Great op-ed in the N&O

I arrived at the college and sat in the parking lot listening to the end of a news story on the radio. I watched a couple of students making their way to the nearest corner of our smoke-free campus, cigarettes in mouths, waiting to fire up. I have been there. I have known the sinking relief of a cloud of nicotine in the lungs. I feel for the addicted.

And then my thoughts turned to the concerns expressed recently by one of my students after a class discussion of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” The bright young woman had approached me after class with a genuine concern. She told me she did not like to think of the sorts of things we had been discussing because she was afraid she might go crazy.

It was a beautiful moment. She was comfortable in her mental chains and was honest enough to say so.

I asked her to imagine that I had a pet leopard at home. I asked her to imagine my feeding it every day, not some cheap leopard chow, but fresh raw meat. I had her picture the leopard lounging on its custom-made bed as it was bathed in sunlight through the window.

“A good life,” she said.

“Perhaps. But there is a catch.”

“What is the catch?”

“I never let the leopard run. What do you think of that?”

“That’s a bit sad.”

“I agree. Leopards are meant to run. I can’t imagine living my life as a leopard and never knowing what it’s like to run free across large open spaces.”

We were in agreement, but she wanted to know what the leopard business had to do with Plato.

“We are meant to think,” I explained. “I can’t imagine living my life as a human and not exercising my gift of critical thought to the fullest. I can’t imagine there being ideas that I was not allowed to explore. I cannot imagine looking at the world around me only in order to confirm what I already believe. I cannot imagine not being thrilled to see old beliefs slip away in light of greater understanding.”

She was not convinced. “But what if I lose my mind?”

“If you lose your mind, I promise you will find another.”

She offered a fractured smile and wished me a good evening.

My thoughts turned back to the smokers, who stood just off campus, much more relaxed because their fixes were under way.

And then I thought about my frustration with social media and the sad quality of our public discourse. The world is changing rapidly, and I love that we now have the power to be our own media, but so many of us use our digital connectedness to seek out like thinkers. I know I do.

What I don’t do is abandon discussions. I believe in dialogue. I believe that we are all subject to the trap of confirmation bias and that the best tool to escape our own bubbles of false reality is a willingness to share our ideas in bright light, not just with those who will confirm them, but more importantly with those who are able to look at them from a distance, able to see the ridiculous elements to which we are blind.

However, dialogue works only when the parties involved are willing to stick around. Critical thought takes more exertion than the feeding of dogma. And all too often I see people of different opinions not just fleeing into the irrational or simply exiting the conversation, but actually laughing at the idea of someone’s willingness to take a few minutes to offer substantive rebuttal to false claims.

For many, conversation serves little function once disagreement has been established, and they flee, like those smokers, looking for the nearest fix of confirmation.

Some of our greatest addictions are not to chemicals or foods, but to pet ideas. No one quits smoking without coming to terms with the temporary pain and discomfort of withdrawal. Similarly, no one can truly engage in honest dialogue as long as the goal is simply to arrive – through any measures necessary, logical or not – back in the comfort of one’s pet beliefs.

If we are unwilling to live in the free and open landscapes of our thoughts, we can hope for no better existence than that imaginary pet leopard who will never know the joy of running.

Win Neagle is an author and teaches at Wake Technical Community College.

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