“I don’t know enough” is not an excuse for silence

There is constant danger in discussing foreign affairs with a fellow Yalie.

The danger is that your dear friend, your prickly adversary, will lean across the table and smack you down: not with a hefty blow, but with a remark that will ring in your ears for the rest of the conversation. One well-placed shutdown might be: “But just look at what’s happened in the past few days in Zimbabwe!”

Or: “It’s just a matter of realizing that [insert petty foreign dictator] has no real power.” Or: “You’re completely ignoring the economic situation; do you even know the unemployment rate in Burma?”

It would be an offense to common decency, of course, to say, “Uh, no.” So you look down, revise upwards your opinion of the other person’s intelligence and quickly enough concede the point. “That doesn’t seem to make sense to me, but I can’t really argue with you. I don’t know enough.”

I don’t know enough: it’s the mantra of the timid, the star-struck, the ones who do not even know what to ask. These four words are particularly present at Yale in conversations about the rest of the world. Many Yalies have specialized knowledge of an international situation, whether because of an academic interest, a personal passion or a summer experience. But there are so many conflicts, and leaders, and social and economic realities, and cultural and linguistic differences, and ideologies and historical contexts to consider. It is often taken for granted that unless we’ve delved into these topics in depth, we have nothing to add about a conversation on an international reality.

This simply is not true. Sometimes it’s the people with the least exposure to another region of the world who can raise the most interesting questions, because they have not yet settled into the calcifying patterns of the experts’ thoughts. They can inquire into the motives of the actors involved without the cynicism that too often comes with familiarity. They can think about an international situation not as isolated from the rest of the world, but as an example of something that happens all over the world.

And they can, crucially, get to the philosophical questions that lie at the bottom of every discussion of foreign affairs. One of the most astonishing aspects of every international conflict is the degree to which the experts disagree — not only about interpretations, but about what we would usually consider basic facts. The present is hard enough to comprehend, let alone the historical record.If we dig hard enough, we can, however, discover the root of the disagreement: a pair of opposing ideas. Sometimes it’s easier to go straight to the root when you don’t have to squirm your way through the compost of facts and counter-facts.

This isn’t a plea for ignorance. If we really aren’t informed about a place in the world, of course, we shouldn’t pretend to be. The problem with saying, “I don’t know enough” is not that it’s not honest, but that it’s not productive. The knowledgeable person walks away without having his or her viewpoint challenged; the ignorant person walks away without learning more. If both people want to benefit, they need to talk to each other and to express opinions — even if one opinion has a stronger information base.

The solution isn’t to suggest that everyone become more informed. While this would clearly be the ideal, telling ourselves to wise up is in many cases a cop-out.

Can it be true that the only obstacle between us and a serious conversation about world affairs is two paragraphs of a Wikipedia entry? More often than not, vowing to become more informed consists in leaving the conversation or throwing away the paper and immediately forgetting the promise entirely.

So the next time your friend urges you triumphantly to consider the effect of European Commission antitrust regulation on the price of Canadian maple syrup, don’t look down. Ask why that could possibly be the case. Ask why your friend thinks the European Union is becoming a major world player at all. Think of alternative explanations for the excessive price of maple syrup, perhaps culled conveniently from yesterday’s introductory economics reading. Talk about Microsoft and monopolies and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

And when you think of saying, “I don’t know enough,” bite your tongue.

Rachel Bayefsky is a junior in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate Tuesdays.