Why do we talk to people? Why do we bother to watch other people’s videos and read each other’s blogs? Why do we keep up with our friends, find new people to follow on Facebook, and converse with others in comment sections? Why do we take the time to connect with people? Certainly we may enjoy their company and find pleasure in talking to them, but we also do it as a way of making ourselves more complete as individuals. We learn things from other people, because they provide us with information that we might have missed.
Most of us make an effort to engage in reasoned and logical thought to the best of our ability, but our personal best is surely not the best. None of us is a self-contained generator of perfectly accurate knowledge. An individual person isn’t able to devise theories, models, explanations and predictions which are forever unassailable. We use the facts and the mental prowess that are available to us, but every one of us is inevitably lacking in certain respects. A single person doesn’t know everything, and in our personal understanding of a given situation, there may be aspects that we’ve neglected to account for.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously described “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. In the case of a known unknown, we know that there is an open question that needs to be resolved, but we may not have the information necessary to answer it. An unknown unknown, however, is an issue that we aren’t even aware of. We don’t know enough to know that the question exists. The matter of what its answer may be is something that’s entirely overlooked, because we aren’t aware that there is an answer or that an answer is needed. With known unknowns, we at least know what kind of answer we need to look for. But with unknown unknowns, we have no idea of what it is we’re looking for, or even that we should be looking for anything.
This is where other people come in. We may have our own unknown unknowns – facts that we weren’t aware of, or lines of reasoning that we failed to imagine or properly work through. Other people can provide these to us, essentially filling in our blank spots. Our own thought processes might be compromised by a less than thorough grasp of everything that’s related to the topic at hand, and others may have a better understanding of this than we do. We can only take into account what we know to take into account, whereas other people can tell us about things we hadn’t even considered.
This is the defining feature I’ve found in the people I talk to and whose work I keep up with. They have insights that are obvious in retrospect, but I still couldn’t have come up with them on my own. They contribute to my understanding of things in ways that I might not have stumbled across if I had only kept to myself.
That’s what makes it so important to listen to people who have had experiences that you haven’t. For instance, some men doubt the very possibility that sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences is a serious issue, because they haven’t personally witnessed it or been subjected to it. The experience of feeling threatened by the behavior of men in such a context may be completely alien to them. But when several high-profile atheist women tell you that this is indeed a problem that isn’t being adequately addressed, your own unfamiliarity in this area is no reason to disregard their familiarity. Listening to them will provide you with a better understanding of the situation than ignoring them. They have exactly what you need to fill in one of your blank spots.
Similarly, when the Center for Inquiry’s Ontario branch proposed dressing in drag to support transgender people, they genuinely didn’t understand why this would be offensive. But because they were willing to listen to everyone who explained why this was a bad idea, they eventually came to realize that they shouldn’t go ahead with this.
Ultimately, this is just a very detailed way of saying that we can benefit by learning from each other, but it seems that far too many people are either unaware of this, or don’t care to listen to anyone but themselves. It shouldn’t be difficult to recognize that other people can have useful and relevant contributions as well, and your personal view of a situation isn’t necessarily the final word on it. We each have an incomplete picture of how things work, but by putting each of our respective pieces together, we can build a more thorough understanding of reality.