Sunday, July 05, 2015

First Annual Day of Ignorance

I don't mean to brag, but the social media tracking site Klout has deemed me an "expert" in the following:

  • Authors
  • Bible
  • Books
  • Christianity
  • Churches
  • Evangelism
  • Faith
  • Freelance Writing
  • Marriage
  • Nonfiction Books
  • Publishing
  • Religion
  • Spirituality
I can, in fact, if I understand Klout correctly (and please note that I am not considered an expert in Klout), be an expert in up to twenty-three things. I'm pretty sure expertise is gauged by how often I post to social media on these topics, and not on any demonstrated mastery of the subject matter. My wife, for example, might dispute my expertise on marriage; my authors (I'm an editor) might take issue with my mastery of them.

But such is the nature of our times. We get immediate affirmation for our briefest, most passing thoughts. I tweet 140 characters about freelance writing and someone "favorites" (not a verb) my tweet; there's exhibit A in my case for expertise. I post to Facebook a quick bon mot about religion, someone likes it, and I'm on the fast track to "expert" status. There's no harm in trying - there's no dislike button - and so we post and repost and repost. Measured in volume, our opinions are profound. Measured in depth? There is no such measure.

We want to participate in the urgent and weighty conversations of our time. And we are raised to perceive (or at least portray) ourselves as omnicompetent. And we are offended by disagreement. Put them all together and what do you have?

You have a mess, is what you have. A never-ending argument, pitched at high volume in the public square to the lowest common denominator. A false sense of expertise and a compounding pile of hurt feelings. More heat, less light. More feigned and presumed expertise, papering over a crisis of collective incompetence. As the proctor of the final exam said to Adam Sandler in his critically acclaimed film Billy Madison (did I mention I'm an expert on the cinema?), "Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened."

Funny, right? But it can get tragic. When we weigh in on serious matters with unconsidered thoughts, we derail important conversations and forestall social progress. We listen to the wrong voices in a debate because they out-shout the voices who have invested the time and passion to come to know what they're talking about.

We need a regular reminder to ourselves, a common clearing of the air. We need a kind of Yom Kippur to acknowledge and divest ourselves of nor our sins but our ignorance. So I'm calling for a first (and, let's be honest, probably last) Annual Day of Ignorance.

Ignorance because to admit we are not experts in something doesn't prohibit us from becoming experts. Competence in any area of consideration isn't a natural gift; it's a learned skill. To confess our ignorance can be to commit ourselves to become informed.

Day because having something on the calendar means we can anticipate it and prepare for it. We can recall it when it's over. And for twenty-four hours we can lean into what we want, which is less heat, more light, more humility and, yes, more competency.

Annual because our current environment fosters the problem we're trying to solve, and so even as we earnestly seek to minimize the damage our individual ignorance may cause, and even as we strive to speak more meaningfully into the weighty matters of our day, there are insidious, automatized forces encouraging us to speak without thinking, to make summary judgments without discerning, to let our tongue loose before we have listened. We need to enter into a pattern of admitting what we don't know, and only then might our public discourse and our social action become more responsible and more effective.

When we admit our ignorance and commit to pursuing competency, we might just have our eyes opened to who the true experts are. As just one example, Professor Soong-Chan Rah often says (regarding one of my supposed areas of expertise, religion), "“If you, as a white person, want to move into an urban setting and do ministry, and you don’t have any non-white mentors, you’re not a missionary, you’re a colonialist.”

This informed critique of the collision of a missionary impulse, evangelistic zeal, and a naivete about matters of systemic racial privilege, confronts our ignorance and challenges us toward circumspection and thoughtfulness.

There are countless other conversations taking place today that would benefit from us listening and not speaking, learning and not preaching, finding true experts and inviting them to advise us in the things that concern us. Just when we think we've overcome our ignorance in one area, another issue surfaces and exposes the vastness of what continues to elude us. And still we are encouraged at every turn to see ourselves as omnicompetent, our opinions as authoritative. We need this, folks: We need to accept the limitations of our competency and embrace our responsibility to listen, learn, grow and do better.

I propose that we mark each July 5 as an Annual Day of Ignorance. July 5 is the birthday of P. T. Barnum, who once famously (or so the Internet tells me) said, "There's a sucker born every minute." One minute years ago, you were that sucker. So was I. So is everybody.