BETWEEN DOUBT AND CERTAINTY: Reflections on the state of our public discourse

For some time now our public discourse has been dominated by public intellectuals and other commentators whose opinions are characterised by a shrill, self-righteous certainty. In this brief, Matthew Kruger reflects on these issues, pleading for those who shape public debate to write with the kind of self-reflective humility that is possessed by those who are aware of their own limitations—who are aware of the possibility that they might be wrong.

To live in doubt is difficult. 

Doubt makes us anxious, nauseous. This is especially so when dealing with issues that truly matter, like morality and justice. We crave certainty. When doubt is a constant feature of our lives, resignation is understandable, perhaps even natural. When this resignation is total, when it is infinite, the narrow abyss that separates doubt and certainty can suddenly be crossed. In the final moments, when almost defeated by doubt, the individual can rebel. In this last, desperate effort to survive they can cross the abyss blindly—not with a leap of faith, but with an exhausted, often angry tumble of relief—reaching out for something, anything that might relieve them of their burdens, but ultimately ignorant of whatever awaits them on the other side.

What is the state of our public discourse?

Many, when confronted by doubt, trembled. They lacked the resolve, the strength to stand firm in the face of fear. Certain public intellectuals, commentators and activists, however, have now recovered from their tumbles. Others, having been raised in a world of oppositions and absolutes, do not know what it is to truly doubt. Relieved of this burden, aided by self-indulgent circles of friends and allies, and bolstered by self-curated and self-censored sources of information and ideas, these Knights of Certainty have descended on the public realm. 

Their ideologies differ, but their methods do not. Armed with the impenetrable certainty that is possessed only by those who know enough to believe but not enough to question, they attack with self-righteous fury all who oppose them. Heretics, of course, must be identified and exiled. But, so must those who dare question prevailing orthodoxy (or who are suspected of doing so). To question is to doubt, and to doubt is to betray what it means to be a Knight of Certainty—an unforgivable sin. So, even before the infidel, the believer who questions often receives the first whetting of the Knight’s blade.

What can we do in the face of such reckless certainty?

Importantly, we must be careful not to confuse the Knight’s self-righteous rhetoric, his callow virtue-signaling, with legitimate expressions of frustration, indignation and anger. Such public denunciations of injustice are not only permissible; they can be morally required. These forms of expression must be encouraged. When they are on-target they must be commended. But, much of what is piously preached in the Sandton Salons and Cape Cafes, lacks the kind of self-reflective humility that is possessed by anyone who is even vaguely aware of the ambiguities of life, who is minimally mindful of how little they, or any person can possibly know. Rather than comment selectively and soberly, they opine with a puritanical rage.

When we do manage to identify a Knight of Certainty, we must do our best to strike a difficult balance. We must not give them too much attention. Most people, in their daily struggle to feed their families and create lives of meaning, are blissfully unaware of these self-styled intellectuals and their efforts at consciousness-raising. But, they cannot be ignored, for the distance between these pedagogues and actual demagogues is often slight. Their virulent absolutism, by its nature, threatens the public realm—that is, the shared space in which plurality and diversity flourish, and in which our political institutions and laws are born.

To secure our public spaces, then, we sometimes must reply. But, rather than fight them at their own game, we must engage them on different terms.

When confronting others’ ideas, we must always establish and be faithful to the facts. On matters of public import, expedience in any form is never justified. With a proper factual foundation in place, we must then do our best to ensure that our arguments are the products of an appropriate mix of both passion and principle. Like unbounded emotion, principles that are acquired but not questioned tend towards tyranny.

To do anything requires a degree of conviction. But, in speaking and acting, we cannot forget that the people with whom we disagree also speak and act with conviction, in the belief that they are right. They are not incomprehensible, unreachable or unchangeable others. They are persons, always both good and bad, just like you and me. Only if we internalise this reality, recognising others as individuals with whom we can share our ideas, experiences and lives, do we respect their humanity. Only then do we respect our humanity. Whereas this foundation of recognition respect gives us a chance to change their minds, calls to dehumanise always lead to oppression, slavery and death camps.

To live in doubt is difficult.

When anxious, suffering from nausea, the answers that are offered by the Knight of Certainty might seem appealing. But, the Knight misleads. Doubt and certainty are not mutually exclusive opposites. They are interdependent, for they exist in a productive tension. It is not a question of choosing one or the other. Rather, it is about being strong enough to hold to both at the same time; brave enough to live in the abyss, that no-place between doubt and certainty from which all meaning, beauty and goodness emerges. In more practical terms, to be a person of conviction—to be the type of person who can pursue justice and promote the common good—is to allow for the possibility that you might be wrong. 

Only if we learn to live in doubt can we also continuously move forward, step-by-step, certain in our conviction that we are right.

Matthew Kruger
Legal Researcher