Saturday, August 16, 2014

Robin Williams and Ferguson, Missouri: Epistemological Observations

I have been, quite frankly, too sad about the death of Robin Williams to comment. I posted a flurry of film clips on Facebook early on and since then I've read some amazing tributes and insights from ordinary people and more famous ones about alcoholism, depression, and more recently Parkinson's Disease. One of the most helpful pieces I read can be found here for anyone interested. All I have to add about this myself is this: may he rest in peace, and rise in glory.

A different kind of sadness about what is unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri: a feeling of pent-up anger at the seeming ineptitude of a small town police department, of a desire for peace with justice, of knowing we remain a long way from Dr. King's dream in this country. And overwhelming grief at the death of another black man not safe in his American skin. This week the police department released a video of the victim, Michael Brown, stealing cigars from a convenience store - seemingly to discredit the victim, but then admitting the arresting officer knew nothing about this. (At least one of my more "liberal" friends commented on a more "conservative" site which was claiming that "now that we know the victim was a thug it's a different story" that knowing this does not justify killing him.) And it goes on...

In both cases, information is limited and drips out. But this doesn't keep people from assuming they know it all. Which brings me to epistemology. For those who never taken, or forgotten, Philosophy 101 - here is a link to that fount of wisdom, Wikipedia. Actually whatever one may think of Wikipedia, the definition from the Greek is enough for my purposes: Epistemology from Greek ἐπιστήμη, epistēmē, meaning "knowledge, understanding", and λόγοςlogos, meaning "study of" is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. In other words, how do we know what we know?

In my intro to philosophy course (more than thirty years ago) this was presented in a rarefied way. But the older I get, the more I see it is a matter we need to talk about in our daily lives. We confuse what we believe or think with what we know. The link I shared above was the response to a pastor whom I have no reason to believe was anything but well-intentioned. I do not believe he meant to impugn Williams' character or anyone who suffers from depression. (This is an opinion, not something I know - and I know nothing about Matt Walsh beyond this one post.) But if you do go and read what Matt Walsh wrote on his blog, it's pretty obvious (to me at least) that he doesn't know much - or very little - about depression. So he is "holding court" on something he doesn't know much about.

Surely he's not alone. But I think before blogs and the internet it seemed more obvious when Uncle Charlie had too much to drink at Thanksgiving and was holding court on economics and world politics that he was just blowing smoke - or it was the scotch talking. Now anyone (including yours truly!) can start a blog and begin pontificating...

We only know what we know, and what we know is always seen from an angle. I never met Robin Williams. At most I know what his friends are saying about him now. And that I felt that he shone through the characters he played in films that were very powerful for me; but maybe not. Maybe he was just a great actor. 

And I've never been to Ferguson, Missouri. Yesterday I watched Ron Johnson, the new (African-American) police captain who has been put in charge on the ground in Ferguson chastising the media for only showing the images of violence and looting, and yet there other stories not being told, he said. He seemed like a reliable man - clearly capable. I trusted him - quite frankly more than I trust CNN or FoxNews. But my "knowing" is still shaped by what CNN and Fox choose to tell me, and what I read on the internet.

So what is the point here? We cannot sit back in silence.We are all entitled to our opinions and more than that I think we do need to act: we cannot be paralyzed by our unknowing. But a dose of humility would do us all some good. And I wonder if that doesn't begin with, or at least include, pondering this old idea of how we know what we know, and what is the difference between what we know and what we think we know, and where there are blank spaces how are we filling those in? If it's with opinion, or intuition that's not all bad - but it's worth being aware of that - and of the limitations. 

In one sense we live in an information age. In another, however, it is clearer and clearer to me that the information we get is filtered through a skewed narrative. FoxNews is (based on what I think I know) the most egregious about this, but they are all guilty of it as anyone who has ever talked with a reporter and then read what s/he said in the news the next day knows. And maybe I only see how egregious they are because they report news that is counter to what I believe I know about the world. (Now having said that let's not get too carried away here - they are pretty terrible. They beat the drum on Benghazi suggesting the President and Secretary of State were practically guilty of treason until the Congressional Report came out and said that it wasn't like that and then they just buried that story and dropped it. This is only the most recent example of a news organization that at times seems to just make stuff up and then repeat it so many times that people start to believe it. By the way did you know our President is a Muslim? According to one report, eighteen percent of Americans "know" this to be true.)

I believe there is such a thing as Truth. But I also think we see through the glass (very) darkly, and we need a sense of humility about how we uncover what is true. It is much easier to default to ideology. It is also much easier to see the splinter in someone else's eye than the beam in our own. It has always been thus, but technology amplifies the problem, I think. We live in a world where we want instant answers to complex questions. But I think the path to wiser decisions and to allowing cooler heads to prevail may begin with a reminder that there is a difference between what we know, and what we think we know - not just in our public lives but in our personal relationships, and even in what we (think we) know about ourselves.

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