The Importance of Being Unsure

» June 23rd, 2013

The primary reason I keep this blog alive is that I believe there’s some value in honestly exploring and evaluating not just the issues endemic to animal rights, but more critically how we think about those issues. This is one of the many reasons I work to read beyond the field, as it were, seeking to absorb perspectives and approaches to understanding the world that one might otherwise miss by staying in an intellectual comfort zone (or cultivating relationships with the converted alone). This free-ranging tendency of mine was rewarded the other day by Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece on the late and underestimated economist Albert O. Hirschman, on whom there’s a new biography out by Jeremy Adelman.

Intellectually speaking, before I even knew what I was doing with my life—in particular, when I was struggling to make sense of a pile of hard-earned data for my dissertation—I had fortuitously  discovered Hirschman’s work. His economic thought struck me as both weirdly intuitive and refreshingly humble. In fact, I’d never read anything like it. If there was a foundation to his thought, it would be, as he put it, the quest “to prove Hamlet wrong.” That is, to show that, despite our cultural belief that persistent doubt is prohibitive and obstructionist, it can be the truest and most powerful catalyst for beneficial change. Hirschman, I gather, never thought much about animals, or the human-animal relationship. But, given that few endeavors as mysterious as trying to initiate a cultural shift in what people eat, his faith in the agency of being unsure is directly relevant to those who do think about it.

In the New Yorker piece, Gladwell notes that Hirschman was influenced by the Italian intellectual Eugenio Colorni. According to Adelman, “Colorni believed that doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for acting.”  I think that this an excerpt worthy of considerable reflection.

We are culturally eager to praise the power of conviction—especially when it’s unwavering. We celebrate our heroes—MLK, Gandhi, Garrison, Douglass, Fuller, etc.—and quote them to reiterate their fealty, and by extension ours, to a set of solid and inherently superior set of ethical ideals and tactics. But the reality is such that anyone who has accomplished anything in terms of lasting social and cultural change has had to accept some level of compromise, even the great leaders referenced above. They adjusted their ideals and methods over time, never doing something so boring as being perfectly consistent. If history proves anything, it proved this: the reality of change requires flexibility and the result, however successful, never measures up to its idealization. In light of this axiom, what Hirschman does is therefore quite useful. In particular, his thought demonstrates that when you approach change without cemented adherence to a radical conviction you remain better open to ideas that might, however inadvertently and unexpectedly, advance your cause further than they’d otherwise go. I know too many animal rights voices who build a frame, crawl inside it, declare themselves king of the world within that frame, and forget anything that happens beyond it.

I realize that this might all sound rather limp. Please note that I’m not suggesting that anyone soften their passionate convictions about animal rights and how to advance them. I’m only noting the danger of wearing those convictions like an armored suit. It evokes defensiveness on everyone’s part and ends in further animosity. Before I ever became a vegan I’d heard the stereotype of the smug, self-righteous, and morally superior vegan.  I never believed it. Still don’t. But, since becoming a vegan, I can sometimes see why the stereotype persists. Again, I’m not saying that some principles aren’t better than others—I’m no relativist (more of a pluralist a la Isaiah Berlin, one who believes in right, wrong, and shades of gray). I also believe in living life as best we can according to the highest ideal of compassion we can imagine. The trick, as Hirschman might have put it, would be to do so while allowing a tiny little wheel to spin in the back of your mind to remind you that, however unlikely it may be, you could, alas, still be wrong.  Everyone should doubt themselves just a little bit.



11 Responses to The Importance of Being Unsure

  1. Charlie Talbert says:

    Your post calls to mind a phrase that I appreciate, “the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.”

    It’s G.K. Chesterton’s. Here’s a little about it, from the American Chesterton Society:

    “G.K. Chesterton had a word for all the specialists of the modern world. It is a surprising word. A jarring word. The word is “heretics.” The problem is not that the specialist–or heretic–is wrong, but rather narrow and incomplete. The heretic is someone who has broken himself off from a wider view of the world. The heretic, says Chesterton, has locked himself in ‘the clean, well-lit prison of one idea.’ Another way Chesterton puts it is that the heretic has one idea and has let it go to his head. It is a case where myopia leads to madness.”

