By N.S. Palmer
Intellectual humility can come to us in surprising ways. Sometimes, it’s served up in a donut shop, along with darned good coffee and the best chocolate donuts in town.
Mine came garnished with ignorance and bigotry, but it was helpful anyway.
A few years ago, I went each morning to the local gym to work out with a trainer. After the gym, on my way to work, I stopped at Busy Donut, where I sat at the counter to read the morning newspaper, drink coffee, and eat two chocolate donuts.
The news was idiotic then, just as it is now, but at a lower volume. The coffee was outstanding. The chocolate donuts were to die for.
Busy Donut was definitely a working-class establishment. At the counter, I sat beside truck drivers, sales clerks, gas station attendants, and of course policemen. If there’s one thing that cops know in any city, it’s where to get the best donuts.
I know all those people quite well. I worked in a factory where I was the only person who didn’t speak Polish; an elderly lady in the factory office taught me enough to get by. I was a drugstore delivery boy: one of my customers was nicknamed “Maalox” because she ordered a case of it every week, but she tipped well. I drove a taxicab part-time for a couple of years. As a paralegal (which isn’t hard and requires no law license), I helped lower-income people handle their debts. And like most college students, I did my share of delivering pizzas, busing tables, and working in bookstores.
I found that on average, blue-collar workers weren’t significantly less intelligent than university professors or other members of the more affluent and respected classes of society. The main difference was that they lacked educational opportunities. As a result, their views of the world were based on common sense but were sometimes uninformed or misinformed.
But let’s get back to the counter at Busy Donut, which on that morning had not yet earned its unofficial name of “Nazi Donut.”
I was sitting a few seats down the counter from several gas-station attendants who were in a heated conversation. Because I was reading the newspaper, I didn’t listen until this line grabbed my attention:
“… This police officer was a Jew-boy, and he admitted it!”
Yes, I know that anti-Semitism is supposed to be scary. But it was so ludicrous that I choked on my coffee and almost burst out laughing. The police officer “admitted that he was a Jew-boy?” My gosh, had he no shame?
Those gas-station attendants weren’t jackbooted storm troopers filled with hate. They were just ordinary people who had been misinformed and misled. They trusted their favorite magazines and radio shows to tell them the truth: instead, they were fed a steady diet of fantasies, lies, and stereotypes. That misinformation distorted their view of the world and of other people.
And I don’t even want to beat up too harshly on the sources of their misinformation. The human mind is a frail and fickle thing. It leaps very quickly from the premise “I don’t like him” to the conclusion “He must be evil.” And since it’s established that he’s evil, “He must be doing evil things.”
The latest example is a story in right-wing circles about the recent shootings in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Judge John M. Roll, and several others.
It goes like this: That dirty Kenyan Muslim Socialist Obama (they call him a “Kenyan Muslim Socialist” because they can’t use the n-word) wants to seize our retirement savings — presumably to give the money to undeserving black people. Judge Roll said that Obama couldn’t do it, so Obama had him assassinated. All the other shootings were just a smokescreen. Never mind that Judge Roll wasn’t even scheduled to be there. Don’t confuse us with the facts.
Let’s follow the chain of reasoning, shall we? Obama is black. And he’s uppity, and he uses big words, like he thinks he’s better’n us white folks. And he somehow got to be president. So he must be lying about being an American, or about being a Christian, or something. And that means he’s evil. Because he’s evil, he does evil things. Killing a judge is an evil thing, therefore Obama must have done it. Is that about right?
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- But Socrates is a homosexual.
- Therefore, all men are homosexual.
These kinds of beliefs are ludicrous, of course. But people who hold such beliefs quite honestly think that they’re true. They’ve been fed information that is at least mistaken and sometimes deliberately false. And based on that information, they’ve arrived at conclusions that are false and could lead to violence.
Have any of us ever accepted false information and thereby reached false conclusions? Of course we have.
Sometimes, we know a lot. But we usually know far less than we think we do. And at least half of what we think we know is probably wrong. So it behooves us to be a little careful about what we think we know: whether in politics, science, religion, or personal relationships.
Otherwise, we risk becoming like the benighted anti-Semites at Nazi Donut. And that’s not worth it, even for the best chocolate donuts in town.
Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.