We Need Humility Now
Republican moderate Senator Ben Sasse and forthcoming University of Florida president writes in today's Wall Street Journal that the true divide in America is not between red and blue but between pluralists and zealots. More than any one ideology, this reflects a posture toward reality and self. This is the same divide seen earlier in millennial attitudes, which I describe in my book The New Copernicans as the difference between explorers and dwellers.
If one sees reality in term of black and white categories, if one asserts one's attitude toward reality with unwavering confidence, one is a dweller or in Sasse's language a "zealot." These are those who are principled... to a fault. While it may sound good to some, it is an inaccurate assessment of reality and human nature. It represents an epistemological fallacy and a communal disaster.
On the other hand, if one sees reality as reflecting multiple shades of grey, undeniable nuance and complexity, and is willing to acknowledge that one's own vision of reality and understanding about anything is only partial and potentially biased, then one is an explorer or in Sasse's language a "pluralist." This does not mean that truth is relative or that knowledge is unknowable with confidence.
But it does reinsert the human knower back into the equation of knowing. It advances a posture of humility, openness to new information, and willingness to listen. It mirrors the dictum of Blaise Pascal, "There is more to knowing than knowing itself will ever know." When politics reflects the perspective of the zealot, society devolves to partisan identities and tribalism. This is further reinforced by cable news, which by its very structure posits ever issue in black and white categories. Our information media is incapable of nuance and meaningfully handling complexity. Instead, our information about the world is postured in a black and white narrative framing that serves to reinforce polarization and partisanship. Too few are leaning against these trends as Sasse laments.
Civic life under these terms is undermined. When integrated into the domain of state power, it devolves into a functional Nietzschean "will-to-power." The result of this as is evident today among House Republicans. The result of this in the weaponization of schools is a rising level of antagonism that undermines the educational outcomes of children. The result of this is seen in churches by the abandonment of faith among the coming generation of young people who decry the closed fisted posture of their spiritual leaders—who deny complexity, repress doubt, and equate faith with arrogance.
We need principles in life, character based on virtue, and theology based on truth. All of these can be meaningfully aspired to without assuming that you, and you alone, have corner on the truth in some unassailable manner. It is time to remember that reality is more complex than any one person can know; that I could be wrong; and that I can inevitably learn something from you. The appropriate reaction to our self-evident cultural decay and loss of truth is not zealot posturing, and the digging in of our heels, but a greater humility, a willingness to listen, coupled with a heavy dose of empathy toward the other. Ironically, truth prevails when we're willing to hold our convictions with an open hand rather than a closed fist. The alternative is failure, chaos, and division. When this option prevails, we all lose.