazardous than we can currently imagine. But imagination is exactly what is required. The crisis provides a unique occasion for us to re-evaluate our assumptions, adjust and engage in new ways. John F. Kennedy famously said in a speech in 1959, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”

As 2016 grinds to a finish, I am attempting to adjust to the social and political climate and cultivate a new attitude or posture in order to recognize opportunities as they arise and become a channel for useful action. What follows is a list of adjustments that I will attempt in the New Year:

Get comfortable with discomfort. Neuroscience studies show that we feel good when exposed to ideas that conform to our own beliefs and expectations.I feel good around people I agree with. Left to unconscious habit I tend to stay in a loop that feels comfortable. But the discomfort that we are currently experiencing as we enter into an unknown and potentially demagogic future is a necessary and crucial part of what requires attention. Remember to avoid searching for quick comfort, rather, welcome and try to experience the current discomfort fully. Start by practicing small intentional shifts and practices. Resist the trite, the crass, the moronic and refrain from any smugness. Examine biases and long held assumptions closely. Make a brutal assessment of all animating suppositions. Where did I go wrong? What was I not seeing? I know that it is easy to find pat answers to explain why the world has not adequately rewarded my efforts. Rather than trust in these quick answers, question every methodology, bias and held assumption.

Avoid the middle distance. Perhaps what is required is a new appreciation for Bertolt Brecht’s concept of alienation, which Peter Brook described succinctly: “Alienation is the art of placing an action at a distance so that it can be judged objectively and so that it can be seen in relation to the world.” Develop the capacity to stand back and see the wide-angle or long shot view of an event and also be able to switch at will to a close-up in order to meticulously examine the same event in detail. Do not be ambushed by the middle distance. Pundits screaming at one another 24/7 on mainstream TV are middle distance. Fragmented bits of information punctuated by commercial appeals are middle distance. The addictive and tantalizing short bites of social media are middle distance. Do not be ambushed, mesmerized or fooled by the middle. Explore facts. Get deep. To begin, to practice, it does not matter what I go in depth into, go in depth into something. To look closely is an act of resistance in a world in which slow and steady examination is discouraged. When I am distracted, the real issues evaporate or are masked by the distractions.

Avoid kneejerk reactions. While it is necessary and human to feel the effects of the current political and cultural developments in full force as they unfold, it is also essential to restrain from kneejerk reactions.Rather than reacting automatically and thoughtlessly, take the time to locate a productive channel for action and clear speech. One of the great instruments of civilization is restraint. Slow down. Taste the unpleasant reverberations that abound and store up the energy for effective action and expression. Respond thoughtfully rather than react hastily.

Develop flexible and effective ideologies.  In his new book entitled Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman points out that the accelerating efficiency of our current technologies enabled us to create powerful enough conditions to topple regimes. We have figured out how to achieve “freedom from” but not “freedom for.” We can free ourselves from oppression by using technology to gather people together in a real place in order to make enough noise and commotion to foment revolution. The powerful pluralistic actions of the Occupy movement in New York City, the events of the Arab Spring, the success of live-ins in Hong Kong and the recent acts of solidarity at Standing Rock in North Dakota brought attention and enough disruption to halt the status quo. Unfortunately, according to Friedman, we have not developed a concomitant concept of “freedom for,” or flexible and forward thinking ideas that address the creation of a future. The uprising in Tahrir Square in Egypt caused enough instability to overthrow the government of Hosni Mubarak but unfortunately what then remained was a vacuum caused by a lack of ideas about what and how to replace the old government. Ultimately the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood entered the ideological void and took the space for its own. Our task is to work towards the articulation of a future, incorporating the best ideas of the past that can work in concert with our current technologies.

Promote community. To develop flexible and effective ideologies requires groups of people rigorously considering the existing the ideologies and assumptions and their effectiveness together in light of the current escalation of technology, climate change and global interests. Only in concert with others can we develop new visions for the future. Isolation is our enemy. An isolated populace is powerless. New initiatives generated by artists since the election are afoot around the country to combat isolation, including the Sanctuary Project in the theater world and a Library Project by a group of musicians, visual artists and activists who are organizing public libraries to host events and promote community. What these two initiatives share in common is that both propose to provide places where people can come together to consider and develop flexible and effective ideologies and actionable strategies.

Cultivate doubt.  Bertolt Brecht taught us the value of doubt.  Doubt is a powerful tool in a time of parading political certainty. Doubt is the little angel that sits on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. Doubt teaches me that the media is wrong when it spins each political development as an illustration of how the new political administration does not know what it is doing. I doubt that this is true. I have decided to see every political action or inaction as conscious and calculated. Only then can I begin to see the patterns of our current landscape emerging.

But the most beautiful of all doubts
Is when the downtrodden and despondent raise their heads and
Stop believing in the strength
Of their oppressors.
(Bertolt Brecht, In Praise of Doubt)