It’s altogether fitting that Philmon now co-blogs at Rotten Chestnuts, since these two concepts are really sides of the same die – they both refer to falsehoods that somehow have become things that “everybody knows.”
By itself the concept is useful; you could argue that it is even indispensible. There is simply no possible way that any meaningful exchange of ideas could go on if there was no large shared body of basic facts and concepts that were known to all parties beforehand. We’ve all had the experience of talking at cross-purposes for what seems like an hour, astounded that what we’re saying makes no sense at all to the other fellow, only to be brought full-stop when we realize that a crucial bit of background is entirely missing, without which the other person has literally no idea what we could be talking about. “My uncle died last week.” OOOOOOHHHHHHH….
Imagine having to stop to revisit the meanings of every possible idea, fact, and theory influencing what you were discussing, and then think of how long a job that would be when you realize that those things all themselves rest on other information that then has to be revisited and discussed, and then think about how long that would all take if your partner then asked for documented evidence for it all? We wouldn’t be able to ask for a cup of coffee without explaining that coffee typically comes in beans that have been roasted, so these beans should first be ground, which means taking the whole beans and fragmenting them to a coarse powder, and that this powder should be placed in a porous filter so that water can pass through it but the powder remains, and that the water should be heated to near-boiling, and that boiling means turning liquid into gas, and since we need liquid water it shouldn’t boil but it should still be hot, and that then the hot liquid water should be poured through the grounds in the filter and the resulting beverage should be collected in an empty vessel, and that once the vessel is full of this beverage it should be passed to us that we might drink it, and in exchange we will give you one dollar and fifty cents, because we use money as a convenient medium of exchange for our labor vis-a-vis goods and services, and one dollar and fifty cents of my labor is the equivalent of this beverage plus your time in making it and the cup you hand it to me in and etc. etc… and do you have any cream?
The problem comes when what everybody knows is, in fact, false.
It’s a subtle trap. We have to rely on that common base of knowledge, and it’s a huge hassle to have to re-examine it constantly, so errors creep in… and like flies trapped in amber, they become fossils. They are difficult to dig back out and harder still to learn much of anything from. The key is to try to intercept them before they get to that point. What Philmon and his co-bloggers are talking about with bad ideas or bad information, Walt Jacobsen is talking about with casual insults and slanders. And in a way, you can’t do one without being prepared to do a lot of the other.
Case in point: “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” was a lie from the get-go, and those who “vetted” it as true simply because they were fond of the liar did the rest of us a great disservice. But those who said that this statement could not possibly be true, and indeed was known to be untrue from the beginning, were called racists and fools – not to refute their objections (because that wasn’t possible), but to prevent other people from taking those objections seriously. There’s a reason why the mainstream media outlets are often called the “echo chamber.”
This is, admittedly, a higher-level sort of statement that always should be examined. But it becomes plausible to take it face value without doing that necessary scrutiny the moment you believe that any possible scrutiny is only done by wicked people, as a pretext to some personal bias. In fact, it becomes REQUIRED to take it at face value. I mean, do you want to be thought of as wicked? We all have our moments, sure, but we don’t want it generally known… and the worse of a person we are, the less we want it known, lest others get on their guard the moment we show up. ¹
This also works on another level, that we’ve already covered above – we don’t want to have to belabor the obvious all the time. It is a mighty chore to waste time constantly denying and refuting the pointless slurs. We want to get on with things. So we ignore them, and are accused of not having a satisfactory answer – therefore it must be true! SCANDAL!
The trouble is, once it sticks, it’s stuck, and it hinders any real progress in understanding anything, or anyone, and we wind up with entire hunks of people who refuse to put in the necessary work to see what’s really there and figure out what it means, what to try to do about it, and what the results are likely to be. ²
Hence stopping an echo. Hence the broken windows theory. If nothing else, it will help grow in us the habit of actually thinking about things instead of just feeling stuff about it. ³
¹ This is one of the reasons why some people are so obsessed with their reputations, bellowing “Don’t you know who I am?” or “How dare you?” the moment any hint of impropriety comes to light. We do know who they are, and it’s long past time someone dared to say so.
² If I might be so bold, I suggest that the first thing we should see is the real, often-ignored distinction between knowing something and merely believing it. A good portion of folks believe that all Republicans are crypto-fascists… but that belief isn’t true just because it’s been accepted. In fact, that belief requires knowledge in order to remain believable, even to the person who holds it as an article of faith. And people innately understand this – thus you get the “crypto” part of the belief. The lack of evidence becomes, in some minds, actual proof that the problem must be deeply hidden and disguised, but only they have the real insight to detect it. Thus they have all the pleasures of feeling superior, flattering their own “advanced” “intelligence,” without the bother of doing any actual mental work.
³ Part of the trouble with a feeling is that it’s actually being felt and thus cannot be rebutted in any way. Therefore I suggest that the second distinction we need is the one between the feeling (irrefutable) and the target of the feeling (open to discussion and evidence). Feeling that this or that idea is “racist” or “socialist” or whatever is not evidence that it’s so. It may mean that you’re simply not willing to entertain the idea, but in no way does your feeling provide any information about the idea or the people who accept it.