democracy and doubt

The problem with democracy – real democracy, in which everyone actually has a say – is that there is so much waiting. I am generalizing from recent revelations acquired while participating in a second tubing adventure with a bunch of friends. In particular, an exchange with LavaMan (an ideal male specimen) showed me something about myself that I suspect is not uncommon.
The first tubing adventure I had to work with suppressing frustration; the second time I thought I was prepared (indeed, I was). My emotional experience was fine – either because I had already ‘gone through’ the frustration previously (and managed it), or because some part of me was prepared for things to go ‘this way’ again … or (probably) a combination of both. I was not wrapped up in the struggle of decision-making either trip, just a recipient of the process and outcome. A bystander, I guess, but an observant one, aware of the implications of my passive participation.
At one point, standing around the parking lot waiting for the downstream vehicle delivery people to return, a pal suggested no one knew what was happening – which was accurate: none of us had the whole picture in mind (where everyone was, who was doing what, what – in total – needed doing, etc). And – we all knew what we were doing: going tubing! (How hard could that be?!)
A few leaders emerged (trying to organize the group in certain directions) but there was always a competing idea or suggestion, so implementation was slow. These dynamics are not new or unique; indeed, I design curriculum so that students have to encounter and engage these dynamics, in order for them to practice how to negotiate roles and identities in uncertain social circumstances.
The crucial learning moment for me came on the river a few hours later. I had realized a couple of guys were behind us, and one of them – a first time rafter – had been described as “struggling” by a friend just a short time before. So I thought, well, I’ll wait for them; they are the last two. I wondered about one other guy, who had been behind us earlier but I had an evanescent impression that he had floated on ahead of me at some point.

“Do we leave a man behind?”

The pair came by and informed me that Jake was still behind. I waited awhile longer. As the time stretched, my doubt grew. Surely he couldn’t be that far behind? He knows what he’s doing anyway, so I don’t need to worry, right? And, I did have that sense that he had passed me, hadn’t he? Eventually, I noticed the guys had pulled off – waiting – for me? I didn’t really want to hold up the show with my own stubbornness . . .

I caught up with them, and LavaMan insisted Jake was behind us. He engaged my questioning process calmly, as I worked through the arguments pro-staying (based only on a guess?) and con-staying (if he hasn’t come, he can’t – we’ll be better able to reach him from upstream; and he might be in front of us). “Let’s wait five more minutes,” the LavaMan proposed, “if he doesn’t come by then we’ll leave.”
I had a suspicion he was just angling for more time to flirt (!), but lo-and-behold . . . here came Jake.
Wow – what had I been thinking? Even though I was told, “I just saw him,” and “we passed him doing something on shore just before we saw you,” I was ready to up-and-leave on the much-less-certain perception of my own “knowledge.” Ouch! The implication is hard to escape, no? I didn’t trust someone else’s judgment – and not even over something that I was sure of, but something that I wasn’t actually convinced of myself! Why?
The doubt disturbs me: not only as a reflection on me and how I orient to others, but as an indicator of a cultural bias against waiting (in particular). The evidence abounds – I witness it during interpretation when participants complain about how long the communication process takes, I see it in the levels of impatience and frustration expressed by students while they adjust to alternative learning structures – and now I get to recognize it, so blatantly, within myself.
The impulse, it seems, is to hurry up and end the waiting. The solution is usually proposed that “a leader” is needed. Well, I think, “yes, and.” Yes, we need to agree to follow specific suggestions from particular people, and I’m not sure we have to take all the suggestions from only one person. At some point, in a healthy collective, we know each other well enough that we ought to be able to acknowledge who has skills in a given arena. Perhaps it is my imagination, but don’t we know each other well enough, by now, to have a good sense of who makes good decisions about various kinds of things?
The question, then, becomes not “who will lead,” but “when will I suppress my doubt“?

4 thoughts on “democracy and doubt”

  1. ….”The question, then, becomes not “who will lead,” but “when will I suppress my doubt”?”….
    Ah, doubt is bad? Why SUPPRESS doubt? Shouldn’t you doubt everything? Or should you accept (believe) everything? When do you cease doubting — when you finally know something, or when you give up and drink the cool-aid?
    Isn’t “suppressed doubt” just another name for (blind) faith?

  2. You raise the question of extremes: no one rule ever applies always, and habits can be a problem.
    Sometimes, I argue, doubt does need to be suppressed, and other times, belief needs to be questioned. The point is not to get stuck in an abstract argument about moral superiority but rather to develop the skills to know which (doubt, faith) is needed when (in a given circumstance).
    As Jake and the rest of the laggards (!) demonstrated, some decisions are determined by factors beyond individual control. The whole tubing crew (in particular) continues to teach me about mutual co-adaptation. I value their example especially for the alternative it provides to competitive (either/or) debate.

  3. This Op-Ed from the NYTimes lends some support for one of the possible subtle factors that causes people to be unwilling to question our own stances of belief and/or doubt:
    Racism Without Racists
    Thanks to a pal who posted this on Facebook.

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