Unknowing is inescapably an exercise in moderation. I’m talking here about political moderation. In other respects, unknowing encourages us towards an immoderate lifestyle. One which embraces mischief and counters convention. In an age of populism and polarisation, though, an inclination to political moderation is unknowing’s contribution.
But moderation is a term that is fraught with ambiguity. What I’m referring to in invoking moderation is a disciplined eschewal of the easy certainties of extremism. What I’m not advocating is a lazy gravitation to the centre of wherever mainstream political debate is located.
As the last decades have demonstrated, the Overton window can be re-situated at the extremes, and positions previously recognised as moderate recast as outside the mainstream or even treacherous. In my lifetime, this has happened to the advocacy of, for example, social democracy, the maintenance of friendly relations with our European neighbours and solidarity with the Jews as an oppressed people. The years of Conservative rule have overseen a dismantling of the social contract behind the welfare state and a return to conditions of employment which evoke the Victorian era or the 1930s. Centrist opinion has colluded in the normalisation of such policies. A disciplined moderation might have named the assault on hard-won rights as an extremist aberration.
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Who doesn’t support pluralism? Who would deny themselves the right to live peaceably in their own way with their own views, without interference or coercion to be other than they are?
Nobody that I can think of. Yet, we live at a time when pluralism is under threat and the pressure to conform to somebody’s view of right thinking is never far away.
Pluralism is an onerous discipline that makes demands of tolerance that are not always recognised by those who insist on its privileges.
Unknowing is necessarily an orientation that embraces pluralism. It is not possible to hold one’s knowing lightly unless one admits – even cultivates – alternative points of view. I’m referring not just to the pluralism that recognises diversity of perspective beyond oneself. Unknowing also implies a commitment to pluralism in one’s own worldview(s) and a recognition of a plurality of selves within one individual.
If you read one thing during COP26, make it Valerie Iles’ paper, We’re Only Human. Her brief overview of the climate crisis offers useful frameworks for assessing the confusing proposals and counter-proposals to reduce humans’ heating up of the planet. So it provides a timely lodestone for making sense of whatever emerges from the UN conference on saving the world.
But it’s also a masterly exploration of how the way humans know the world is a poor foundation for comprehending how quickly and comprehensively we’re ruining it. How we understand the world is shaped by what it was like when we were born into it. Iles argues that it is changing at such an exponential rate that our thought constructs are scarcely able to conceptualise the speed at which reality is changing. 68 per cent of all carbon emissions have occurred in just my lifetime (60 years). In just the last seven decades, the population of humans in the world has tripled. In the context of the millennia of the planet’s existence, the impacts of these changes are unfathomable. In order to think ourselves out of the crisis we’ve created, we could try to unknow many of the things we hold to be true. Iles suggests a few ways to start.Read More »
A premise of unknowing is that, while not knowing is a defining condition of life, we mostly behave as if we know.
At its most basic level, our not knowing is a truism. While each of us functions from our own individual base of knowledge, an inescapable facet of existence is that we do not know what the future holds. Perhaps not even the next moment. Much of our knowing is nothing more than pattern recognition. We hold a rough model in our heads of what reality is like and this is good enough to enable us to function efficiently most of the time.
But this pattern recognition can blind us to the novelty we navigate every day of our lives. Even when we encounter situations that seem similar to ones we have seen before, we tend to forget that each unfolding of a familiar event is unique in its own right. Our knowing forms amid a broader canvas of not knowing.
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The word “unknowing” does not generally have positive connotations. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as an adjective (though also used as a barely distinguishable present participle) meaning:
Not knowing; not possessing knowledge or understanding; ignorant; ill-informed; naive.
The sense in which I’m using it is almost the opposite of this. I’m talking about a letting go of the knowing that paradoxically makes us unaware and unwitting – that is to say, the knowing in which we reside most of the time. The words “unaware” and “unwitting” that I used in that last sentence to describe “knowing” are taken from Chambers’ definition of “unknowing”. What we’re dealing with is not a binary between ignorance and knowledge but an ebbing and flowing between knowing and unknowing, the boundaries between them hard to discern.
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