On the Dangers of Certainty

There is nothing I dislike more than people who are 100% certain they are right all the time. Who have such fixed mindsets that they cannot even entertain the thought that others might think or feel differently, or that others might be right and they might be wrong, or that others might be right in their own way.

Bertrand Russell was well aware of this when he remarked: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’ I have often wished I could be more on the side of fools and fanatics rather than as indecisive as moral philosophy professor Chidi from the TV show The Good Place, but then I console myself that Bertrand Russell also said: ‘In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.’

What prompted all this musing? Well, the current political situation across several countries, for starters, where it appears that clueless and cruel leaders can utter the most outrageous statements without the slightest shadow of guilt or remorse. That is because they feel no remorse or guilt: they are breathtakingly sure of themselves and in love with themselves, believe they are always right and that the opinions of others simply do not matter, because the others are not as clever or wonderful or worthy as themselves and therefore not worth listening to.

The recent trip to Romania with its avoidance of political discussion with my parents (and other acquaintances) and of course the ongoing battle about financial settlement with Wet Blanket further crystallised this feeling. I am sure I too have a sense of righteousness about certain moral principles (not killing, except in the fiction I write, would probably come pretty high on the agenda, for example, as would not hurting other people – these are non-negotiable red lines). Beyond, that it’s dangerous when your own ideas and principles trump everyone else’s and make you blind and deaf to any other views, and it’s painful to see this in people whom I once loved or still love, who are highly educated, who have travelled the world and have been given every opportunity to think broadly, deeply and cross-culturally. While most of it seems to be a conflict between generations, I have heard younger people come out with such blanket statements as well. Here are some of the things I’ve heard in recent weeks which have disturbed me profoundly:

  • Watching Fox News documentaries on TV about Soros and the Jewish conspiracy to destabilise democracy in the US and commenting: ‘Ah, the Hungarians have cottoned on to this guy and kicked him out of their country. When will we wise up?’
  • ‘Our Greek Orthodox Church is being weakened by those loose Western values, we are at war with those liberals who need to fill their churches with jazz concerts in order to survive.’
  • ‘At least Putin knows how to deal with those capitalists who just want to come in and buy up the country.’
  • ‘Who could possibly be against declaring that marriage is something that should only exist between a man and a woman? They’ll be wanting to adopt children next and a child needs a proper family.’ When I said that what happens in the bedroom is no one else’s business, the reply is: ‘But they are not content with leaving things in the bedroom. Are they teaching them about homosexuality in schools in England as well? Because this is what is happening here: they are trying to brainwash young children with their sick mores.’ When I interjected that I don’t think anybody became gay because they were talked into it, another person said: ‘You are right: it’s inborn. It’s a disease.’
  • ‘I don’t understand all this #MeToo and Kavanaugh fuss. Let’s face it, there are some fundamental biological differences between men and women. Men are just genetically programmed to be competitive and aggressive, cheat and spread their seed as widely as possible. Women have known this since time immemorial and should just learn to protect themselves. As for that CERN professor who said women are not as good at physics and maths as men, which is why there are fewer of them in this field? Well, that’s absolutely true – that’s why it’s been so hard for me to meet women at work.’

I have spent a lifetime trying to argue with such people and their ideas. Often calmly, occasionally losing my temper and flouncing off. But there is no arguing with these type of people and I cannot realistically expunge them out of my life. Recently, I’ve resorted to the ‘bite your lip hard and run away to count to ten’ strategy. However, counting to ten has turned into counting to a hundred, stress and insomnia. All I can do is resolve not to allow these people to upset me in the future as much as they have done in the past and use all the material in my fiction in future.

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22 thoughts on “On the Dangers of Certainty”

  1. You have articulated well how certain people think. Understanding this that their arguments may be challenged with clear headed counter arguments is an important first step – not for those who are unlikely to change but for any they may influence. I agree though that anger at intolerance and prejudice is hard to suppress. Political debates in this country have become so polarised and mired in anger, a vast swathe have lost interest. If wider debate is shut down by those intent on pushing single agendas I worry about whose voice will be heard.

    1. This is the problem, I think, that those with very extreme views are willing to bulldozer the others into submission… Having often given up arguing during my marriage because ‘it’s not worth having such a toxic atmosphere over little meaningless things’, I’ve seen at first hand how those meaningless things grow and grow. In other words, give a man a finger and he will take the whole hand.

  2. I can identify with your problem as I have had to put up with family and acquaintances that hold sexist, racist and offensive views. What I often find worse is having to listen to regurgitated conspiracy theories endlessly. In the past I’ve tried to use reason in my arguments but even when I’ve thought I’d made a difference it turns out I haven’t. Most of the time I just keep quiet and avoid the trigger points though sometimes I just explode with rage over the idiotic things people believe. In my experience they want a simple answer with someone to blame.

    1. Exactly, it is far simpler to blame others… the simple solution to all complex problems! Like you (and as a former teacher), I’ve sometimes thought I changed someone’s perspective even just a little bit, but it turned out I hadn’t. It’s quite humbling!

  3. Well said, Marina. I know what you mean. I think this problem has got worse since the rise of the right wing in several countries across the world, including India, all aided and abetted by the universal tentacles of social media and its vastly negative influences. This is the reason I don’t engage in social media posts or actual conversations on political, religious and other controversial issues. I stick to books, the movies, and train journeys.

