It’s intriguing to note that our free society’s continued push to further define and acknowledge commonalities shared by all citizens somehow fails to consider any basic traits deemed negative by that same society. Confusion is among these. After all, even the most practiced thinkers cannot claim to have escaped the occasional state of outright confusion. Being confused is a trait we all share.
I suspect we ignore this widely shared facet of the human condition, perhaps, because it contains little or no legislative value. Seriously, how would society benefit from, say, a “right to be confused?” No, confusion gets dismissed by philosophers and logicians alike and we carry that “permission” to dismiss it very deeply into our everyday lives. We ignore the concept of confusion, even fear it, fear how we might be freshly perceived if suddenly caught in a moment of confusion. Will it ruin all after hopes of a fruitful career? Will our friends abandon us if they find us to be confused more often than not? Will adversaries use such moments as opportunities to pounce? The sometimes paralytic fear of even acknowledging this common, nascent brain response leads otherwise smart people to sit in ignorant silence rather than simply posing questions to navigate themselves into the know.
I, for one, think it is beneficial to examine confusion, at least as much as it is to examine any play of the mind. Doing so is not an easy task. Examination is a cerebral undertaking and by common definition confusion is exactly when such mental efforts fail any demarcation of sense. How do you employ a technique to examine a state wherein that very technique must be absent? Dissecting confusion, one gets the feel of an “X” that cannot be solved for in an equation. The “X” gets moved around, back and forth, as different techniques are applied to either side of the formula, still ultimately resulting in a function of “X,” rather than any new or exact knowledge about the value of “X” itself. Confusion, like the unknown, is a negative space in the thought process, most difficult to penetrate. It is like trying to study pure chaos.
Since appropriately penetrating confusion on its own terms, then, is unlikely if not impossible, I start right at the edge of the issue, the brink. I consider the cause(s) of confusion. It is possible to derive at least part of the nature of confusion by examining its causes. In my own attempt, I’ve noted that the many causes I can identify tend to fit into two major categories, which implies then that there might be two (or more) different types of confusion.
First, there is the confusion precipitated when the presented information is too new or too plentiful to process. In a sense, this is when the subject matter is “above” us, “over our heads.” There is often an unacknowledged, educational gap between what we know on a topic and what a speaker knows on that topic.
This is confusion in our animal sense. Examine a wolf being systematically thwarted off by ranchers. That wolf might “smartly” learn to avoid tire tracks, fences, daylight raids, learning ever more in its collected associations to humankind. But when the effort to thwart is concerted and suddenly the wolf is faced with the sound of loud gunfire and engines from multiple directions, its practiced mental and physical behaviors get befuddled. The wolf might dart right and left for short sprints, freeze, growl, run toward the noise. It can exhibit unpredictable, confused behavior. We suffer this as well. We share this brand of confusion with much of the animal kingdom. When faced with possible danger for, perhaps, the first time in one’s life, many of our reactions directly and immediately contradict not only our own practiced behaviors, but also the most reasonable escape tactics. It is why we have self-defense classes, to train our bodies and minds to overcome that particular neurological short circuit.
Confusion in a conversation or debate, when lives are not on the line, can still be a direct outgrowth of this blitzed string of behaviorally questionable reactions. We relate our understanding of the world around us to self-preservation because we see ourselves as more than the physical. We define the self as a deeper set of intangible qualities, among them our ability as humans to be smart. In absence of that understanding, we feel threatened. We can get threatened by people smarter than us. Presented with a subject which we’ve never before examined or hearing the subject communicated in a poor or contradictory manner, our thoughts can race all around for an explanation, sometimes so wildly that we freeze up, shut down, retreat, or check out of the dialogue. Neurologically, this is little different from mammalian fear response, synapses firing in brand new, overproduced fashions processing so many possible courses of action at once that none are mindfully prioritized as the best solution. We get stuck. We simply fear appearing to others as stupid and in our reaction to that fear we stop listening, stop learning. It is easier in the moment to “conclude” that figuratively sticking our heads in the sand will do a better job of preserving the self than to acknowledge our own confusion and better the self, long term, by choosing to learn from what another has to offer. This is undoubtedly the most common form of confusion both because no one is exempt from their animal origins and because of the high frequency with which EVERYBODY experiences being the lesser knowledgeable participant on any number of given topics.
