Discover more from The Green Chair by Alice Melott
How do you know you know what you think you know?
In 1980, when I was 21, I moved to NYC from a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, called Mountain Brook. Mountain Brook was known to have among the top public schools in the country at that time, and upon graduation, I could have gone to pretty much any college I wanted.
My first week in New York, I met a woman from South Africa whose name was Susana Goldstein-Jones. I was confused. She was white, had a British accent, a hyphenated Jewish last name, and was from Africa. “Were your parents missionaries?” I asked her sincerely.
There are snapshots in time that define us. This was mine.
Susie explained how it came to be that Jews were in South Africa speaking the Queen’s English, and while she was at it threw in a few words on apartheid as it related to where I was from, Birmingham, Alabama — a place so heinous it apparently had a global reputation. I was incredulous and disbelieving, of course, that the world would think such a thing of my lovely home, so Susie mentioned Chief Bull Connor and something about police dogs and fire hoses. I had no idea what she was talking about.
That was the moment when my belief that I was manifestly smart dissolved into abject ignorance. I had the capacity — my SAT score measured that — but I was lacking information, education. I was, in fact, utterly ignorant about a subject so critical and relevant that it had the power to reshape my worldview from a fiction… And it had happened in my own backyard!
I began questioning everything I had been taught and wondering what else had been conveniently left out, or God forbid, falsified. I realized how easy it would be to go one’s whole life believing lies written to keep us apart, to keep us afraid, especially if we never ventured meaningfully outside our own sphere.
I got mad. I enrolled in Hunter College and Columbia University and spent the next ten years listening, reading, being a sponge, learning how to think critically, discern and argue logically. I studied the theory of epistemology, which asks, “How do you know you know what you think you know?”
Perspective is shaped by experience and experience is purely personal. Nobody’s is better or more real than another’s — their weight is exactly the same, like a pound of feathers and a pound of rocks. When someone generously shares their perspective — tells us how the world makes them feel — we are ethically bound to believe them, honor their experience, even if we don’t get it.
Because how do we know we know what we think we know?
Dr. King said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Shut up and listen.
Copyright © 2020 Alice Melott
Image by Susan Boerner (https://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-Nothing-in-all-the-world-is-more-dangerous-than-sincere-ignorance-and-conscientious-stupidity-Martin-Luther-King-Jr/709584/3079294/view)