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Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #16)

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The case for greater attention to the nature and extent of the "incomprehension", with which individuals and global society are required to live, can be usefully highlighted by comparison with the situation of those associated with the R.M.S Titanic on the occasion of its sinking on 15 April 1912 -- and the current commemoration of its centennial (Catherine Bennett, Can we just please sink the Titanic once and for all? The Observer, 25 March 2012). It was the largest vessel on the high seas, had some of the wealthiest people in the world as passengers (as well as many of the poorest), offered the highest levels of comfort and luxury, and was provided with a full array of safety features (watertight doors, lifeboats, sophisticated communication equipment, etc). By comparison, much has been made of failures to attend to warnings regarding the resource-constrained conditions of a planet challenged by various potential crises -- warnings deprecated as scare mongering.

In the light of the "incomprehension" of those associated with R.M.S. Titanic, how are the varieties of current "incomprehension" to be compared with those of:

  • the captain: overly confident in his command of the vessel, whilst he dined with the passengers
    • perhaps to be understood as the "international community"
  • the builder: overly confident with the construction of the vessel, whilst he dined with the passengers
    • perhaps to be understood as the CEOs of "multinational corporations"
  • the chief engineer: overly proud of his technical competence
    • perhaps to be compared with the scientific and technological community
  • catering staff: preoccupied with ensuring the quality of the table layout, service and food
    • perhaps to be compared with the fashion setters and the service industry
  • deck staff: preoccupied with rearranging the deck chairs in an orderly manner
    • perhaps to be compared with the priorities of government support services everywhere
  • upper-class passengers: priding themselves on the reinforcement of their status
    • appropriately to be compared with the "1 percent"
  • lower-class passengers: suffering their confined circumstances in anticipation of their promised future
    • appropriately to be compared to the "99 percent"
  • awaiting public: anticipating the historic arrival at its destination of the "unsinkable vessel"
    • appropriately to be compared with those who buy into the public relations rhetoric associated with technocratic and faith-based governance at this time

Perhaps more intriguing is the contrast between the "incomprehension" variously attributed to them  before the collision (with a century of hindsight) and their own "incomprehension" during the process of the disastrous sinking and thereafter.

It is perhaps fruitful to set the above metaphor against the context of a presentation by John N. Gray (Global Utopias and Clashing Civilizations: misunderstanding the present, International Affairs 74, 1998, 1, pp. 149-164)

Viewing the world today through the lens of apocalyptic beliefs about the end of history and "the West versus the rest" conceals these universal and perennial conflicts. It encourages the hope that the difficult choices and unpleasant trade-offs that have always been necessary in the relations of states will someday be redundant. For that hope there is no rational warrant. (p. 163)

A more reasonable aspiration is that by understanding that some conflicts of values are intractable we will be better able to cope with them. There is much that is new in our present circumstances. What they do not contain is relief from the task of thinking our way through difficulties -- conflicts of interests and ideals, incompatibilities among the values we hold most dear -- that have always beset relations among states. For some, perhaps, this will seem a rather depressing result. Certainly there is nothing in it that is especially novel, or original; and it contains little that will gratify the commendable need for moral hope. But perhaps these are not quite the defects we commonly imagine them to be. The greatest liberal thinker of our time was fond of quoting an observation by the American philosopher, C.I. Lewis: There is no a priori reason for supposing that the truth, when it is discovered, will necessarily prove interesting. Nor, I would add, for thinking that it will be particularly comforting.

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