What I know
In the past five years, I have published over 100 columns, film reviews, film features and editor’s notes in The Chronicle. From my first efforts as a freshman to my contemporary work as an alum, I have learned a lot as a writer. I’ve also stumbled more than a few times, like the time I wrote a column arguing for fewer laboratory requirements in introductory science classes. Several years later, as a research technician currently pursuing a career in science and academic medicine, I think it’s safe to say that I opened my mouth on that one a bit too wide and a little too soon.
As any writer knows, of course, one of the hardest things about being a writer is that you have to make your mistakes in front of an audience. Unfortunately, as any writer also knows, audiences aren’t necessarily there to praise you, go easy on you or let you off the hook, and so the career of an amateur writer in the Internet age sometimes feels like bloodsport. As I moved on from my early columns on social life and began to develop my interests in politics, economics, technology and philosophy, however, it was the reality of that harsh criticism that motivated me to spend hours upon hours each week conducting background research for whatever piece I was planning to write. In the beginning this manifested itself in the form of a defensive anticipation, a distaste for refutation that led me to overstuff my sentences with preemptive strikes designed to ward off any would-be critics. “Now, supporters of the law would probably claim 1, 2 and 3,” I would write in order to beat them to the punch, “but they would be forgetting about X, Y and Z.” I was still throwing myself to the wolves once a week, but at least now I was showing up prepared.
The more I wrote, however, the more I started to sense that something funny was going on during my defensive research sessions. In my attempts to fully understand and faithfully articulate my intellectual opponents (in order, I thought, to refute them), the familiarity I was gaining with their books, their journal articles and their arguments in general was having an increasing effect on my perception of them as writers and thinkers. Far from sloppy thinkers who overlooked basic objections, introductory economics and the lessons of history, they were often well-informed intellectuals who understood the views I supported but did not share in them due to our differing perspectives or systems of values. Often, we weren’t even that far apart in our ideas and disagreed only on the most visible points. And, although we tended to offer very different prescriptions for the same set of problems, we also tended to agree on what are arguably the most important things: that there was a problem in the first place, that it could be made better and that it should be made better. In other words, almost everyone agrees on the ends—improving education, health care and quality of life—we just disagree on the means of getting there.
That’s not to say there aren’t partisans, and hacks out there, because there are, but they are usually pretty easy to identify. They’re either telling you that you’re wrong and that you have to be evil or stupid (or both) to hold the views that you do, or they’re telling you you’re right, and you’d have to be evil or stupid (or both) to entertain any view to the contrary. Their singular achievement is that they are capable of yelling the loudest while still somehow saying the least.
And none of this is intended as a celebration of the transformation I’ve made. If you were to comb through my columns on this website right now, I’m willing to bet that it wouldn’t be long before you came to a place where I’ve overlooked an obvious counter-argument, mischaracterized the position of another writer or scoffed off an idea that deserved greater attention (An example that comes to mind includes a flippant reference I made to the idea of “structural violence” in a column I wrote a few months ago). In other words, I have not been perfect about all of this. I have not even been as good as I would like to have been. But part of my goal in writing these columns has been to inspire readers to look at familiar issues in not-so-familiar ways, and here, in my final column, I’d like to extend that lesson to the way we see ourselves, as writers, readers and thinkers. Because a good rule of thumb, I’ve discovered, is that no matter how open-minded you think you are, you’re probably over-estimating (And the smarter you are, the worse it probably is?.
In Daniel Ellsberg’s 2002 memoir “Secrets,” which details the former military analyst’s experience in leaking the Pentagon Papers during the early 1970s, there is a passage that discusses a meeting that took place between Ellsberg and Henry Kissinger in 1968. Ellsberg explains to Kissinger, as the latter is being cleared to begin receiving classified information, that the way that he learns, interprets information and interacts with others is about to change forever. “First, you’ll feel exhilarated,” Ellsberg explains. “Almost as fast, you will feel like a fool...then...you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it and that most others don’t...and that all those other people are fools.”
At this point Ellsberg issues a warning to the informed. “You’ll become something of a moron,” he concludes. “You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular area that may be much greater than yours.” He may have been speaking to Henry Kissinger about classified information, but Ellsberg’s words apply equally well to the pursuit of truth and knowledge by any writer, thinker or wonderer. Every newly discovered book, body of work and school of thought can seem like an open window, and oftentimes they are. But the draft of an open window makes it easier for doors to swing shut elsewhere, and one of the dangers of accumulating knowledge is that we can lose sight of how much we still do not know.
It reminds me of the opening passages of another book, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “The Black Swan.” Taleb sets the stage for his exploration into the world of risk, uncertainty and randomness with a discussion of the library of Italian writer Umberto Eco. Although most visitors look upon Eco’s 30,000 books and ask him how many of them he’s read, Taleb explains, the value in having a library at all comes from filling it with volumes of the things you have yet to read. He refers to such a vast collection of unread books as an “anti-library,” and to its owner as an “anti-scholar.” “People don’t walk around with anti-resumes telling you what they have not studied or experienced,” he quips, “but it would be nice if they did.”
Indeed, it would. Seeing as they don’t, however, there are at least two things you can try to do in your ever-expanding search for knowledge. The first of these is to always keep in mind that, even if you can’t see it, every writer you read and speaker you hear hides some lengthy anti-resume, so engage with them all but interpret their ideas accordingly. The second is to keep in mind that so do you. Be aware of your anti-resume, and keep it at least within arm’s reach whenever you sit down to read, speak or write.
Chris Bassil, Trinity ’12, is currently working in Boston, Mass. This is his final column.