Considering Certainty

Last week, I read a piece in the New York Times titled “Dangers of Certainty.” In it, Simon Critchley recaps a show from the 1970s called  the “Ascent of Man.” It’s hard to recap a recap, but it ends with a clip of the scientist in the show visiting Auschwitz. He says that the horrible acts committed were caused by people who believed they had complete knowledge – and complete certainty.

“When we think we have certainty, when we aspire to the knowledge of the gods, then Auschwitz can happen and can repeat itself. Arguably, it has repeated itself in the genocidal certainties of past decades.”

On a related note, I watched the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing over the weekend. The movie follows Indonesian death squad leaders who committed mass murders in the 1960s. These men are  celebrities in their towns and country. The movie makers invite them to reenact their killings  in a Hollywood style for the film.

The movie is weird, but the most unsettling thing about the documentary was the nonchalant attitude in which these men recreated their mass murders. There is no sorrow or remorse. Even now, 50 years later, these men think they were right, or at least justified, in their mass killings.

In each historical horror there is one underlying similarity: certainty.

One does not commit mass murders of Jews unless they are certain it is right.

One does not set fire to a bus in Alabama unless they are certain those inside are wrong.

One does not fly a plane into a skyscraper they are certain it is the right thing to do.

I am not saying that proclaiming certainty on a subject automatically leads to atrocities. I think it is just important to realize that as right as we think we are on some things, these people believed they were just as right.

The scariest part about the current media and political climate, to me, isn’t that we don’t agree. The problem isn’t that we have different ideas or opinions. It isn’t that we have different goals. The scariest part to me, is that we are all certain we are right, and the Other is wrong. Somewhere along the way, we all forgot to say “I don’t know.”

As I’ve gone through this experience, I don’t always love not knowing exactly what I think. Certainty is sometimes more comfortable. But as the philosopher, Voltaire, said, “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”