What Do You Know and How Do You Know It?

What Do You Know and How Do You Know It?                                                                    12/4/14

If you had lived your life in Europe during the dark ages, you most likely would never have traveled more than twenty miles from your home from birth to death.  Unless you had lived in Ireland, you were also almost undoubtedly illiterate.  And what you knew was limited to what you had seen, heard or otherwise experienced first hand.  This was fine, really, because you had no need of knowledge of events from outside your own daily experience.  Economies and social interactions were all, local.

If you did have the rare opportunity to learn something of the wider world, it probably came from the lips of a traveling troubadour, an itinerant musician cum journalist who brought you the news of the day in the form of a song.  The combination of melody, rhythm and a rhyme scheme made it possible to memorize the songs, sing them and thus retain and pass on the knowledge.  But what was this “knowledge?”  The troubadour generally embellished the news of the day or the exploits of the local royalty in order to curry favor with local authorities and to just present a more entertaining story to his audience, from which he hoped to obtain food and lodging.

Moving into the middle ages, life remained remarkably the same.  News and knowledge remained, for the most part, local, as did the life experience of the average person.  Literacy remained a priority with the Irish and with the church (for clergy, not parishioners), but was not a priority with the government.  It did not suit their needs to have a literate public; if the King needed to tell you something, the crier was dispensed to read it to you.

Fast forward into the early 1800’s and America and some changes have taken place.  Just as in western Europe, some degree of compulsory education has become the norm and people are remarkably literate with just four years of schooling.  Listen to the letters home from soldiers in the American Civil War as Ken Burns used them in his PBS series, and you will hear how literate these people were.  But what did they “know?”  Newspapers moved across the country at a snail’s pace in the U.S. mail, but you might only see one, once in a great while, and the depth of the articles was limited by the medium itself.  Your life experience was still largely a local phenomenon and would not change for the majority of the population until the invention of the automobile.  The men and boys who fought in the Civil War saw more of the country in the course of their service than anyone else would see in a lifetime.  Photography was still in its infancy and was at that time still incapable of freezing a moving subject.  As before, what you really knew was what you had seen and experienced first hand.

Growth in the industry of printed newspapers, telegraph, the advent of radio and motion pictures, and two world wars, jettisoned our understanding of the world into the twentieth century.  Very suddenly, the average person in America could feel informed of what was happening in Europe, Africa and Asia, often with moving pictures to support the written word.  Magazines like National Geographic and Life brought you photojournalistic essays which delivered the world to your door.  By comparison to the world of the late 19th century, it was most certainly a case of information overload.  But we know now that that news had to pass government censors and came to us from comparatively few primary sources.  In other words, it was by design watered down and highly selective.

Today, we live in the “instant gratification” information age.  We don’t have to wait for the newspaper to land on our front steps.  The news is on-line and on cable twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  If we choose, we can listen to or watch the news as presented from sources outside our own country.  Everything that goes on in our world is subject matter for journalists, cable news networks, documentary film makers and government or corporate propagandists.  Surely, we must “know” more than any era of people before us. 

But what do we really “know,” today?  Something very interesting happens each time the focus of our news sources shifts to one specific event.  If terrorists blow up a building in a major western city, we can find an ongoing news stream of it on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the BBC, RTV, Al Jazeera, PBS and the evening national news from NBC, ABC and CBS.  What we see though, is that the pictures are the same, but the story, the interpretation or analysis of them is different, and often decidedly so.  How can this be?  Isn’t reality a knowable, tangible, definable thing unto itself?  Apparently not.  Apparently, reality is dependent upon agenda.

In a Zen sense, we’ve gone from the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there, does it make a sound?” to the 21st century variant, “If a tree falls in the forest and everyone is there, just what sound did it make?”  In each case, as to the nature of the sound, we are left with the same actual knowledge.

In an interview about his film making, Alfred Hitchcock once said that the plot line of his films was really unimportant.  It was just the “McGuffin,” the thing that was the focusing agent for the actions of the people in the film.  The story was really about the people and their relationships, not the thing they were after.  That was just the glue that bound the characters temporarily together.  In an analogous sense, today’s news is less about what happened than it is about how what happened is being spun, about the agenda behind the reportage.

So, if we are paying attention (and many of us, unfortunately, are not), what do we really know?  We might say that we know a building in a major western city was blown up and that many people or institutions with differing agendas want us to believe something different about that explosion. If nothing else, that should open the floodgates of new questions.  Who wants us to think what, and why do they want us to think that way?

For most of us, today’s information overload demands that we make decisions to find the truth in one source while ruling out others.  If we think that the conservative agenda at Fox is coloring their reporting, we tune them out and listen to CNN.  But ruling out one understanding of the world in favor of another does not result in knowledge.  In that case, we don’t “know” something, we are choosing to believe something.  That is faith.  And faith and knowledge are two different creatures altogether.

So here it is, 2014 and some thirteen hundred years from the beginning of the dark ages.  And what we can say that we really “know” today is still what we have experienced unfiltered with our own senses, first hand. 

That is a sobering thought and could leave us feeling particularly jaded about the world.  But jaded doesn’t do us any good.  Jaded doesn’t get us the knowledge we crave, though it may well serve those with the agendas who want to impose their vision on our world without our interference.  What is left for us is to experience all that we can, first hand, and try to find the truth in it, beyond our own agendas (it’s okay, agendas and opinions are like rear ends; we all have one). 

The challenge becomes one of first knowing ourselves, before we can know the world in which we live.  And that has its own set of problems.  First, we must see in ourselves the belief systems we have developed and which may color our understanding of what we experience.  Then, we must learn how to learn, how to observe, how to ask questions, how to hold authority accountable.  We must do this on an individual level and we must show each other that we can be trusted with this responsibility, so that others can trust us as we trust them in return.  In that way, we will rebuild the community of mankind and give the earth a true knowing. 

This sense of not knowing what is going on in a world in which we should by rights know everything, is starting to feel like an old problem.  It is certainly one which has plagued us since the beginning of the twentieth century, when we could reasonably feel that we “should have known better.”  If “we” are ever to have a chance against “them” who make the policies, report the reality and redact that which we need not know, we must not wait for the knowledge to be disseminated.  We have to reach out and take it.  And we have to do so together.

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

– W.H. Auden

from “September 1, 1939”