The Death of Curiosity
This is a pretty serious problem, since curiosity is the thing that presses us to learn about other people and cultures, eventually encouraging tolerance toward them. Curiosity causes us to learn about and respect different beliefs, thus challenging and sharpening our own. Curiosity makes us ask questions, and that (as any first grade teacher worth his/her crate of broken Crayolas and assorted glue-sticks will tell you) is the key to intelligence.
And the really ironic thing is that it is bastardized versions of these very concepts– tolerance, respect, and intelligence– that pulled the trigger on curiosity. They killed it, stupidly and blindly, like a cartoon cat sawing off the tree-limb he himself is standing on.
Consider a convenient example:
A few months back, I sought to satisfy my curiosity about people who hold very different political views. I am a conservative, so I approached an online acquaintance who I knew was a vocal liberal and a writer (for privacy’s sake, and because you’ve surely never heard of him, I’ll call him “the Buffoon” You’ll see why soon enough). I felt confident that we could partner on a forum to publicly discuss our ideological differences.
This lasted for about three days, whereupon I was told by the Buffoon that I must never speak of race or race issues, not only on our mutual forum, but on my own blog (the one you are currently reading, and thank you very much). It turns out that he had read– and wildly misunderstood– one of my entries. Having missed the point so monumentally that I was quite sure he had to have been joking (this was before I realized he was a buffoon, of course), I told him that 1) the entry was actually distinctly anti-racist, and 2) that under no circumstances would I change my writings to suit his preferences.
This led very quickly to a complete breakdown of the dialogue, thus providing the perfect illustration of my main premise: I had approached the Buffoon because I was interested in the things he had to say. He, as it turns out, was mostly interested in the things I shouldn’t be allowed to say. The Buffoon was not curious. He was, in fact, militantly anti-curious.
“THIS IS MY ‘RATIONALLY-DISAGREEING-WITH-YOUR-FREE-SPEECH’ FACE!”
And he unfortunately illustrates a cultural trend.
I had a cello teacher once, a very pleasant young woman whose boyfriend lived in Chicago. She told me of his experience moving to the Big City from small town Illinois. At first, he was amazed at how many different races and cultures he saw every day on the street. “But now,” she explained, “he doesn’t even notice them anymore.”
She said this with worldly-wise approval in her voice. He was illustrating Tolerance, after all, that most venerated and sought after of all modern virtues. And yet I found myself thinking: what a missed opportunity. Wasn’t her boyfriend even remotely curious about all those people with such wildly different cultures and life experiences? Is it really a good thing to become completely blind to our many differences? “Hey, we’re all human,” (I can the politically correct among us saying) “Stop defining people by their superficial differences!”
Fine. But does that mean we have to utterly ignore those differences?
Since none of us can see what’s in another’s heart, it tends to be the superficial differences that we notice. Curiosity about those differences is not a sign of prejudice; it’s a sign of interest. Interest is the first step toward affection. And no matter how hard you try, it’s pretty much impossible to hate those you feel affection for. Ignoring our differences kills this process, substituting instead a bland, manufactured apathy usually mislabeled as Tolerance.
In effect, the modern concept of Tolerance seeks to foster appreciation for cultural diversity by stubbornly pretending the diversity does not exist.
It doesn’t matter if the differences are cultural, socioeconomic, racial, political, or even simply geographical. When I meet someone different from myself, I am curious about them. I want to ask them questions about their experiences and worldview. And yet, more often than not, I don’t. I find myself fighting the curiosity, stuffing it down, and discussing something banal and meaningless.
What I hunger for is conversation, but what I usually settle for is small talk.
“So I’m a shirtless dude, you’re a talking soccer ball. All that matters is the love, baby.”
Because curiosity means acknowledging a difference. In a society obsessed with being blind to differences, curiosity is extremely politically incorrect.
Even more endangered than social curiosity, however, is political curiosity.
