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The Power of I Don’t Know

It’s ok to say I don’t know.

“There seems to be a widespread presumption that writing is prescriptive (or proscriptive) rather than simply observational or meditative,” writes Tim Kreider in his New York Times op-ed.

Confident authority is an appropriate tone for straight reportage, but it’s become the default of columnists, essayists and bloggers, one that’s so reflexive that some of them seem to forget it’s a pose. To some extent this is a deformative effect of the space restrictions within which most of us work; in a thousand-word essay you can’t include every qualification or second thought that occurs to you or you’d expend your allotted space refuting your own argument instead of making it.

Just because you vomit out an opinion on something doesn’t make it so. Too often we fail to consider that maybe what we’re reading or writing is wrong. We’re scared to say I don’t know.

What you’re not supposed to say

The one thing no editorialist or commentator in any media is ever supposed to say is I don’t know: that they’re too ignorant about the science of climate change to have an informed opinion; that they frankly have no idea what to do about gun violence in this country; or that they’ve just never quite understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in all honesty they’re sick of hearing about it. To admit to ignorance, uncertainty or ambivalence is to cede your place on the masthead, your slot on the program, and allow all the coveted eyeballs to turn instead to the next hack who’s more than happy to sell them all the answers.

As information continues to explode “and actual expertise so rarefied, that almost nobody knows enough about anything anymore to have the right to any opinion at all.” Opinions are hard work.

It’s ok to say I don’t know.

Kreider is the author of We Learn Nothing, a wonderfully insightful book about human nature.