It was after a knock-down, drag-out political argument that my uncle said something profound.
We were celebrating Easter, and without any decent sports on television, our post-dinner conversation turned to politics. Even a moderate, much less a social liberal like myself, would have been the odd person out. Phrases like “those people” (Hispanics, Muslims), “that stuff” (Homosexuality), and best of all, “White people are the only minority left” were tossed around without reflection or critical thought.
I was too angry to be articulate and I failed to educate. Thankfully, one of my uncles saved the conversation, and my sanity, by saying that we’d all be better off “if everyone knew they’re not as smart as they think they are.”
On one level, that’s not enough. It’s too easy for someone to say “no one is as smart as they think they are” and believe that means that everyone is equally knowledgeable about anything. Neither my father nor I are as smart as we think we are, but that doesn’t mean our opinions on farming or social history are equivalent. They are not.
However, my uncle was right, assuming we take it the right way.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inflammatory and abrasive, is no longer President of Iran. Many friends, former students, and colleagues were excited to be rid of his nuclear interests. Yet, Iranian nuclear policy remains unchanged.
Ahmadinejad makes a great super-villain but he has none of General Zod’s powers (topical references, ho!). The President of Iran is its nation’s chief diplomat, chief executive, and chief administrator. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, is commander-in-chief. Khamenei controls the Iranian military.
For the last eight years we’ve been reacting and overreacting to the nuclear proclamations of a man without the power to make his rhetoric reality.
I wonder how often we are on the receiving end of this. How many around the world understand America’s political system? How many of our own citizens do?
Does Kim Jong-un listen to John Boehner and believe he makes policy or if he ignores him, that Boehner can?
Do our own allies understand how much things change when the out party becomes the incumbent party? How many Americans can even name, much less describe, the two largest political parties of the United Kingdom, our closest allies?
Does the rest of the world also assume that a nation’s government, leaders, and people are all united behind a common cause, as so many Americans think of North Korea, Iran, or China.
None of us know half of anything or half as much as we think we do about everything. The world’s greatest learners are those who know how much they don’t know. And the more one believes they have yet to learn, the closer to correct they are.
We cannot fear our relative stupidity or potential mistakes. Omniscience is not in our nature. But our fear of these things should drive us towards knowledge. If we can recognize our biases, this is as close as we will ever get to the truth.
In this sense, yeah, we’d all be better off if we understand that we are not as smart as we think.