  4. So hard to bear witness and listen to those who have yet to learn, experience or see otherwise, even if they don’t accept. I’m grateful to have excellent meditation resources that that bring me back to being centered, because that negative energy is so toxic and damaging to be around or breathe in the same space!

    1. I am very lucky that I have my own little bubble of books, great friends and interesting colleagues, plus hobbies that make me happy, so I can self-soothe most of the time. I’ve stopped listening to news on radio and TV for that reason.

  5. You articulate this so well, Marina Sofia. That arrogance and utter inability or unwillingness to see any other point of view is not just unpleasant, it’s dangerous. As you know, one thing that people are taught in Ph.D. programs is to prize the doubt: to be willing to be completely wrong. That’s how we move forward as a society. One idea is put forth, it’s debated and discussed, reshaped and improved, and we move on. It’s frightening how much blindness there is in positions of power to anyone else’s viewpoint, voice or experience. As you say, it’s important not to let that rhetoric win and get to us. We ourselves can at least resolve to be more thoughtful.

    1. Thank you for your wise words, as always, Margot. Yes, I was often amused to see in a corporate environment that once a certain viewpoint was generally accepted (usually because a senior executive had uttered it), it became nearly impossible to go against the grain even when it became blatantly obvious that it was a ridiculous position. Surprisingly, this seems to hold really well in politics as well.

  6. Wise words, Marina. That rigidity is at the root of so much that’s wrong with the word. And the awful comments and statements you’ve encountered are things I’ve had to deal with. When it’s generational it’s easier to discount, but when it’s people of a similar age or younger then it becomes more difficult to deal with. The Brexit vote, for example, caused considerable tension at my work – people in tears at the result, getting angry with people who voted to leave, etc etc. Flexibility and a willingness to listen could do a lot to ease our modern issues.

  7. “Beyond, that it’s dangerous when your own ideas and principles trump everyone else’s and make you blind and deaf to any other views,” I think a capital T is missing on one word in this sentence. 🙂

    Seriously, I totally agree with you. Sometimes, discussing with people about politics is like discussing with religious zealots. Whatever you say, you’re in the wrong, even when you present facts.
    That’s the main issue of liberals everywhere. They want to have intelligent conversations with people only attracted to simple concepts and intellectual shortcuts.

    I particularly have trouble listening to racist and mysoginistic assertions. It certainly comes from my origins and my feminist mother. I realized this weekend that I have no idea where my great grand-fathers were during WWI. On one side, they lived in Alsace-Moselle, so they must have been enrolled in the German army and on the other side, they were in Italy.

    1. Wow, that’s quite some family history there… It might be fascinating to find out more (and probably also depressing).
      And I do think that we liberals can sometimes be too patient, too fair-minded, try too hard to be polite. But I don’t think I could be any different, to be honest! I feel that angry responses just lead to more anger and escalation of conflict.

  8. laudable sentiments, all…. i look at increased population pressures; to the point that friction might result in a general conflagration, wiping out life as we know it… hope i’m wrong…

  9. Nice attitude, but harshly one you will survive with, once the bolstered income classes are no more. “Our democracies” have a dangerous habit of allowing obvious streaks of fascism in governments, as long, as there is a capitalist, selfish, or celebrated excuse for it.

    And seeing people join, mostly due it being their only chance to get a job, or stay in a job, is disgusting, as it violates everything our Grundgesetz (or most constitutions & bills of rights) had added to generic human rights…

    It did not just create a toxic atmosphere, it still aims at creating a toxic society. And media distractions, substance abuse, and whatever brainwashing staring-unto-smartphones triggers help to overlook that it will be alike a purgatory, which factually & longterm will violate and kill us all.

    Sorry, for being more pessimist or negative than a first time comment should be, but I woke due sickness, and only gave the spontaneous reply your article made me contemplate (or remember).

  10. Yes, agree. So much bigotry and ignorance it is really hard to take. I have a nice neighbor who voted for Trump. We talked about things, but not politics. Occasionally, I sneak in women’s rights. But we had one discussion about immigrants and she was so off-base and uninformed and hostile that I couldn’t take it. I have to live here so we steer clear of these issues.
    I pour myself into fiction, watch liberal TV news shows, watch British detective shows online, talk to friends and read blogs. And I watch humor or look at funny videos.
    I find the anti-migrant bigotry and anti-Semitism to be horrific, given the history of what happened in the 1930s and in WW II. That people could repeat the past is just anathema to me. I had Jewish grandparents who fled pogroms in the early 1900s and it’s horrible to think about the continuing bigotry against Jewish people and immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, etc. People just want to live their lives and feed their families. It’s dangerous, not just an intellectual exercise and good folks have to oppose this right-wing ideology — and practice. Those far-right rallies and attacks on migrants in Europe are very dangerous. And a synagogue here was attacked and 11 Jewish people killed.
    I was so glad to see that 65,000 people rallied in Chemnitz, Germany, in support of immigrants and against bigotry and the far right in September. We need more of this.
    And the misogyny? I can’t even see it. The Me Too Movement has made gains here and women just aren’t taking abuse any more — or many aren’t. Some are still captive to it. And the homophobia. That’s a problem, too. We all have to actively combat this stuff, however we can.

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