The second, lesser evident cause of confusion seems to be of a more elusive nature. It is a more mature classification of confusion that, while it exists, lies beyond the purely animal and reactionary form described above. After all, there exist precepts, as in sociology, that describe the evolution of human intellect as being, in some ways, a developmental measure to counteract instinct. That is the seemingly material purpose of human thought…overcoming, overcoming all. So, it’s reasonable to assume, then, that humans have a commonplace capacity to even overcome their own animal confusion.
Humans, through choice and effort, can mature to a point where they do not fear sounding silly, losing face, impacting their social reputation. They can develop into an arena of thought wherein, while still learning, they are fully comfortable with openly exploring and expressing why they, themselves, might be incorrect. They do not fear attracting a stupidity label while expressing thoughts or questions because those thoughts, those ideas, are seen as entities unto themselves, not part of the mind, the soul, the self. Ideas and knowledge are out there, cycling through the human condition free of charge. They are fruits of humanity ready to be plucked and gathered, but never viscerally owned by any one person or another. Knowledge can be shared, perhaps it can only be shared, and those who come to understand this possibility can pattern their mindsets in distinct opposition to animal confusion. They openly risk revealing their intellect as wanting at every turn so as to gain an even minutely greater perspective in the exchange.
Make no mistake. When I identify persons practicing the free abandon of any concern over labels, I do not include those who’ve done so through reckless abandon, people who care little about what others think, but who allow their perspective to stop at that one, solitary conclusion. We’ve generational throngs of non-thinkers and immature thinkers who isolate themselves from new ideas, constructive concepts, and assertions over which they’ve long ago decided they’ll not entertain any further input. These are folks who’ve passively identified the richness to be found in a fearless intellect, but who do little or none of the work to arrive there. They hide behind the sometimes righteous, but always too convenient notion that they need not at all concern themselves with what others think of them. Certainly, it is difficult, if not impossible, to conduct one’s life structured to please all peers. I’m no advocate of allowing others to define you. However, this be-all, end-all refuge stated as, “Why should I care what anyone else thinks of me?” all too often gets misapplied. It is wielded as license to ignore others, to dismiss their perspectives, to disallow contradictory thought or superior arguments from creeping into one’s view of the world. They view their idea as their possession, their own, part of the self while others who perceive ideas as free-for-all pose a threat to that comparatively myopic existence. The conscious practice of ignorance fails any measure of maturity.
To illustrate this second type of confusion, I am instead grouping together thinkers who’ve so often put themselves upon the riskier path of looking foolish in mere hopes of widening their intellectual experience, that they’ve completely desensitized themselves to any embarrassment involved with “sounding stupid.” These are the folks who’ve walked the mental walk, long term, as opposed to those who’ve shut off in a single, uninformed decision. They’ve matured so far through inevitable animal confusion that they’ve ceased to experience it without navigating through to new understanding. They will continue to come across that animal confusion. There will always be another person with newer or greater, even contradictory information to offer. Yet they’ve managed to separate out any mammalian fear response from their reaction to that broader insight. The synapses do not short circuit or fail to prioritize. Instead, these listeners build bridges of understanding. Asking questions and taking all answers at face value, they learn when unprepared, when unready. Particularizing each sequence of challenge and response until such time as they can properly assimilate the external information into a furtherance of their own global comprehension, these mature thinkers persist and probe, revel and celebrate, laud the very ideas that would otherwise put them to shame.
This mental practice, however, comes not without its price. For while the mature thinkers of this persuasion look ever onward and actually seek out those with knowledge superior to their own (most new and desired confusions now proving barely a bump in the road to broader understanding), these same persons inexorably alienate themselves from droves of very smart people who cannot make the same leap. A line is unwittingly drawn in the sand. Their own personal development is separatist in nature. They’ve ascended to a thought process in which many others either cannot or will not engage. It is from this delineated talent pool that we create experts, innovators, and world-bettering deciders. This “club” is not exclusive to notable names either. There is no PhD. required. Anyone, any person who both remains on this expansive mental journey and simply dedicates time to thinking, to observation, to experimentation, to questions, to challenges, to enrichment, to research, to balance, to fact, to expression, to debate, anyone can share in that enlightenment. Everyone thinks. But as a group, these better practiced thinkers tend to be viewed as the smartest among us. They are those we’d ask advice, those whose warnings we’d heed. They are the people we look to for inspiration and the ones whose answers we most trust.
