Monday, 31 July 2017

In Praise of Doubt

By chance, I recently came across Bertolt Brecht's In Praise of Doubt, and felt its message highly apt for our own times. Written in 1932, its opening stanza is clear and direct:

Praised be doubt! I advise you to greet
Cheerfully and with respect the man
Who tests your word like a bad penny.
I’d like you to be wise and not to give
Your word with too much assurance.

And the poem progresses through images of international conflict and moments of profound historical significance:

Read history and see
The headlong flight of invincible armies.
Wherever you look
Impregnable strongholds collapse and
Even if the Armada was innumerable as it left port
The returning ships
Could be numbered.

and brings home, in a Biblically proclamatory style, the twinning of

O Beautiful the shaking of heads
Over the indisputable truth!
O brave the doctor’s cure
Of the incurable patient!

This poem strikes a particularly resonant chord for me at present, because I feel we are living through a time of immense vituperation and massive ideological polarities.  All over the world, the forces shaping the social, political and religious dimensions within we all must live, are increasingly characterized by extremity, and here in Britain we have recently survived a bitterly hostile General Election, in which the leaders of the two "main" parties were surely the worst those parties have ever been known to offer the electorate.  As a perennially floating voter, my decision to vote Liberal Democrat owed more to extensive correspondence with my local candidate, in which I expressed my anxieties regarding the leader of his party (and found we were largely singing from the same hymn sheet, for want of a better pun), than anything that leader had to offer.  I remember sharing my decision on two occasions with two friends, one pro-Tory, the other pro-Labour - and being derided by each, both displaying an equal conviction that they were right and I was wrong, with absolutely no room for discussion.
Our national discourse has become a fraught arena of binary stances and competing certainties, with much of the country apparently bound up in a desperation to assert their own viewpoint, and unwilling to accept that they might be wrong - even though our own behaviours contradict this assumption.  For example, nearly everyone I know who voted to leave the European Union in last year's Referendum has changed their minds, while almost all Remain voters I know have now altered their stances to pro-Leave.  For reasons of expedience and opportunism, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have swapped sides also (in the case of the latter, a return to the anti-EU position he had occupied for over forty years) and whenever I hear them speaking on the issue it is as though they are telling me that they have the right to change their minds while I do not.  Yet our ability to make decisions and take stances on ideological issues is something that not even the most brilliant psychologists and neuroscientists have been able to fully decode and understand, is prompted by our upbringings, by parental and familial example, is contextual to our environments and experiences, and even our mental state at any given time.  All this proves is that human beings are not robots, and that our entire history is defined by changing attitudes and the empowering perspectives of experience, and ought to be informed by relentless, excessive attention to the ever-shifting minutiae of the complex questions that we face.  I cannot think of a single influential figure in history, politics or religion who did not, at least once, undergo profoundly transformative and often very public ideological shifts, in accordance with or in opposition to the prevailing moods of their times.  At the very least, matters affecting the future of nations surely ought to be decided on by means of continuous dissection of evolving situations (as with the system of holding national elections at regular intervals) rather than signed off at random via one-off votes.

Do not praise / The doubt which is a form of despair advises Brecht, before extolling the virtues of eventual decision making.  Thus, I don't believe Brecht is arguing that we should spend our lives in states of permanent prevarication, nor that attitudes and deeply-held truths - arrived at instinctively or via hours of objective scrutiny - should be automatically distrusted.  But I do gain from his wise words an affirmation of the values of empirical enquiry, dialogue and mutually respectful debate, as opposed to blind faith or a bigoted refusal to listen others' points of views, as exhibited more and more these days by aggressive political attitudes, the hysterical tantrums of television programmes such as Question Time, academic and cultural boycotts, and the sudden rush to violence we are seeing so regularly whenever someone, somewhere feels that they have a grievance to express.  Perhaps once in a while an ear to Brecht might serve to prevent some of these increasingly frequent elements of modern life!

There are the thoughtless who never doubt
Their digestion is splendid, their judgment is infallible.
They don’t believe in the facts, they believe only in themselves.

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