As it happens, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk visited my animal rights class the day after I finished reading Zoe Heller's novel The Believers . The book (which will be the topic of my next TPM column) is great fun and probably shouldn't be read as saying p or q, because novels aren't in the business of saying p or q. But if I really had to pin a p or q on it, The Believers says "don't be a Believer." Sure, we all have beliefs, but don't be militant, overcertain, dogmatic, fanatical.

The characters Zeller focuses on happen to be left-wing atheists but it's clear she'd be happy to satirize any super-Believing crowd. What fun she'd have with Ingrid Newkirk and the gang at PETA headquarters. They really, really Believe that animals are horribly mistreated in our world, and something has to be done about it. Or is Heller's point more subtle? Maybe the Believers in the novel are Bad because they lack empathy, they don't listen, they don't think. I was extremely impressed with Ms. Newkirk yesterday because not only was she passionate and inspiring and full of interesting information, but she was a very good listener.

We need to be careful about this sin of over-belief, because the world needs Believers. The last Believer I listened to was Rachel Andres of Jewish World Watch, head of a project that supplies Darfuri refugees with solar cookers so they don't have to risk rape by walking miles to collect firewood. To do work like that, it will not do to hem and haw, see the truth on two sides, and just believe with a small b.

As a philosopher, it's my duty to be circumspect, but true believers in good causes are a treasure.


Faust said...

Here is where we pull out the famous line

"The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity."

Or at least that's the danger you refer to here no? There is a danger for those of us who, to varying degrees and in different ways are prone to, if not outright compulisve skepticism then regular, as you say, circumspection, that things that need to get done will not get done, or that the requisite passion required to get things done will not be properly stoked.

People who manage to simultaneously be passionate, engaged promters of the things that matter most (and of course that's where things can get sticky) and ALSO maintain a generally good conversational stance (are good listeners, think critically, offer through justifications for their positions) are pretty much as good as it gets in the world of action no?

Jean Kazez said...

Yes. It's not good to have a lack of empathy, and just not be able to enter the inner world of someone you disagree with. But then, doing that constantly can be hobbling.