    The animal holocaust all around us, every second of every day, can make thinking about anything else seem trivial and selfish. Thanks for the reminder that it can be important and beneficial, too.

    • John T. Maher says:

      Today’s blog was a “Great Post”, how it relates to the engagement with thought processes is another matter. I have seen some excellent back and forth discussions on this blog and have reconsidered my positions and learned odd bits along the way. So in the best possible spirit I encourage everyone to take a position on the topic of the day and question the thought provoking positions of James and others.

      Hirschman’s insight seems not so insightful but a mere valence applied to doubt as an engine of economic (did he mean social as well?) change. The Greeks might have replied “Everyone already accepts that doubt and puzzlement drives change and innovation”. Science and Technology scholars (usually at U. Arizona) are expected to say things like Hirschman. This topic falls more within the Quine-Wittgenstein disagreement as to philosophy than as a stand alone insight.

      Excellent shout out to Isiah Berlin on plurality (he was actually more of an anti-monist except when it came to Zionism) which its itself a metaphysical concept unless one gets into quantum theories of nonlinear time constructs. My issue with Sir Isiah as a raconteur of ideas (as opposed to a philosopher per se) is that while in philosophy there are clearly incorrect answers and indeterminacy, there are not always correct answers. The nature of problems is that some resolutions are only possible by reducing the problem to intractable choices. I suspect Berlin’s pluralism may stem from his difficulty with Wittgenstein and inability to read Heidegger as much as his desire to act as eminence grise on oh so many topics come dinnertime and so not exclude anything. Plurality has many subsets, not all mutually exclusive, and can itself lead to the tacit acceptance of inherent contradiction a well as aporias. In a sense we are all pluralists who must sort out the rubbish while being open to the possibilities of rubbish.

      @Talbert – Awesome Chesterton reference! Similar to “bounded rationality”.
      @Taylor – Beware anyone referring to themselves as a philosopher.
      @Pauline – Sort of parodied by the legend on the campus statue in “Animal House” i.e. “Knowledge is Good”. For me the question is does sentience mean anything? Confer any rights? Or so ubiquitous as to be merely inevitable
      @Elaine – You have hit a nerve that real whackos do not suffer from self-doubt and aporias. Point illustrates James’ frame reference.

      Incidentally I recall being briefly introduced to Gladwell about 7 years ago in a bar/restaurant on W. 4th St. in NYC which is famous for its burgers (I just had a drink). I am told by local vegans that Gladwell now eats vegan (although I do not know this firsthand) but if so at some point he experienced aporia and acted on his doubt which is admirable.

  2. Pauline says:

    In general, I would agree that doubt is a good thing (as Socrates said: “I know that I know nothing”). And it is difficult to prove ethical matters to be right or wrong scientifically (although some may have tried), and much is dependent on intuition However, I’m happy to err on the side of caution while there is so much at stake in terms of suffering. Especially when it is at no expense to myself. Ardent proselytising may be a slightly different matter, although I would still argue that, where suffering concerned, I wouldn’t feel comfortable not drawing attention to the matter. Smugness doesn’t really come into it. The fact that beings are sentient and that they suffer would, I have thought, be beyond dispute.

    There may be other matters, pertaining to the environment, economics or ecology that are less clear cut, where the harbouring of doubts incurs fewer immediate consequences and the digestion of a range of ideas is positive.

  3. Taylor says:

    “The value of philosophy is, in fact, to be sought largely in its very uncertainty. The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected. As soon as we begin to philosophize, on the contrary, we find … that even the most everyday things lead to problems to which only very incomplete answers can be given. Philosophy, though unable to tell us with certainty what is the true answer to the doubts which it raises, is able to suggest many possibilities which enlarge our thoughts and free them from the tyranny of custom. Thus, while diminishing our feeling of certainty as to what things are, it greatly increases our knowledge as to what they may be; it removes the somewhat arrogant dogmatism of those who have never travelled into the region of liberating doubt, and it keeps alive our sense of wonder by showing familiar things in an unfamiliar aspect.”
    – Bertrand Russell, The Value of Philosophy

  4. Elaine Livesey-Fassel says:

    Understood completely! Now if only we who adhere to this wise and mature sentiment could convince the fundamentalists in our country ( Tea Party) and the Taliban genre of person in the Mid-East, there would indeed be HOPE for a better future. Now there is a challenge!

