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Certainty is Dangerous

My latest column for AIER was inspired by watching Ken Burns’s, Lynn Novick’s, and Sarah Botstein’s moving new documentary, The U.S. and the Holocaust. In this column I warn of sensations of certainty. A slice:

In addition to displaying the bigotry and brutality of the 1930s and 1940s, the Burns film displayed an additional trait that featured prominently in the people of those decades, namely ignorant certainty. Hitler, Himmler, and other Nazi monsters were, of course, certain that Germany’s problems were largely caused by Jews and would, thus, certainly be easily solved by eliminating Jews. There’s no doubt that ordinary Germans who were entranced by Hitler and his propaganda machine were equally certain of those same ludicrous propositions.

Many Americans, for much of Hitler’s reign, were certain that reports of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated and likely the result of scurrilous Jewish propaganda. These same Americans were largely also certain that admission into the U.S. of more Jews would harm Americans.

The certainty in the people revealed by the Burns film isn’t as attention-grabbing as is the physical and psychological cruelty. But this certainty is of a piece with this cruelty. Indeed, it’s arguable that this certainty was every bit as much to blame for the cruelty as was the bigotry. Doubts that the ‘other’ human beings whom you are instructed to demonize, imprison, torture, enslave, and murder are really your inferiors dampen your willingness act cruelly toward those ‘other’ human beings.

Our passions are inflamed by certainty and dampened by doubts. Only when we feel certain that members of that ‘other’ group are dangerous to us do we not hesitate to imprison or kill them. Only when we feel certain that imperiled ‘others’ are not deserving of our assistance do we, without qualms, withhold help. Feelings of certainty suppress sympathy or fellow-feeling for anyone or anything not fully on board with whatever tasks we are certain must be carried out.

Nazi certainty about the inferiority and dangerousness of Jews was, of course, not only utterly unfounded, but also especially deplorably placed. Fortunately, this particular species of racism has largely been eliminated. Yet other instances of destructive certainties still abound, and they threaten to unleash much damage if they become more widespread.

Some examples. People who are certain that global warming will soon destroy humanity unless we radically restructure our way of life by abandoning fossil fuels have no sympathy for anyone who disagrees, nor who merely points to downsides of restricting fossil-fuel use. Those who were certain that COVID was destined to kill tens of millions of people annually across the globe, until and unless governments instituted draconian lockdowns, had only contempt and scorn for those who questioned this claim or who pointed to the downsides of lockdowns. Those who are certain that today’s income inequality reflects nothing but the pure happy chance lucked into by, or the predations committed by, the rich have no patience for arguments about how the rich might have earned their wealth honestly, nor how confiscatory taxation might destroy our economy.

Those who are certain that Americans’ prosperity today is rooted in the chattel slavery of the past, and that a great majority of today’s non-Black Americans continue to be incurably if subconsciously racist, self-righteously close their ears to pleas for policies that are colorblind. The reason is that these people are certain that colorblind policies will only further cement in place the unjust privileges and wealth enjoyed by white Americans. And these people are further certain that those individuals who advocate colorblind policies are really cunning knaves who wish to use colorblind policies as a tool to keep people of color poor and oppressed.

Certainty shuts the case on whatever matters the certainty enfolds. Certainty closes off further thought, conversation, and debate. Certainty demands unquestioning loyalty and the enthusiastic performance of whatever actions are prescribed by those who are certain. Certainty tolerates no dissent.