The Need for the Indecisive Intellectual

William DeresiewiczWhile I was spending a very hot weekend afternoon applying water sealant to the deck of a different family member, my father and older sister were sitting close by watching. Normally, this is a job I do with my sister, but she is recuperating from surgery. And my father was just smart enough not to get involved. But I heard them talking about violence and guns, and that is never a good thing. I’m interested in the subjects, but when people casually talk about them, ignorance and stupidity is sure to follow.

My sister said that her husband always says that if everyone knew that everyone else had a gun, there would be a lot less violence. That was too much for me to let pass, so I noted that it really wasn’t true. Areas with a lot of guns often have very high homicide rates and that the wild west, while hardly the violent free for all that many people think, was hardly a bastion of peace. Ultimately, my greatest issue with easy gun availability is with regards to suicide. It’s just too easy for people to kill themselves with guns without thinking. This is one reason why gun purchase waiting periods are a great thing.

My point here is not about guns at all. My point is that people in casual conversations filled with “common sense” are very often completely wrong, and when not, they greatly simplify complicated issues. It’s part of social bonding. We tell each other the things that we all “know,” so as to signify to everyone that we are of the same tribe. That’s a good thing. Humans are social animals and its either this or sniffing each others’ butts. But there are better and worse ways to bond and I don’t think simplistic myths about guns and violence represent one of the better ones.

Society needs people like me. And trust me: I know how people see me from the outside. We live in a society that fetishizes certainty because it sees it as a source of strength. Sometimes it is. My ability to consider all sides of an issue and endless possible contingencies really can paralyze me. It’s good to have people around who are good at taking in information and making a decision. But as we see in politics, this is not usually the way things work. Instead, it is like my father and sister chatting. George W Bush decided he was going to war with Iraq and then he set about justifying that. This is, of course, exactly backwards from the way it ought to work.

Because I am smart and (frankly) make a fetish out of knowing stuff for no real reason, a lot of people come to me with questions. And if they really want an answer, they are generally very disappointed. Because I’m not big on simple answers. “Yes” and “no” are two of my least favorite words in the English language. I prefer to tell you that on the one hand there is something and on the other hand there is something and on the third hand there is something — like some hyper-discursive blue-skinned Hindu deity. But this is what you get when you decide to think seriously about things.

The funny thing is that I am a prototypical academic. And you would think with so much larger a share of people with college educations, that there would be a whole lot more people like me. But it just isn’t true. In fact, there may be less. And I think that is really the outcome of what William Deresiewicz wrote about in, The Neoliberal Arts. By turning higher education into job training, we’ve greatly endangered our entire democracy.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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