  5. Ellen K says:

    It strikes me that being genuinely comfortable with doubt, uncertainty, agnosticism, etc, and acknowledging one’s limits, requires a combination of great confidence, courage, acceptance and inner peace — a tall order for many, though certainly worth striving for. Am working on it! :)
    One of the great Gandhi books is titled “experiments with truth”; he was the first to acknowledge this is ongoing and incomplete.

    Apropos of the recent PETA conversation, and this post today, I’m copying a newsletter editorial just received from Pam Popper of The Wellness Forum (with permission). She’s writing about the plant-based food community (so personal health, not ethics), but her remarks are helpful here, as they remind us to focus on the bigger picture (ending animal suffering, use, abuse), stop public in-fighting, admit personal limitations, and join forces for the greater good:

    A Message to the Plant-Based Community: Let’s Build a Cohesive Community

    During the last few years, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend – more and more people in the plant-based community openly disagreeing with one another. I’m not talking about discussion and debate within the scientific community, which should always be welcome, but rather nasty, critical comments that clearly show a lack of respect and tolerance for others. This is detrimental to our cause, and I’m tired of it, which is what inspired this editorial.

    Let’s start with some statements with which we all agree. A well-structured plant-based diet is the best way to prevent, stop, and potentially reverse chronic degenerative disease; more people need to know that dietary change produces results superior to drugs and surgeries; and the financial pressures and quality of life issues associated with health and healthcare would be greatly improved if this message became mainstream.

    The problem is that while great films like Forks Over Knives and books like The China Study have become popular and educated lots of people about the merits of a plant-based diet, the percentage of people in the U.S. who identify themselves as eating some version of a plant-based diet has not changed much during the last several years. And, even more important, the percentage of people who are eating a plant-based diet that could be described as dietary excellence remains very small.

    Why is it that a diet that produces such spectacular results, is delicious, inexpensive, and now quite easy to adopt, is not more popular?

    Some of the reasons include inadequate training for health professionals, particularly dietitians and doctors; financial conflicts of interest that affect recommendations by disease groups and others; and inaccurate information from the government.

    But the plant-based community needs to take some responsibility also. It is our job to make a health-promoting diet seem attractive and easy to adopt, and to use the best science to back up the recommendations we make. But as a group we sometimes fall short on these issues, and it’s time to look at our collective behavior, self evaluate, and fix ourselves if we want to further our movement and expand our reach.

    First, I’m frankly appalled by some of the comments made by my colleagues on facebook and other social networking sites; and some of the critical articles that have been published and circulated about people, products, and programs. It is inconceivable that everyone in our community will agree on everything, but we should all be supportive of one another in public. When we air our differences, loudly, in front of others, we give “the other side” a great opportunity to basically proclaim that we cannot even agree among ourselves what constitutes a healthy diet, and that perhaps people should wait until we figure it out until they make changes to their own diets.

    And some of the comments I’ve heard and read are just plain mean-spirited. For example, Chef Del Sroufe, our outstanding chef and author of the New York Times bestseller Forks Over Knives: The Cookbook, has been very public about his life-long struggle to overcome his weight problems. He’s lost and kept off over 200 pounds in the last 5 years, and yet some people in the plant-based community say things like he must not be eating a plant-based diet or he would not still be overweight. This is simply not true; rather, Del has had to work very hard to overcome emotional issues associated with eating. Public criticism and nasty comments have just made his journey even more difficult.

    When Chef AJ was struggling with her own weight issues, some people made nasty comments about her; when she lost the weight after lowering the fat in her diet, others in our crowd started posting critical messages about her fat restriction. Think about how this must look to someone outside of our very small group. Why would an outsider want to join a group of people who are perfectionist, mean know-it-alls who have no patience for others? Sometimes I think we make progress in spite of ourselves.

