The most dangerous word in the world
August 28, 2008 · Updated 1:40 PM
Certitude. My thought was to start this article with a dictionary definition that would say it all. One quick quote from my Websters New World Dictionary was going to spell the words nasty implications so well that readers could take or leave the following eight-hundred words of filler.
It didnt work out that way. The dictionary had only this to say: [Certitude n. certainty; sureness.] That was it, end of the hunt. Though it was a disappointment, no search goes unrewarded. Just two entries below certitude I found cerumen, a word I had never encountered in conversation or literature. Cerumen is defined as earwax. As a friend once said, Every day what you must do is learn a little something new.
The issue with certitude is that, regardless of the stinginess of its dictionary definition, it may be the best word for defining a problem that sets people against people, ism against ism, and republicans against democrats. Certitude is what happens to minds that become so fixed that even vast changes in reality cant budge them. Like Ayatollahs.
We geezers like to congregate for coffee at Haggens where conversations range from sports to taxes and all points in between. The give and take remains congenial until someone tosses out a concrete opinion that runs smack into someone elses opposite certitude. A flash of hostility erupts that threatens to turn into a yes-it-is, no-it-isnt schoolyard argument that the group leaps to defuse with playful barbs.
Sub-sets of our society have always defined who they are by special certainties of belief. The earth was created 6,000 years ago. Evolution is only a theory. Stem-cell research is based on killing babies. Throwing virgins into volcanoes placated the mountain god. Mid-East battles should be welcomed as foreshadowing of the second coming of Christ. Fords are better than Chevies. All unshakeable ideas from fixed minds.
Here is a sampling of understandings that keep me from being overly sure of my ideas: (1) I dont know it all. (2) You might understand the issue better than I do. (3) Research results may be our best indicators, but even then they often fall short of absolute proof. (4) Because things change, reactions and attitudes must change accordingly.
Ive talked with people who are 100 percent sure that the site for Marysvilles new high school is a lousy choice and that the Brightwater sewage treatment plant is not only wrongly placed but ill-conceived. They know in their heart of hearts that the only way to relieve freeway congestion is to keep adding more lanes. To them, the fact that mass-transit systems dont pay their own way is proof enough that the whole history of public transportation is one of failure.
Imagine these good citizens around planning-tables. Planning-table gatherings occur when problems need solutions, but before any solution can be chosen, a minefield of fixed attitudes has to be negotiated. On a good day, half the planners come ready to listen and learn. The other half cant wait to expound unshakeable positions they think of as, the way it has to be.
There are two good reasons to question certitude. First, the total of any individuals life-and-learning experiences falls short of what needs to be known. Second, as my antiquated degree in Physics points out, a lot of what a person might know doesnt relate well to todays world. Both valid points, but they dont keep rigid minds from falling victim to Certitude.
It seems our world is changing more rapidly than in days of yore. Back then, certitude wasnt such a bad thing. Generation after generation learned to harness horses the same way. Reins, collar, hackamore, double-tree; the gear and the routine didnt change so it was good and natural to be certain over generations that there were right and wrong ways to get the job done.
Fast forward to the automobile age. From 1920 to 1960, car engines were improved but not revolutionized. Other than power and refinements, the basic concepts were pretty much the same, allowing a 1920s mechanic to understand what lay under then hood of a 1960 car. The most important tools for tuning an engine were still a good ear and a screwdriver. Then came electronic ignition, fuel injection, pollution controls and electric assists for this and that. It was about then that grandpa threw up his hands in confusion and put a lock on his toolbox. Which is what happens to minds when certitude collides with change.
The too-real chance of being tripped-up by change can make a person so cautious and desirous of a tightly patterned way of life that they resist thinking about change or listening to people who do. The trouble with that is that it leads to rejection of learning unless hearing the echo of ones own thoughts can be called learning.
Officials afflicted with certitude jeer at anyone who flexes to deal with the times, labeling them wafflers as though theres something wrong with recognizing and dealing with change. These are people who keep shooting in the same direction after the target is moved.
If a first course in Civics were to be drafted today, its main thrust might focus on the need to ready young minds for the business of dealing with change. This is no small task because it involves overcoming the natural tendency in many to, when faced with change, freeze like deer caught in headlights.
If we had been so prepared, then we would have understood how Certitude in our highest offices has resulted in a level of irrational rigidness that leaves them blinded to pressing priorities.
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