Deferential Uncertainty and the Death of Discourse

It’s really bad manners to have an opinion. Have you noticed? To imply you are thoroughly, decidedly and unalterably convinced is a giant step toward bigotry — in the eyes of many, you have already arrived. 

Those of us who have opinions about social issues know the cold pause in a conversation when we state our position unequivocally, even if calmly and reasonably. To be socially graceful we must always defer to the one we’re talking to; soften our stance with a qualifier– “. . . of course, I could be wrong.”  

But what if you know you’re not wrong. What if you are absolutely positive the rightness or your position should be plain to a reasonably intelligent 10 year old? And even if it isn’t, you still stand on the bedrock of absolute values. 

Then  you are a bigot. Hateful. Closed minded. Clearly, you are capable of unspeakable injustice. 

To avoid those labels, if you are inclined to try, you must adopt the social ritual I call “deferential uncertainty,” that is, you must not presume to speak in absolute terms. Rather, you must make it clear that you have doubts — you must defer to the opinion of the others in the conversation by admitting you are uncertain, that you could be wrong and they may be right. 

So much for discourse. So much for the patient hearing of the reasonable argument. So much for “agree to disagree.” Worse, so much for matters of personal conscience and absolute values if they run  against the current of culture.

Those who refuse to defer and instead cling to certainty are already being pushed to the margins. They are the American Dalits. Untouchable enemies of freedom to be shunned in the marketplace of goods, services and ideas. 

The discussion is over. 

 For a satirical treatment of this theme, I invite you to read my poem “Tolerance” to be read with tongue in cheek.