There’s the well known story about a Washington journalist who was amazed that Richard Nixon had gotten elected president. In exasperation, she proclaimed, “I don’t know anybody who voted for him.” Now more than ever, we live in a time when it is a point of personal pride not to know anyone of the opposing political/ideological party. It is a sign of status. Curiosity about opposing political viewpoints has been completely and utterly murdered.
Skeptical? Try being seen in a coffee shop in any large city reading a book by Sarah Palin. No one– absolutely, positively no one– will think you are merely an intellectually curious liberal examining the arguments of the other side. You will get dirty looks from passersby. Some people may even try to start an argument with you.
If you stop them and tell them that you agree with them, and are just reading the book to sharpen your own liberal arguments against the conservative worldview, they will let you off, but grudgingly. After all, everybody knows* you don’t need to study to know that conservatives are wrong (as well as racist, anti-science, warmongering kitten-haters). Taking the time to examine their position invites suspicion and social awkwardness.
And yes, this is also true if you try to read anything by Al Gore in an evangelical church lobby. Although that would be a little strange under any circumstance (casually reading in a church lobby, that is, not necessarily reading anything by Al Gore. Although...)
Once again, if only Futurama represented real life…
But that brings me to the final death of curiosity: Intellectual. In short, intellectual curiosity has not merely been murdered. It was executed gangland style. It was killed, thrown in the trunk of a Prius (they have trunks, right?) and hauled off to a shallow grave in the woods.
Let’s take something we can all pretty much agree on: Scientology is a goofy, wacky religion. Right? OK. Now, can you tell me why? Think about it. Why, specifically, do you believe that Scientology is only for weirdos and out-of-touch celebrity moonbats? I’ll give you a minute.
Did you think of reincarnated thetan gods and audit-therapy E-meters? Or did you just think of Tom Cruise jumping on a couch and how awful “Battlefield Earth” was?
Being right doesn’t count if you’re just agreeing with the dominant philosophy. What if your wife or son came home after their weekly brunch with John Travolta and had converted to Scientology? How would you convince them it was mistake? Would you be forced to admit that your whole argument against their new belief system stems from the fact that John Stewart made fun of it on the Daily Show?
Seriously. Who could say no to this face?
It’s stupid not to know why you believe something, even if what you believe is right. Curiosity is the one thing that saves us from that.
But intellectual curiosity is banned by popular culture. For perhaps the first time in history, it is considered enlightened and responsible to not know a damn thing about the opposing argument.
Consider creationism versus evolution. Sure, you think you know that evolution is all proven and sciency, but do you really know why? Can you discuss it intellectually? Have you entertained the arguments of those who disagree? Because amazingly enough, a lot of very smart people do, regardless of which side you come down on.
What about climate change? As a culture, we all “know” that man-made global warming is a proven, uncontestable fact. But how many of us know the specifics? How many have dared to examine the arguments of those who disagree? They aren’t hard to find. I could link to a dozen highly intelligent articles on the topic, written by experts in the field, all of whom say that the current concept of climate change is unadulterated crapola (their words, not mine).
“The atomic weight of crapola is nine to the sixteenth power of kiss my ass.”
I won’t provide those links, of course, mostly because I am lazy, but also because they are easy to find, and if you haven’t seen them, it’s because you aren’t looking. You don’t want to read them. You are, in short, not curious.
Because intellectual curiosity is more than dead: it’s forbidden.
Getting caught reading an argument against man-made global warming– or creationism, or Scientology, or the musical prowess of Nickelback, or any other socially unacceptable philosophy– is worse than getting caught looking at pornography.
And that’s not a joke. Porno is cool now. It’s ubiquitous. Intellectual curiosity, however, is utterly shameful. Try it. I dare you.
Until then, I’d say the cat is safe. Curiosity ain’t going to be a problem for it anymore.
* BTW, a sure sign that your sense of curiosity is dead is regularly using the phrase “everybody knows…” in your arguments.