Our Plague of Righteous Certitude

How we know what we know is the purview of epistemologists and intellectual historians. Today, they are the folks who are screaming into the void while being largely ignored. Yet, they hold the keys to our deliverance from many, if not all, of the problems we face as individuals, communities, countries, and the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed many weaknesses in our healthcare system, but it also provided a much more important lesson, if we care to recognize it. One of the characteristics of the pandemic that bedeviled both scientists and politicians (often at odds with one another) was how little we knew about the virus, SARS CoV-2, and even less about what to do to protect ourselves until a vaccine arrived. Masks, which have proven to be the principal means of protection, were initially thought to be necessary only for healthcare workers. Hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and isolation would save the rest of us (until they didn’t).  The bottom line: we didn’t know what we didn’t know. As dangerous as that condition is in any decision-making process, a worse condition was yet to come.

Ignorant of our ignorance, we stubbornly stepped off an epistemological cliff into the abyss. We not only didn’t know what we needed to know, we thought that we did know. Pull up any video of our prior president between February 2020 and Election Day in November and you will see stupefying evidence of this catastrophic condition. While he was the most obvious and egregious illustration of this condition, he wasn’t the only one making this mistake; to one degree or another we were all complicit. This condition, of ignorance masquerading as brilliance, is the proverbial disaster scenario of epistemology. And, as a result, hundreds of thousands of people died that did not have to die (and they are still dying).

The problem is that this condition has metastasized across every platform of discourse in the world today. Ignorance-based righteous certitude is a plague much worse than Covid-19. It has pervaded every aspect of our lives and is in evidence from the righteous right to the woke left. Regardless of political persuasion, education level, wealth, race, gender, religious disposition, ethnicity, origin, or sexual orientation, we have collectively become zealots of our own ignorance. I have even come up with a word to describe this condition: ignacity (noun) or ignacious (adjective). Shorthand definition: proudly stupid; arrogantly ignorant. One need look no further than the proliferation of conspiracy theories in America today, which act to simplify the world for our simple minds so that we might maintain a sense of cognitive consonance—of pseudo-sanity. Exhibit 1: QAnon.

Most of us arrived at our state of ignacity innocently enough. Social media initiated our dive into righteous certitude by feeding us self-affirming information that would increase our platform engagement and put more money into the pockets of people like Mark Zuckerberg. We systematically brainwashed ourselves while also losing our sense of curiosity. Then, isolation required to subdue the pandemic compounded our intellectual sclerosis. It was a one-two punch that has placed critical thinking and liberalism on life support. Further, it has disrupted, if not completely sidelined, the creative process that relies on the integration of seemingly disparate resources and ideas to produce comprehensive solutions to complex problems. Right when we needed to be open and creative, we shackled our hearts and minds rendering them functionally paralyzed.

I am beyond tired of listening to those whose hearts and minds—beliefs and knowledge—are so bound by righteous certitude and encased in steel-clad egos that only their definition of a problem, solution, or outcome is worthy of consideration. Especially when they marinate their argument in the slime of deceit. Many of us are so fixated on our narrow view of reality that we have become like tumors of toxicity, locked and loaded, ready to explode in a wrath of righteousness annihilating any contrary fact, idea, or option that dare come between us and our particular point of view. It is beyond nauseating; it is profoundly dangerous.

As a solution, steeped in that rarefied air of humility, every day, every meeting, every encounter with our world should begin by swapping arrogant ignorance for humble ignorance. We should all recite these words, early and often:

I don’t know.

You don’t know.

They don’t know.

We don’t know.

But together, I, you, they, and we, can know.

Further, our beliefs—the things we don’t know but nevertheless cling to as truths—must be poured out into the sand to be absorbed beyond their possible recovery. Think of it as a holistic cleansing of the soul. Our predispositions and convictions must be scrubbed from our consciousness to disentangle our egos from our worthy ambitions to improve our lives and the community of humanity. As the Zen tradition would suggest, with our cups emptied, our wise minds and compassionate hearts can allow all possibilities to be considered.

Learning is the lifeblood of knowledge. It assures that all inputs are considered to create better options resulting in decisions that produce desirable outcomes. We must remove the corrupted lenses we have duct-taped over our eyes to once again see things as they are, rather than continue to be minions of epistemological disaster. The sad thing is, if we don’t open our minds and hearts to think about things differently, we will continue on a path of death and destruction.

Please join me in saving humanity by writing, saying, shouting, and singing: I DON’T KNOW! (It’s a start.)