Lately I have been hearing from Muslims and Calvinists who say I have been misrepresenting Islam and Calvinism. Considering the sensitivity of the subject, their complaints have been remarkably polite and charitable. And it appears I was indeed wrong.
What would I do without such readers to set me straight? I’d make even more blunders than I already do.
In this age of democracy, or mass semiliteracy, it is all too easy to parrot second-hand opinions — what “everybody knows.” And “everybody knows” Islam and Calvinism have a cruel and merciless conception of God that conduces to violence and fanaticism. Well, “everybody” may be wrong. I had no real basis for saying such things.
It’s embarrassing to have to confess this. I should have known better. But columnists are supposed to have confident opinions on more subjects than anyone can really know thoroughly; it’s part of the unwritten job description. So it’s tempting to repeat what “everybody knows” when, in fact, you don’t know. And these vague impressions, picked up we know not where, may become passionate convictions. Often what “everybody knows” today is directly opposite to what “everybody knew” a generation earlier.
For example, “everybody knows” that religion and science are opposed, that the Constitution mandates separation of church and state, that Lincoln abolished slavery with a stroke of the pen, and myriad other such pseudo facts. Some of these are simply false; others, more fatally, are misleading half-truths. It’s only when you get to know a subject well that you realize how ignorant most people’s impressions of them are — and how ignorant your own used to be.
The problem is aggravated by mass communications and government propaganda, which have replaced popular folklore as a source of what “everybody knows.” They are so powerful that it often seems futile to dispute them. What chance does the truth of your own experience have against deliberately engineered “truth” disseminated to millions through every television?
Ever since governments realized the uses of radio, communication has increasingly become a one-way street; “mass communication” is the opposite of conversation. Maybe the Internet can help save us from it.
When engineering opinion has become a science, keeping your own head clear is a struggle — and a full-time job. You are bombarded with more opinions and assertions than you can possibly test or sort out, no matter how skeptical you are. It’s dispiriting to argue even with transparent lies, when you are alone and everyone else — that amorphous mass we call “the public” — seems to believe them. Easier to fall in with the mass. As I always say, “public opinion” is what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. Or as Oscar Wilde says somewhere, “most people are other people,” thinking other people’s thoughts.
Hence I think it’s vital to be able to admit your own mistakes, especially those you make by parroting your environment. If you can laugh at yourself, you are assured of a lifetime of entertainment. “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Think of Montaigne’s motto, “What do I know?”
In 血字的研究， Dr. Watson is astonished to learn that Sherlock Holmes has never heard of the Copernican theory. But Holmes is unabashed. “What the deuce is it to me?” he demands. “You say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” That’s the spirit!
You know, and I know, that the earth goes round the sun; “everybody knows” that. But in what sense do we “know” it? How many of us could go about demonstrating it? Copernicus himself didn’t “know” it; he adopted his theory more for aesthetic than for scientific reasons. (Or so they say; but who are “they”?) Yet we pride ourselves on “knowing” what we are really only repeating from authorities we assume we can trust. I learned it from my science teacher; but where did she learn it? Infinite regress. That way madness lies.
What do I know, how do I know it, and what actual difference does it make? “All I know is what I read in the papers,” as Will Rogers said. And nowadays, that’s a pretty fair summary of what “everybody knows.” In short, next to nothing.