We, as Occidental students and citizens of a world increasingly susceptible to the perils of populism, must reevaluate our relationship with the phrase, “I don’t know.” If we care about the truth in this time of political polarization, we must be frank about the limits of our knowledge and cultivate a culture that encourages our peers to do the same.
Blame it on demanding Professor’s or the horde of political facebook statuses cluttering our newsfeeds, but Occidental students tend to feel obliged to have an opinion on everything. A quality which is admirable on its face — we strive to be informed, critical-thinking citizens — but can quickly turn toxic. This fear of appearing uninformed can push us to regurgitate the stances of our peers instead of taking the time to look at the facts and all sides of an issue before deciding where we stand on it. The more people feel this pressure, the more vulnerable we become to groupthink.
Groupthink, the practice of thinking or making decisions as a group in a way that discourages creativity or individual responsibility, can seem benign at first. But as people stop thinking for themselves, we surrender our stake in our logical capacities, which makes us less critical. On a much larger scale, groupthink paves the way for dark, Trumpian-like forms of populism to take hold.
In addition to helping us become better listeners, a culture of “I don’t know” challenges the intellectual elitism of liberal college students. Stigmatizing “I don’t know” pressures people to prematurely develop strong opinions on issues they might only understand on a surface level. An “I don’t know”-positive culture, on the other hand, encourages people to take the time to research and fully flesh out their opinions and values.
We must also remember that fluency in current events can be a product of privilege. While there is no excuse for ignorance manifested as discrimination, we must remind ourselves not to assume that a quiet peer is biting back racist remarks. Instead, we should challenge ourselves and each other to assume that peer is still in the learning stages on an issue at hand — unless they give us a concrete reason to assume otherwise.
Though it might seem like an admittance of weakness, “I don’t know” more often conveys strength of character through humility and maturity. Humility is persuasive in that it reveals one’s priorities: More important than my winning an argument is trying together to find the truth. It encourages a collaborative, rather than competitive, approach to learning. Humility helps build trust through a visible commitment to honesty.
In this digital age, there’s simply too much information for us all to be experts on every issue. We should strive to be as informed as possible, while acknowledging that as college students, and human beings in general, we have much to learn — and that’s okay.