    An additional obstacle to progress is the purists who believe that people cannot be healthy unless they adopt a vegan diet, eliminate all salt and sugar, never touch coffee or alcohol, and never indulge in anything sinful like birthday cake or chocolate. The rationale is that if you have one cookie, you’ll invariably eat all of the cookies in a 60-mile radius, and white sugar (oh my!) in the birthday cake is the first step on the slippery slope back to the Standard American Diet. It sometimes feels as though we’re trying to have a contest to see who can promote the most restrictive, difficult version of a plant-based diet. My response to all of this is to just shoot me now if I can’t have chocolate, cake, or champagne at a party; I’m not interested in 35 more years of living with this level of restriction. Why can’t we teach people how to change their relationship with food and its availability (treats at parties and special events, not in the pantry!) and encourage people to live happy lives in which they can fit in with “the others” who don’t yet eat a health promoting diet. By the way, this would also go a long way in helping people to entice their friends into wanting to adopt this diet too.

    So, if I were to be appointed Temporary President of the Plant-Based Movement, my first act would be to post these rules:

    All people promoting some version of a plant-based diet are prohibited from making negative public statements about others in our community. These statements include comments about appearance, weight, personality traits, etc. If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.
    No more long, rambling articles disparaging people, products, and companies. For example, multi-level marketing is not a crime, nor is it always a bad idea. If you don’t like it, don’t sign up, but stop disparaging those who do. Selling products does not by itself compromise anyone. Most of the incompetent diet and health advice dispensed daily comes from health professionals who don’t sell anything. Selling products or not selling products does not determine the validity or credibility of an individual or company.
    Try to be as inclusive as you can. While there are some people and groups that we cannot embrace (think Weston Price), there are many we can. The more people and groups we get on our side, the more influence we will have. We’ll get further by working together than working against one another.
    If you have a problem with someone, call that person and discuss it. Don’t post something negative on facebook and generate controversy.
    Differentiate between your personal choices and what the science concludes about diet and health. If you have chosen to eat a vegan, salt-free diet and to never eat dessert again, please don’t tell others that they must do this too. It turns people off, particularly those who are young, lean, and still healthy.
    Last but not least, come off your high horse and learn some tolerance for others and the issues they deal with. I can say with a great deal of confidence that there is no one in the plant-based movement who has never struggled with any issue, has practiced dietary perfection for his entire life, and is always right about everything. Grow up and develop some empathy.
    In fairness I think most people in our movement are driven by passion and are interested in helping people to improve their health. But we must change our ways if we expect to increase our influence.

    • Bea Elliott says:

      Hi Ellen – Even back in 1989 our adversaries were banking on our differences to keep our movement in check:

      “The size of the movement and the wealth of some of the organizations within the movement indicate this to be a potentially powerful political force. However divisions of philosophy and strategy, as well as allegations of conflicts on interests on behalf of organizational board members, have prevented the movement from reaching its full potential.” Agricultural Law Newsletter 1989

      I agree with you that whether it’s infighting due to welfare v abolition v direct action issues, racial/class perceptions, feminist concerns or varying health/food/dietary differences – It’s always the divide that keeps the nonhumans lacking for justice. I am always disheartened too that these detours steal us away from their cause. :(

      I officially cast my vote for you as Temporary President of the Plant-Based Movement. We really need to shore up our differences if we ever intend to present “the solution” for the world to judge us on.

      • Ellen K says:

        Hi Bea,
        Thanks for the history lesson and the quotation from the newsletter. May we in the end prove them wrong!

        As for presidency, I realized too late that I neglected to put quotation marks around that editorial to help make clear the writing wasn’t mine: Everything above from “A Message To THe PLant-Based Community” on down was written by Pam Popper.

  6. Jesse says:

    Hi James. Long-time reader, first-time commenting. Many thanks for your dedicated activism. You are an excellent writer and the message of this particular post is why I respect your opinions so much.

    As I’m sure you are well aware, this coming Saturday the 29th is shaping up to be very interesting for those of us who follow the ‘debate’ (for lack of a better word)concerning whether abolition or welfare reform is the optimal path to animal liberation. Gary Francione is scheduled to present at the AR Conference, in addition to having a panel discussion with Bruce Friedrich. I’m hoping that we will gain some new insight into this profoundly important issue and that both Gary and Bruce will follow your lead in being intellectually humble enough to hear each other out.

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