Monday, March 05, 2007

can you hear me now?

I have a friend who works just down the road at Fermi Lab, and he's doing his damnedest to observe the Higgs Bosen particle. Every once in a while I’ll run into him when he’s deeply fatigued and looking very, very excited. He’s generally kind enough to share all kinds of great gossip about unobservable particles which of course I’m not allowed to mention here but which make me feel like I know something terribly important even though I hardly understand a word of what he tells me.

Recently I bumped into him and he was excited about something else altogether – a community theatre production – an English Farce – in which he played an English Bobby. He is English, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch, but he still did a knock up job. My sweetie and I went that same day to see the show, and it was lovely fun and a bargain to boot, and it was everything I love about this little corner of my adopted Chicagoland because really, after all, how many Sunday afternoons do you have the chance to see a particle physicist dress up like an English Bobby and chase around Vicars and Communists? Hardly ever. At least I don't.

Regrettably, he told me about the farce while we were standing in line to sign a petition to protest a local school board member’s attempt to ban an AP Biology textbook in the local high school.

Which would be one of the reasons why I occasionally shudder about my neighborhood.

The good news is that all went well: those of us who believe that the Enlightenment actually had lasting and positive effects showed up in large numbers and lined up to have our say to the School Board (I was a coward but cheered on friends who bellied up to the mic) about why a text book that mentions RU 486 and shows female genitalia really isn’t going to encourage our children to have any more sex than they’re already having. At the end of the day good sense prevailed and the book was once again approved for use.

But it was frightening to be in that room, to hear the arguments laid down, and to realize that while the folks on the side of Science understood one another, they didn’t understand the folks who took the side of what was being promoted as “Morality” (“Religion has nothing to do with it” a few of them claimed), and the folks who spoke on behalf of "morality" didn’t understand a word of what the folks on the side of Science were saying.

And I'm not entirely sure that either side wanted to understand the other.

There was no debate, and there was certainly no dialog. There was a simple series of statements declaring why the speaker was in the right. There was no sense that we might have understood each other, even if we tried. We simply didn’t speak one another’s language.

That’s all. I don’t have any cogent conclusions about the situation. No telling insights.

It just left me concerned that folks don't know how to argue anymore -- and rarely do you run into that cousin to a good argument -- the Platonic dialog -- where folks suspend certainty and dig deep into something through questioning and examination.

I get myself into trouble pretty regularly because I'll start throwing questions out to pick and probe at a situation. The hope, of course, is that the folks I'm picking and probing with will share in the exercise, and we'll get to a new understanding of the thing by the time we're through with it. But too often I get baffled looks accompanied by strange intonations, and I usually cave and say something lame like: "I'm not saying we do it this way" or "I'm not saying I think that, I'm just wondering if..." Rarely does it go anywhere interesting.

But every once in a while it does, and the person picks it up and starts throwing out their own hypotheticals (Bush and his cronies who "won't speak in hypotheticals" be damned -- they're what you need to puzzle anything through). And more often than not, you get somewhere new -- and you get there together.

I'm not sure if it's the new place or the fact that you figured it out together that matters more -- but I suspect it's the together part that makes it so satisfying.


anniemcq said...

What a great piece of writing. I've been thinking along these lines for a while now, but couldn't have said it any better. We don't seem to be able to discuss things anymore, without it turning into a yelling match. I'm as much to blame as anyone, holding dear as I do my own opinions of any given situation, and loathe to lose an argument. But I agree, we need to stop yelling in one another's direction.
And I love how you started this story. I thought it was going in one direction and you took me in another. That's such a good thing. Great job.

narthex said...

interesting, i have a friend who is working on a photo project and the theme revolves around certainty or more specifically 'truth' and 'faith.' one of the premises of course is that once you have 'certainty' in your sense of truth there can be no debate. people become like talking heads with no ears or mind that can be receptive to ideas for discourse. at the simplest, these are just annoying experiences. at the worst, these turn into violent actions that open up the situation of 'defending' one's faith which can lead to wars. ironic...

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