A conundrum of stagnant discourse: the anti-intellectual, anti-science sentiment
The conundrum of anti-intellectual sentiment springs from the deep, dark undercurrent of cultural discourse, and is a problem that is multifaceted; it reveals fundamental societal disconnects as well as the sheltered, self-contained snow globe of perspective endemic to western culture itself.
Narrowing this down to the perspective that I have heard time and time again from fellow scientists in the US: where the hell did we go wrong in describing our science, the purity and simplicity of its methods, and the implications of the findings? How did we fail so catastrophically in science communication? There is a stark and palpable contrast between the narratives of climate and earth scientists and segments of the population that either strongly identify as anti-intellectual, or carry deep skepticism around scientific fact.
This contrast is heightened by a deep and growing political-social divide in the US. These clashes within US society are intimately interwoven. They largely have the same divides and they arguably have the same roots; they certainly conjure the same questions.
How do we approach this pervasive and damaging conundrum? How do we come together to form a coherent cultural story, and move toward a more just, peaceful, and prosperous world with the sense of urgency that our era demands?
I've gone back to this idea, back to this piece of writing again and again, for some time. Each time, I recognize that I did not truly appreciate my own perspective. I continue to sit in that space between the question and the answer.
In previously thinking about this many times before, I did not appropriately position myself as someone who yearns so badly for peace and justice, and for the drawing down of our forces against nature: for the stillness and rightness and space for hawks diving for a snake or field mouse to clutch in its talons, or for the wake of vultures feeding on a fawn carcass, or as Maya Angelou said in her haunting poem A Brave and Startling Truth, for "Mother Mississippi who, without favor, nurture(s) all creatures in the depths and on the shores". I didn't recognize fully that I so badly want for the wrongs to be right (by my own definition, of course), that what I was really seeking was more of the same: forcing others to perceive the world as I did. Thus, this digression, for me, is important to the approach of the larger conundrum.
These wrongs that I feel are of such deep heartache. I feel them so deeply that I cannot turn away from them, and I am moved each time I write about them. This deep aching for justice feels as though it may burst out of my chest, the fiery goddess Artemis herself — nurturer, protector, devourer — will rise from within me to burn through the ravages of natural disconnect en masse, colonialism, and corporate capitalism with vengeance and finality.
And I am moved now, in the acknowledgment of this deep pain, and indeed, this shared sense of environmental trauma. In the societies dominated by western cultural narratives and philosophies, this collective trauma is rising to the surface, remaining mostly unnamed within the individual psyche yet felt as an ever-present, gnawing unease; it is a truth that is still too difficult to face. As with everything that percolates slowly up from the subconscious, we are only sleepily aware of it. We know it, but we don't yet know it.
So, now, more deeply understanding my own positionality in this fundamental quest to help mend societal conversations, I can see that the answer for me isn't necessarily better science communication or the eventual triumph of intellectualism.
There is a perception that the most effective strategy in our war of ideas has simply eluded us thus far, and that, armed with evidence, we must find the best way to continue to change minds. Again, it is more of the same: fighting with the same tools of the past and keeping ourselves in the same fight where no progress can be made. We seek to "change minds" often by striking out, using the subversive tactics of emotional disregulation — of shame and hurt — to force a way of thinking. This keeps us stuck in a particular pattern of thinking and behaving: dominance.
But, is dominance what we seek? Or is what we seek actually truth, peace, and justice?
I have heard this sentiment many times: approaching someone on the other side of these particular cultural divides with empathy, compassion, and understanding doesn't work, because, "You'll never change their minds. They won't listen."
This indicates to me that: (1) listening was not the motivation of either side in those conversations, and; (2) there is futility in the motivation of dominance, of the approach to "change the mind". Perhaps another approach may be to offer complete acceptance of differences in thinking. This approach demands that the true motivation be compassion, not dominance. This approach may be softened by the wisdom that you can never tell someone how to walk their path — I think we all wish it was that easy. We all wish it so deeply that we keep hitting our heads against this wall of disconnected societal conversations.
