More Than 50 Shades

Gotcha.

You thought I was going to weigh in on a series of softcore porn books marketed to bored housewives, didn’t you?

Well, sorry folks. Call me strange (many people do), but I’m more interested in the phrase as it relates to nuance and the difficulty of ascertaining objective truth. Those books are derivative purple prose repackaged as something provocative; I think that trying to untwist the threads of fact and fiction are much more thought-provoking.

What am I babbling about? Well, it’s something that I notice when writing this blog, or in getting into conversations with friends about practically any political or social issue. You’ve probably noticed it if you’ve read a handful of my posts. I want to take a moment to think about how difficult it is to make solid assertions in a world that is complex enough that one person is very unlikely to plumb its depths and untangle its knots.

I try to dance along the clew of reasonable argument as much as possible, and to give credit to the factors that complicate an issue where that credit is due. Sometimes it no doubt looks like backpedaling: “I think this, BUT we have to keep in mind a contradictory factor that might be at play.” Some people might find this wishy-washy. In fact, I would submit that the tendency to qualify assertions and to dive into the gray matter (oh man I’m proud of that doubled phrase) is one of the major differences between people who consider themselves to be liberal and people who consider themselves conservative. And as such, that it causes some contention.

Ooh, this is interesting. I was just thinking that I feel guilty when I say “studies show” and then don’t cite any of these studies, so I decided to Google the phrase “research study education liberalism,” and I found some conflicting articles.

First, from 2010: College Makes Students More Liberal, but Not Smarter About Civics

So that’s the point I was going to start making (not the civics one): that it has always been my understanding that with increased levels of education, people increasingly identify as more liberal, and my theory was going to be that as you learn more about the world and how complex it is and how many different points of view there are, you come to believe that answers to complicated issues are not necessarily straightforward and tend to hedge your assertions, ending up with a worldview that is more gray than black-and-white and that may not lead you to find clear, simple solutions to the world’s problems.

But here’s another study, from 2012: College Doesn’t Make You Liberal (The Indoctrination Myth)

Oh come ON, the NYT stole my “gray matter” pun and I just came up with it. Boo to you, Times. Let a girl feel original.

This sociology professor (let’s note that this is an opinion column, but it does quote a study) cites his own study that indicates that the shift to the left is in line with a shift that 18-25 year-olds are prone to make regardless of level of education, which problematizes the explanation that it’s college that’s doing the liberalizing.

But hm. That doesn’t actually necessarily contradict my point. Late adolescence to early adulthood is when people (presumably) leave the bubble of primary education and encounter the world in more of its contradictory glory than they have ever before. Cool, glad we’ve gotten this sorted.

I am, of course, not saying anything remotely revolutionary. Gee, seeing that the world is complicated makes people use more complicated (is it too much to say sophisticated?) explanations to understand it! Someone get this woman a Nobel Prize!

Back to the meat of what I’m trying to get at: Does “hedging,” as I call it, or trying to cover all bases by looking at areas of disagreement in an issue–does “problematizing,” as we say in higher education–ever bother you?

Maybe what I’m asking is, Do you think that there is simple, objective truth in the world?

But then again, maybe let’s not get into that.

Here’s the glory of embracing the problematic: I don’t have to come to a conclusion. I can click “publish” having just raised a bunch of questions and feel satisfied with myself for having somehow contributed to some universal debate without presenting a solid stance on anything. And that’s what I’m trying to tease out. Does it ever frustrate you that, since when one thinks this way and writes this way, it seems that there are not always clear answers, people like myself feel content not to even try to present them?

I was noticing, when I was reading David Foster Wallace (no I will not stop talking about this), that I admire him for a couple of things, and they’re not necessarily consistent. One thing I admire is that he really tries to give credence to all sides of an issue or a debate, and takes the time to examine these positions, reason through them, and decide how he feels about him. Another thing he does is make solid assertions about what is true. And I think this has to do with the former step: Once you have given that kind of careful thought to an issue, you decide what you agree with, and therefore determine what is true.

But.

Um.

Well.

True to you.

Every time DFW, who was about a thousand times smarter than I am, says “This is true,” there’s a part of me that squirms. Are we sure that’s true, or is this just the conclusion you’ve come to? Do I grant you this because you’re a bold and brilliant person? Am I just suffering an unfortunate side effect of a liberal arts education in which I was basically taught that nothing can ever be definitively decided?

I don’t think that’s it, or at least, I don’t think that’s all of it. Something that interests me a great deal is self-blindness. Put it another way, it’s the gap that often gets in between a teacher and a student. The gap that comes from not being in another person’s head and not knowing what, inside your head, is based on assumption and what is based solely upon fact or logic or reason.

We’re flawed, you see. Of course. No shocker. And we’re not robots, and we’re not Vulcans, and our thoughts get colored by all kinds of lovely emotions and experiences and conditioning, and so I guess that I have trouble trusting that any one person, no matter how genius, no matter the number of MacArthur Grants, can circumvent all the questionable structural matter that makes up our giant web of a brain to hit upon The Truth Of The Matter definitively.

I don’t even know if a whole bunch of geniuses together could do it. Look at the trouble we get into with groupthink.

Which brings me to the last thing I admire about DFW, and the conclusion of my essay here.

In the end, as anyone who’s read “Infinite Jest” will know, Wallace is absolutely willing to leave things unresolved. In fact, his first novel, “The Broom of the System,” ends mid-sentence. So this, then, is a Wallace getting back on the train I ride pretty much every day. For all his assertions of truth and not-truth, when it comes to something as complicated and big and daunting as a novel, or as a long nonfiction essay, he doesn’t sum up or moralize. There may be bits of black and white in his work, but when seen from the correct distance, so that you can take in the entire scope of the piece, it all blends into gray.

Have I reached a satisfactory ending to this post? Am I fulfilling the inquiries I started it out with in a straightforward manner? Honestly, I don’t know. Probably not. But when I write these entries, what I’m doing is thinking at a slightly higher, more rigorous pitch than I do when I’m lying in bed at night. And right now, after writing all that, what I’m thinking is this:

As frustrating as it can be to forever complicate things and leave questions open-ended, I also prefer it to putting assertions out into the world that do not take into account all of the factors that might influence (or contradict) them.

So what I’m saying is, this time and every time:

Draw your own conclusions.

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