Chris Jepson: Less cant, more context

Chris Jepson

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“Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?" asked Milo. "Much worse," he said longingly. "But I don't live here. I'm from a place very far away called Context.”

― Norton Juster, “The Phantom Tollbooth”

I know a number of individuals who place a premium on fact (myself included). I often, laughingly, ask, “Just the facts, ma’am.” A finding of fact — for this discussion — is relevant if it is placed within the context of the circumstances. We are familiar with Victor Hugo’s story (“Les Misérables”) of Jean Valjean’s theft of a loaf of bread. In fact, Valjean is, indeed, guilty and is punished according to French law. The context in this instance is, of course, everything. He stole the bread to feed his starving sister and family.

Facts are verifiable. This gets dicey, however, when individuals confuse (by believing) fiction for fact and arrange both their lives and society around their belief system (see: organized religion, cults, political parties, etc.). Take for instance the issue of gay marriage. Is it factual to assert that gay marriage undermines traditional heterosexual marriage? If yes, what specifically is your evidence? Understand that if your proof is your personal belief system, expect to be challenged — understandably so — on any assertions of inerrancy.

Facts without context are an intellectually challenging exercise. A question of fact is different from a question of law. Obviously. I am reminded of the 2008 economic meltdown in America when the “fact” of undeniable wide spread financial impropriety was apparent to the most casual observer yet our law had none of the perpetrators hanging by their scrotums from the yardarm. Observing the results of our capitalistic markets — who is responsible for what — would make one suspicious that our legal system does not apply equally to all (see: Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide Financial).

What good are facts if they are not placed in a context? You can stack fact upon fact and end up with little more than the proverbial house of cards.

Context is a dirty word to many Americans. It suggests subjectivity when what humans want more than anything (this I believe) is certainty. I suppose if we go to a magic show, we willingly suspend our desire/need for certainty, but short of that we crave certainty as a fish does water.

Certainty is comforting. Context challenges certainty by requiring one to use their imagination. Context implies accommodation. Certainty, on the other hand, implies judgment and requires, all too often, conformity. If you are certain, why entertain an unpleasant fact? If you are certain why would you not expect, nay, demand conformity to the self-evident?

What we require today in both the private and public realms of American society is fact conjoined with context. I argue that our appreciation of life is enhanced by understanding, using and embracing context. We need less dogma, less certainty that “your” way is the only highway and more seeing the condition of others and that a concern (for others) is both legitimate and worthy of action.

A number of modern philosophers, Richard Rorty among them, argue that reading literature is the most enlightening way of promoting a sense of human solidarity. Literature depicts (offering insights into) the many contingencies, the many possibilities of life. We are roused by the cruelty and humiliation of accepted social practices and of narrow individual viewpoints.

Facts describe, and context allows for reflection, for action. We need less cant and more context.