Guest columnist Ilana Redstone: Trapped by our certainty


Published: 09-07-2023 12:27 PM

I haven’t lived in Amherst in many years, but the crisis with the School Committee has drawn me back in.

I grew up in Amherst. This was in the 1980s (ARHS class of 1990) so a few things have changed since then, of course. Mr. Saulsberry doesn’t teach social studies at ARHS anymore, Mr. Jacobs doesn’t teach English, and Mr. Chamorro doesn’t teach Spanish. As I reflect on the school district’s current challenges, I’m acutely aware that I haven’t the foggiest idea who the superintendent was when I graduated. I just know that whoever it was made the all-important decision of whether we should have a snow day or not.

Amherst was a politically progressive town then, too. Some people called it the “Berkeley of the east.” It was so liberal so that no one batted an eye when I went with a friend’s family to D.C. in high school to attend a pro-choice rally. And so liberal that Republicans might as well have been a strange religious cult that lived on a distant planet.

So why am I writing now? I have been in Champaign, Illinois since 2004 and on the faculty at the University of Illinois since 2005. I hold a joint Ph.D. in demography and sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

My focus for the last several years has been on political polarization, civil discourse, and communication across ideological divides — although none of those names are a particularly good fit. They describe the surface problem of how we act, rather than the root problem of how we think.

This is all to say that I spend most of my time talking and thinking about the most contentious issues we face today. Those tend to be things that touch on (in no particular order): race, gender, identity more broadly, intent, inequality, and harm.

And what I’ve noticed is something I’ve come to call The Certainty Trap.

Here’s one of my main baseline assumptions. The things we care about the most are morally and ethically complex. At this early point in my spiel, most people nod along and say, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.”

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Here’s where it gets tricky. If it’s true that the things we care about the most are morally and ethically complex, a specific implication follows. That is, if you see a problem as so simplistic that the answers are obvious, and anyone who disagrees as stupid or morally defective in some way, you’re missing something. Your sense that the answer is obvious is your cue to examine and question your thinking.

Certainty drives both righteous indignation and moral outrage. And it carries a layer of virtuous superiority that makes communication practically impossible. It leads to the kind of name-calling that’s lobbed at the people who don’t respond the way you want, when you want it. It’s what gives us permission to feel noble in our convictions.

There are two ways around this. One is to simply recognize the fundamental uncertainty in the world. The other is, when we disagree, to commit to explaining our position in a way that doesn’t hang an argument either on the other person’s intent or on a word whose meaning is disputed across political lines (perhaps like “transphobic,” in this case). To be clear, that’s not the same thing as saying that transphobia doesn’t exist.

Why should you do this? Because we all have to live together. And because, if you’re committed to understanding moral and ethical complexity, the certainty that makes outrage possible has no place.

What does this look like for the current crisis with the Amherst School Committee? It might simply be the acknowledgment of questions such as:

■How should we think about our understanding of what’s true?

■Do we ever misinterpret our own experiences? What are the implications of that?

■What will the world look like if we default to individuals’ claims of harm and offense?

■What exactly do we know about the relationship between sex and gender?

■How do we know if discrimination has taken place?

Questions might also be more concrete. For instance, at several School Committee meetings, I heard people assert that “gender-affirming care” is the gold standard for treating trans kids. And that this is just a done and resolved question in all relevant professional mental health circles.

Yet this simply isn’t the case. Many mental health professionals wonder whether there’s a correlation between gender dysphoria and other mental health challenges that needs to be better understood and, if ignored, could miss a serious underlying condition. However, often because they fear the response, they are afraid to say this publicly (see for an example of a few who aren’t).

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that I have answers to these thorny questions. I don’t. But, for now, the answers aren’t the main point. The point is to realize that reasonable people could come to different conclusions. And it appears that’s gotten lost in the current crisis.

I imagine there are some readers who are thinking, yeah, that’s all nice, but this is about the children. It’s too important to be engaging in this intellectual, navel-gazing exercise. To that I would say, you’ve just made my case for me. It’s precisely because it’s so important that we need to think openly and broadly.

No one said it would be easy. But, as far as I know, we’re in this together for the long haul.

Ilana Redstone is a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the creator of the “Beyond Bigots and Snowflakes” video series, and the author of “The Certainty Trap” (to be published in summer 2024).