Have you ever had a family member or close friend who was in a bad relationship? The situation wasn't healthy for them; even though they fostered it and gave it all their emotional energy, it really didn't serve them in any positive way. They know these truths on some level, but they cannot ever be told or forced — they must see these truths for themselves, in time. They must walk their own paths, learn their own lessons, then move forward with their lives as they need. As someone who has grappled with loved ones in abusive relationships, I can speak from a lifetime of cultivating this wisdom: all that can truly be given is support and understanding, and nothing can be forced.
Importantly, in reference to the anti-intellectual, anti-science segment of the population, we know that those mindsets are often born from deep fear, a desperate grappling with the incredible weight of uncertainties beyond their control. (At least, this is story I am telling myself about their possible internal motivations.)
This kind of acceptance is not easy. But resisting it (withholding love and acceptance) is fighting the wrong battle.
My own experiential learning strongly guides me toward accepting, and toward showing as much compassion as possible, even to those who are hurting others, and especially to those who are hurting themselves. And then, moving on and fighting the right battles.
The greatest danger to our future is apathy. We cannot expect those living in poverty and ignorance to worry about saving the world. For those of us able to read this magazine, it is different. We can do something to preserve our planet. You may be overcome, however, by feelings of helplessness. You are just one person in a world of 6 billion. How can your actions make a difference? Best, you say, to leave it to decision makers. And so you do nothing. Can we overcome apathy? Yes, but only if we have hope.
- Jane Goodall, The Power of One
If you have the means to direct your energies toward something that cultivates what you want to see in the world, if this idea stirs something in you, I encourage you to do that.
Love begets love, both in your internal world, and in the external world, as dependent on your thoughts and actions. Our intentions dictate our reality. If we continue to give all our energy vehemently toward dominating the cultural conversation, and the very thoughts of others, we may very well be caught in this trap, wasting all of our energy fighting this futile battle for the rest of our lives. The new era we are in demands that we shift our perspectives, learn to see collectives challenges from completely different angles, and be willing to try a different way of being even in the face of stagnation and overwhelm.
My path — as guided by what stirs me deeply — seems to be better served by accepting people as they are in this moment, and directing my energies in a way that feels meaningful to me. I do not see this as bypassing injustice, but meeting it head on while keeping personal motivations in-check. This, of course, will look different for everyone. We can all choose what to give our energy to, instead of being just another crab getting pulled back down into the bucket by all the other crabs.
I can move forward and let this cultural conversation be as it is for now, because wisdom teaches us that these things move slowly. The real influence one has in the world is not shouting to the world about how righteous you are, and how they should be like you; the real influence you have is actually being that. It's being you. To be your own fire, your own true force in the world, is inspiring. People are deeply moved to change and grow, and to act and do what is right for them, from a place of inspiration, not obligation, and not domination. We all find inspiration from those who do the things, who are being the people, that we wish to be. Inspiration and authenticity are not easily manufactured, because you know them when you see them: it is less an intellectual process and more of a felt, somatic experience. I have been gifted experiences in this life when my eyes were opened to my truth, and that was catalyzed by the quiet power of another person's journey, living in their own authenticity. This is the true power to change individuals, but there is no instant gratification in this process. It takes ease and acceptance, and a focus on ourselves and who we want to be rather than focusing on who we want others to be.
Beyond finding an answer to what can seem at times as a heavy and all-consuming societal phenomenon, I now sit in the truth of my own motivations. I sit in the grey area, in the space that is between the question and the answer. As Bayo Akomolafe articulates in Head and Heart, new questions and approaches and intersecting notions of answers truly come forward when we sit in this space, which is not a void but ripe with possibility. It is ripe with truth, because it allows us all to lay down our shields, and lay down our deeply-cutting swords of words, and do that which is most difficult — to truly look at ourselves.