Gongol.com Archives: February 2022
The power of spoken and written language is vast, and it's certainly one of the keenest advantages we have over the rest of the animal kingdom. The incredible power that resides in being able to transmit knowledge across centuries of time using nothing but written words really can't be overstated. The remainder of the animal kingdom has ways of communicating, but not in the recorded ways we do. ■ But in the moment, for the transmission of what's important right now, we almost never depend upon words alone. Where other living, breathing individuals are involved, we almost always use both verbal and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal language is even the way we communicate with animals like dolphins. It isn't really 90% of our total communication, as the urban legend would have it, but it means a lot -- especially where words leave ambiguity. ■ And if there were ever a nonverbal signal upon which we should put more emphasis, it is the humble act of the shoulder shrug. Not necessarily the shrug emoji (though it definitely has value), but the real-life lifting of the shoulders, either to indicate indifference or uncertainty. ■ To admit that we don't know something takes self-confidence. The Tao Te Ching counsels that "To know that you do not know is highest; to not know but think you know is flawed". Benjamin Franklin put it that "Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn." ■ Confessing that one doesn't know is a very close cousin to admitting that one doesn't have an opinion. That's why the same shoulder shrug can communicate either: Uncertainty or indifference. Of course, it can go too far -- some people choose indifference to all things as a mark of ironic detachment from the world. But there is a different kind of detachment -- an earnest one -- that traces its roots at least back to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said "[U]nderstand that every event is indifferent and nothing to you, of whatever sort it may be; for it will be in your power to make a right use of it, and this no one can hinder." ■ Spend any amount of time following the chatter of media (mass, social, opinion, or otherwise), and you will find a world of people who substitute certainty over passing things -- especially the ephemera of things like party politics -- for the conditioned uncertainty of things we don't know, and maybe even cannot. The world is open to absolutely limitless wonder in ways that overshadow everything we actually know. But it is a crying shame that the quest to latch on to certainty makes so many human beings ready and eager to spend huge stores of time and energy on proclaiming their absolute certainty about things that really don't stick around. ■ To our shame, in the modern era there are opinion-mongers who host programs with obsessively certain names like "I'm Right" and self-described journalists who are devoted to posting outrages hour-by-hour for the consuption of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people in an audience who apparently revel in being carried along for the ride. They are rewarded by a market for overstimulation and oversaturation of opinion. ■ Instead of going along with that troublesome course, why not more of the humble shoulder shrug? It is both decent to admit uncertainty and honorable to admit an earnest indifference. Most of us could stand to practice it more often.