So what is the second type of confusion? If these thinkers are so mature, so “unaffected” by animalistic bewilderment, so equipped to envelop information provided by thinkers who’ve surpassed even them, what could possibly send such minds reeling? The second grade of confusion stems from the comparatively uniformed assertions offered by those who could not make the cognitive leap. Grouped together, broad thinkers are collectively geared toward expanding their existing comprehension, changing perception to fit what they cannot disprove in the moment. As a group, however, they are often bereft of the tools best used to properly address a lesser informed viewpoint. By their very defined drive, the expansive thinkers must always presume that newly encountered information can lead to betterment, that their understanding can somehow be expanded to fit the novel data. The source of the information is less relevant. So, ironically, the truer thinker is veritably forced to, at least momentarily, treat morons on an equal par with geniuses. They must treat all speakers in between as if that invisible line in the sand represents nothing. Such a brief necessity frequently causes a type of confusion all its own.
It means that any human being offering information unfamiliar to the expansive thinker can insert even the smallest, completely fictional detail into an exchange and the broad thinker must then expansively re-examine everything s/he has ever come to know in attempts to impactfully comprehend the unfounded comment without dismissing it out of hand. The comment is an unintended monkey wrench. The less factual the detail, the greater the confusion. Hard core, proven, practiced knowledge-bases within the broader thinker’s repertoire are self-challenged, circling through proof after proof, example after example, modifier after modifier, trying to locate and explain the very legitimacy that the speaker could not lend his/her own comment. Broad thinkers must presume they’ve missed something in their growth and find all the indicated holes in some Swiss cheese upbringing. Yes, the thinker can engage in a line of questioning to navigate through as before, but what is mentally blueprinted as a through line to greater wisdom, in this case goes instead through to acknowledging the information as false. Immature thinkers dismiss. Mature thinkers disprove.
So there are, at least, two kinds of confusion. The first, a generalized, animal reaction to what we do not understand. The second, a cognitive attempt to navigate through the maze of our own examined comprehension to a new, suggested exit that does not exist. All humans have the capacity to experience both forms, but only a select group will journey far enough to recognize the difference between the two.
What To Do With Confusion
Why is it important to break up the subject of confusion in this way? Inappropriately, the instilling of confusion in a debate, disagreement, or argument is often used as a tactic. It is presumed that confusion is an equalizer, that it is a shared and useful tool in absence of some rule or etiquette against it. The presumption goes, if you are confused, all you need do to end the argument is to confuse the other person as well. The presumption furthers, if you hold your own and confuse your opponent, you win. Explaining the duality of confusion reveals this commonplace presumption as incorrect. It shows that one side of a disagreement can be severely lesser examined, lesser informed, and lesser justified despite that point’s asserter being able to momentarily confuse a contravening speaker. It emphasizes that just as one noted expert should be given far more attention on his/her studied subject than the lodger of a random opinion, so too should the expert’s brief confusion, if present, be regarded with far less importance than a similar moment of pause on the part of someone whose failed to fully explore the content.
It is a hierarchy. One form of confusion clearly trumps the other and is not nearly the “gotcha” that we presume it to be. Think this is a matter for formalized debate? Think again. Allowing plenty of room for multiple perspectives to be of simultaneous merit, how often does any disagreement in the home, the office, or everyday life pit two fighters of perfectly equal mental adept (on a subject) against each other? Rarely, if ever. That said, two narrow thinkers might never reach agreement, arguments ending in a huff. Two broad thinkers might always reach agreement, both prepped to find resolution and understanding. A narrow thinker versus a broad thinker might instead keep the debate rolling forward forever, the former constantly hoping to gain that elusive and everlasting win by tripping up the latter through means of tactic over content. Sorry, small minds. You can lose out even to sheer confusion.
Labels: animal, confusion, debate, mature, maturity, metacognition, method, reason, thinking