Mini-Feature: Seeing Gradients in the World

It's not all black and white

What is the best way to teach people to see gradients in the world?

“Never affirm, seldom deny, always distinguish.” Real education does precisely this. We don’t even know what it is anymore.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

Snap judgments can be good—great even. The trouble is the context, which right now is dominated by two kinds of people wrongly convinced that only the realm of the explicit can save us.

On one side are SCIENCE!!!! people insisting life and its meaning and purpose can be dragged entirely out of the hard to reach places, thrown on the operating table and vivisected—expertly exhaustively explained through the perfect numbers—for all to see.

On the other side are ETHICS!!!! people insisting that we will only be saved by their ability to expertly and exhaustively explain all of life and its meaning and purpose through the perfect words and speech.

These are both disfiguring illusions, and the worst of the two types of evangelists of the explicit know this but do it anyway. Their goal, no matter how well-intentioned, is to convince you that they alone provide you the master key or algorithm with which you can unlock, routinize, and instrumentalists the mystery of life and your life within it.

This is a frontal attack against the reality that life’s fecundity and generative power resides and abides in the implicit realm, the realm that forever resists being dragged onto the slab, sliced into parts under the glare of the artificial light, and made exhaustively explicit. The attackers like most people hate being told no, especially by a phenomenon that forever eludes their masterful grasp. But this is the nature of life.

Aware of the mastery of the implicit in life, your snap judgments change their character. They cease to be optimization functions for someone else’s bogus notion of mastery, and they become in tune with the mystery that exceeds all mastery.

(Note this is not the kind of airy-fairy woo-woo experience of the numinous or “the universe” that new agey people endlessly enthuse over. This is not a feeling or a transcendent moment that defies all reflection or conversation. This is more akin to the reality of a very long hike with friends or a campfire conversation that stretches across and deeply into the marrow of life not by intellectual raiding and probity but by unstructured and particular banter.)

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

This is easy: encourage them to read literature. It's through books—the great books—that one becomes sensitive to the nuances of life. It's difficult, I think even impossible, to understand in a visceral way the human condition without the aid of good books. Not philosophy or history, but literature. There is an important difference. Ever meet someone who only reads philosophy or history or newspapers? It's like a musician who has never recorded a gospel album—I don't trust them!

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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I actually think most intellectuals are too eager to set about “training people” in this or that discipline without first asking whether they have mastered it themselves. I wonder whether I, personally, am equipped to grasp the complexities of this world—whose territory and boundaries are shifting beneath our feet in ways even more profound than are usually acknowledged.  

It’s now commonplace to observe that contrasting categories like “left and right” or even “conservative and liberal” are increasingly misapplied and inadequate for the elaborate realignment we’re living through. But, even beyond those difficulties of organization and like-mindedness (or the lack of it), the digital revolution presents us with cognitive shifts that trouble the boundaries of our personhood, as well as those between public and private. 

Few are equipped to handle this extent of paradigm shift at a really galaxy-brain level. Even among those of us who seek comprehension and truth for a living, it’s a work in progress. I suppose the only hint of an answer I have is this: make a distinction between your actions—which must be swift and decisive—and your thoughts—which must be slow, deliberate, and multilayered.  

Hamlet endured because Shakespeare saw to the heart of an affliction which would become universal in the post-Protestant Reformation world of the printing press: a new surfeit of information and possibility was leading to a form of deliberative paralysis. Hamlet’s recognition of complex truths and epistemological uncertainty makes it impossible for him to do what he must—to do anything—until it is too late. That affliction has now risen to the level of a worldwide neurosis, and everywhere we see sincere and decent people who are, like another Shakespearean character, “letting ‘I dare not’ wait upon ‘I would.’” Or, to quote another poet, "the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

But a great secret is that you will get a true handle on the nuance of things if you pick a path and start going down it. Not because you won’t have to adjust course from time to time, but because making those adjustments successfully will require to you to recognize the hard realities in front of you about what is and is not still possible at our late political hour. The answer to that question may be “a lot, but not the kind of things you thought or hoped for.” If you can make it that far, you’ll have become a better judge of reality than all of our ruling class—a low bar, but a good start. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind