On Doubt

Before they made any great decision, the city states of ancient Greece would famously consult the oracle at Delphi. According to Plutarch, originally the oracle could only be consulted once per year on the 8th Bysios. In time, this changed: the first recorded year we can prove year-round consultations was 480 BCE - the year of Xerxes’ invasion and when the Athenians were advised to trust the “wooden walls".

The role of oracles has always been one of mystery. But, whether intentional or not, it had one effect: decision-making became slower.

Yet if the ancient world was impossibly slow by our standards, is it not the case that the world we inhabit is impossibly fast? Compare the 38 minutes the residents of Hawaii recently had to contemplate not just their end but their salvation to the Persians' well-advertised invasion of the Greek mainland.

24 hour news brings a non-stop barrage of information. Binge-watching television series on Netflix or Amazon Prime changes the experience. From culture to politics, every aspect of life is lived at a hurtling pace.

Unmissable television - such as I, Claudius or Brideshead Revisited - used to be enjoyed at a slower pace, with weekly episodes that were poured over in offices around the country the next day. That the internet has atomised society has been overly discussed. There is a kernel of truth to it but a forest of caveats.

The rapid pace with which we consume culture means that whole series, even concepts, assume a greater weight. It is not that we are alone in cultural journeys. It is that we do not give it the space to reflect even to ourselves.

technology has created a world where external reaction is preeminent

Ironically, over the weekend I binge-watched American Crime Story, Ryan Murphy’s take on the OJ Simpson’s trial. Brilliantly written and acted, the series brought to the fore how Simpson’s trial became a non-stop media circus that split Los Angeles and America in two racially-charged camps.

Courtney B. Vance’s performance as the civil rights lawyer Johnnie Cochrane brought out the righteous anger that propelled him to fight the institutional racism of the LADP. The injustice he saw was undeniable. However, after that I drew a blank. I could not complete the journey to acquit Simpson. The evidence was too strong, the conspiracy theories too fanciful.

It is not that there were two different views of the world. It is that there were two incompatible worlds. The noise of the trial itself and the circus served not to inform but to reinforce. Today, the picture is more nuanced. A greater number of white people acknowledge systemic racism, while more black people believe Simpson guilty. However, the O.J. Simpson trial presaged not only Brexit and Trump’s presidency but curiously the world of social media.

Psychologically, the benefits of saying something out loud or writing it down can play a huge role in problem-solving. Vocalising a thought makes it real. To some, the first reaction to an illness is internal denial. An external admission makes denial more difficult. We often avoid doctors because a diagnosis may not change an illness but it changes everything.

There is therefore a fundamental difference between external reaction and internal thought. The greater weight the external holds, the greater the difference. The more people we tell we are ill, the harder it is to wish a cold away by thinking it away.

And technology has created a world where external reaction is preeminent. Social media necessitates that we react as much as we act. It is an extreme of modern life within which there are further extremes.

In our personal worlds it is a common assumption to react to our lives on social media. In politics, Twitter especially is built to force reaction. Information swamps our social media streams. The point is to react to an audience.

The good that this brings is that it creates a more equal relationship between informant and informed. The problem becomes that there is a difference between an internal response to a political event and a vocalised reaction; the gulf becomes greater the larger the audience. The more information we are exposed to means, in effect, we are commenting on events of which - reasonably - we have less understanding. Too many tweets make you a twat, to quote David Cameron.

Scepticism is a necessary quality. It encourages us to probe, to question

We are externalising what used be private, we are committing ourselves in a world where we can ignore or block opposition.

The Greeks created time before they reached a decision. They embraced the grey area. A fast-paced world banishes nuance as soon as possible. Social media hates doubt. We are able to create online personae, but those personae become embedded in who we are. Our room for doubt is lessened.

Scepticism is a necessary quality. It encourages us to probe, to question. It applies intellectual rigour. It admits limitations and often error. And if doubt allows us to find a truth, certainty is the enemy of truth.

Yet we have created a world where there is a decreasing amount of room for doubt. As such, we are no longer looking for the truth. We are instead reacting. And our reactions are lessening the space we think in. We are committing - with every retweet - often before we think.

Who knows why Americans changed their attitudes to O.J. Simpson? Eventually the circus ended. His own actions have played a part. Talking in a focus group is different to a courthouse protest. Time can change perspective.

The world of Trump and Brexit is different. Social media is the equivalent to waiving a banner outside a courthouse. It is non-stop without room for reflection. No wonder we look at each other with bewildered incomprehension.

Unlike the Greeks, we have no mechanism to slow our society down. Unless we consult the Delphic oracle before we log in

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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