What Are We Willing to Know?

Knowing enough to act responsibly as citizens and consumers depends on our answers to seven questions. The first of them in a sense includes all the others:

 

1) What am I willing to know? Am I willing to know things that impose new political or economic responsibilities on you? That make me feel less safe? That complicate my decisions? Am I willing to know things that make me feel guilty? My carbon footprint? What the companies I buy from may be doing to child laborers? Under what conditions my meat was processed? Jonathan Foer’s Eating Animals is a compelling story of his personal journey from ignorance to awareness of abuses and sanitation violations in factory farms. It’s a story about willingness to find out and change habits on the basis of new information.

 

2) What am I willing to ask? It is fatally easy to fall into patterns of accepting as “normal” practices that in fact are doing great harm. Our use of plastics is an easy case in point. Common sense tells us that if certain plastics cannot biodegrade even when ground into small nurdles—if the plastic bottle from which you drank your pint of water at yesterday’s picnic will be here 500 years from now—we are using up a limited resource and filling land and water with undigestible fragments of material when we dispose of it. But it takes a certain initiative to step back, hold that bottle at arm’s length, and ask, “Why are we making plastic bottles, using them once, and throwing them away?” If you ask that seriously, it may lead you actually to do the homework, whereupon you may find out that it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water, and that more than 17 million barrels of oil are required to produce the bottles Americans use and throw away in a year.

Asking questions like this may lead us to feel guilty. It may lead us to change our habits. It may lead us to worry about things we were blissfully ignorant of before. It may lead us to pray for guidance toward better stewardship.

 

3) What possibilities am I willing to consider? If I want to know what I need to know, I may have at least to listen to information or arguments that lead me well outside my comfort zone. Am I willing to consider the possibility that the 9/11 attacks involved inside collaboration? That my child’s textbooks are censored by people who have a political agenda? That GMO foods aren’t as safe as the food corporations would have us believe? That even my worst enemies may be able to teach you something?

 

4) Whom am I willing to trust? The government? My pastor? The pharmaceutical companies? NPR? MSNBC? The vendors at my local farmer’s market? Independent scholars? Some questions that can help clarify who is trustworthy are: who is benefiting from this process or practice?   How transparent is their self-disclosure? Who is funding them? Much scientific research on new drugs is funded by large pharmaceutical corporations and on milk products by the dairy industry. This should at least raise some questions about the integrity of that research. (Conflicts of interest like this occur pervasively in war efforts that are supported by those who profit from war.)

 

5) What am I willing to risk? Am I willing to risk having to change opinions I’ve held publicly? Am I willing to risk friends’ disapproval? Am I willing to risk my own disillusionment or discomfort? Am I willing to risk being identified as an outsider or troublemaker or threat? Am I willing to risk being targeted for speaking out?

 

7) What am I willing to argue for? Some people find a “good argument” stimulating—even exhilarating. But a lot of us don’t like to argue. It’s strenuous. It creates tensions. It requires homework. Argument that aims to persuade is an art form as well as a matter of moral conviction. Aristotle devoted a copious book to the matter of argumentative strategies, since he regarded them as a basis for functional civil discourse and viable public life. It takes careful, strategic thinking to discern when to appeal to reason, to authority, to precedent, to emotions, to imagination in order to persuade others to see—and even more careful self-examination to determine what we ourselves may not be seeing. There’s not much point in thinking about what needs to be said unless we’re really willing to consider other points of view, and how to enable others to hear ours without feeling condescended to, judged, or simply trumped. Richard Mouw’s Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World surveys the varieties of incivility that gum up the gears of public discourse, and issues a call, not to bland courtesies, or to political neutrality, but to seek the sources of disagreement and enter “tough conversations” that might lead to more fruitful negotiation. We need to care about when and how to speak to those we hope to persuade and (this may be the hard part) listen carefully for counterarguments that may inform or modify our own.

 

8) What am I willing to act on? Knowing generally imposes a moral obligation to act—to change habits, to share information, to protest, to participate in change. To do the homework is also to accept the responsibility that comes with information. Once you know a company is polluting local streams or exploiting children or engaging in false advertising your support of that company is reframed as participation in their practices. (Amit Srivastava at indiaresource.org and Ray Rogers at killercoke.org have reported on Coca Cola’s serious human and environmental abuses in India, Columbia, Guatemala, and elsewhere. To read their material requires that one reconsider the consequences of buying and drinking one of America’s most popular soft drinks.)

Positive actions that go beyond protest are happening all over the world—the Slow Food Movement, Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Rainforest Network, the League of Conservation Voters, the Union of Responsible Scientists, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Evangelicals for Social Action, The Simple Way, and countless other groups have been formed to inform the public, encourage alternatives to poor choices, and promote innovation, peace, and cooperation.

But one of our basic tools for good–language itself–is under siege: coopted by commercial interests, many words are now laden with associations that make them hard to use in neutral or historically accurate ways. Words like “freedom” (whose?) or “democracy” (practiced under what economic system?) or “acceptable” (to whom?) or “standard” (set by what body?) are moving targets.

So willingness to know—to do the reading, have the conversations, compare sources, question our own experience–takes courage, humility, discernment, sometimes sacrifice. It leads us into new communities, which we’ll need, because knowing can be lonely. It can realign our interests and relationships, sometimes putting distance between us and people we love. Once you know a new thing, the kaleidescope shifts; there’s no going back to ignorance or innocence. A door closes behind you. The next door may not open immediately, either, because knowing takes time. One statistic, one new fact, one story can change the way you see a practice or policy, but facts are trailheads. To follow the implications of a new fact (say, once you find out that 48 million Americans are uninsured, or that the Amazonian rainforest is disappearing at twice the rate of earlier estimates) takes some reading around, getting a bigger picture, following the story. Knowing takes time.

In Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More says to his daughter, “God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” He knew what political consequences he faced for taking a stand on a belief he could not compromise. Hundreds of thousands of people now face political consequences for challenging authority, speaking truth to power, making public the results of careful investigations that challenge carefully orchestrated propaganda. Being willing to know what they know and act on it has made them vulnerable, has subjected them to ostracism, loss, even torture. But they still commit to serve their God, their families, their fellow citizens, consumers, patients, students, believers, wittily, in minds they have trained to link question to question until verifiable answers emerge from the tangle.

This kind of courage is the true aim of education—certainly of Christian education—willingness to know and act on what we know humbly but confidently, alert always to how new information can modify what we think we know. To sustain each other in this we need life-giving conversation—the kind that takes whole evenings—and we need to care. Being willing to know is a way of loving our neighbors, ourselves and God, one of the highest commands under which we live.

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