Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 51

Carl Sagan on Moving Beyond Us vs. Them, Bridging Conviction with Compassion, and Meeting Ignorance with Kindness

“In the course of looking deeply within ourselves, we may challenge notions that give comfort before the terrors of the world.”

“Unless we are very, very careful,” wrote psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt in contemplating compassion and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, “we doom each other by holding onto images of one another based on preconceptions that are in turn based on indifference to what is other than ourselves.” She urged for “the honoring of others in a way that grants them the grace of their own autonomy and allows mutual discovery.” But how are we to find in ourselves the capacity — the willingness — to honor otherness where we see only ignorance and bigotry in beliefs not only diametrically opposed to our own but dangerous to the very fabric of society?

That’s what Carl Sagan (November 9, 1934–December 20, 1996) explores with characteristic intelligence and generosity of spirit in the seventeenth chapter of The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library) — the masterwork published shortly before his death, which gave us Sagan on science as a tool of democracy and his indispensable Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan considers how we can bridge conviction and compassion in dealing with those who disagree with and even attack our beliefs. Although he addresses the particular problems of pseudoscience and superstition, his elegant and empathetic argument applies to any form of ignorance and bigotry. He explores how we can remain sure-footed and rooted in truth and reason when confronted with such dangerous ideologies, but also have a humane and compassionate intention to understand the deeper fears and anxieties out of which such unreasonable beliefs arise in those who hold them

He writes:

When we are asked to swear in American courts of law — that we will tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — we are being asked the impossible. It is simply beyond our powers. Our memories are fallible; even scientific truth is merely an approximation; and we are ignorant about nearly all of the Universe…


If it is to be applied consistently, science imposes, in exchange for its manifold gifts, a certain onerous burden: We are enjoined, no matter how uncomfortable it might be, to consider ourselves and our cultural institutions scientifically — not to accept uncritically whatever we’re told; to surmount as best we can our hopes, conceits, and unexamined beliefs; to view ourselves as we really are… Because its explanatory power is so great, once you get the hang of scientific reasoning you’re eager to apply it everywhere. However, in the course of looking deeply within ourselves, we may challenge notions that give comfort before the terrors of the world.

Sagan notes that all of us are deeply attached to and even defined by our beliefs, for they define our reality and are thus elemental to our very selves, so any challenge to our core beliefs tends to feel like a personal attack. This is equally true of ourselves as it is of those who hold opposing beliefs — such is the human condition. He considers how we can reconcile our sense of intellectual righteousness with our human fallibility:

In the way that skepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the skeptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.

But kindness, Sagan cautions, doesn’t mean assent — there are instances, like when we are faced with bigotry and hate speech, in which we absolutely must confront and critique these harmful beliefs, for “every silent assent will encourage [the person] next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice.” He writes:

If we offer too much silent assent about [ignorance] — even when it seems to be doing a little good — we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and rigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.

The greatest detriment to reason, Sagan argues, is that we let our reasonable and righteous convictions slip into self-righteousness, that deadly force of polarization:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive… Whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted. If we understand this, then of course we feel the uncertainty and pain of the abductees, or those who dare not leave home without consulting their horoscopes, or those who pin their hopes on crystals from Atlantis.

Or, say, those who vote for a racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic, climate-change-denying political leader.

Sagan’s central point is that we humans — all of us — are greatly perturbed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, and in seeking to becalm ourselves, we sometimes anchor ourselves to irrational and ignorant ideologies that offer certitude and stability, however illusory. In understanding those who succumb to such false refuges, Sagan calls for “compassion for kindred spirits in a common quest.” Echoing 21-year-old Hillary Rodham’s precocious assertion that “we are all of us exploring a world that none of us understand,” he argues that the dangerous beliefs of ignorance arise from “the feeling of powerlessness in a complex, troublesome and unpredictable world.”

In envisioning a society capable of cultivating both critical thinking and kindness, Sagan’s insistence on the role and responsibility of the media resonates with especial poignancy today:

Both skepticism and wonder are skills that need honing and practice. Their harmonious marriage within the mind of every schoolchild ought to be a principal goal of public education. I’d love to see such a domestic felicity portrayed in the media, television especially: a community of people really working the mix — full of wonder, generously open to every notion, dismissing nothing except for good reason, but at the same time, and as second nature, demanding stringent standards of evidence — and these standards applied with at least as much rigor to what they hold dear as to what they are tempted to reject with impunity.

The Demon-Haunted World remains one of the great intellectual manifestos of the past century. Complement it with Sagan on science and spirituality, his timeless toolkit for critical thinking, and this lovely animated adaptation of his famous Pale Blue Dot monologue about our place in the cosmos.


November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

“Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

In July of 1928, three months before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando — a classic celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of same-sex love — the English novelist and poet Radclyffe Hall (August 12, 1880–October 7, 1943) set into motion a cultural revolution. With the publication of The Well of Loneliness (public library), the way gender and sexual identities are formulated and articulated was forever changed.

Hall, born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall but known to her loved ones as John, was an out lesbian who dressed in men’s clothes in a society and era when same-sex love was considered not only immoral but legally punishable. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by the success of her previous writings, Hall warned her publisher, Jonathan Cape, that her next book would require a high degree of faith on his behalf, for she was taking a great personal and cultural risk. “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she wrote to him in a letter cited in Sally Cline’s biography Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (public library). “So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction,” she added.

Cape, who also published such literary daredevils as Ian Fleming and James Joyce, was willing to take the risk. Hall delivered. The manuscript she turned in was a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity, part social protest against bigotry and part manifesto for equality.

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

She made her heroine, Stephen Gordon, both a lesbian and unambiguously likable: loyal, tenderhearted, often mistreated, and endowed with what Descartes called “nobility of soul,” that most admirable of virtues. Stephen was animated by one central question: “Why am I as I am — and what am I?” It echoed what young Leo Tolstoy in his diary nearly a century earlier: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” For queer people, this question has always been acutely alive, but especially in eras and cultures where not all answers have been acceptable. The devastation of that unacceptability is found in the damning words of Stephen’s mother: “This thing that you are is a sin against creation.” — words strikingly similar to those with which Oliver Sacks’s mother broke her son’s heart. Hall’s intention was that her novel would “speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority” — a minority to which she herself belonged, rendering the book both deeply political and deeply personal.

Many initial reviews were favorable. Some lauded Hall’s countercultural bravery. One reviewer, Vera Brittain, wrote that the novel “can only strengthen the belief of all honest and courageous persons that there is no problem which is not better stated frankly than concealed,” and that “persecution and disgusted ostracism have never saved any difficulty in the world.”

Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)
Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)

But the vociferous editor of the Sunday Express, a man named James Douglas, did what critics — especially self-satisfied male critics — do to this day upon encountering art they don’t understand or find personally objectionable: He argued that it was not a work of art but immoral propaganda and wrote that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas launched a concerted campaign to suppress the book, which rose all the way up to Britain’s Home Secretary — a man so conservative that, in addition to attempting to ban alcohol and nightclubs, he had opposed a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Despite an outcry by some of the era’s most venerated writers and intellectuals, Douglas’s tireless bullying pushed matters to court and a trial for obscenity began on November 9, 1928. (Lest we forget the gravity of those charges, a generation earlier Oscar Wilde had been sent to prison for his homosexuality under similar charges of obscenity.)

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)
Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)

Hall’s publisher and his team mailed 160 letters to potential witnesses who would be willing to stand against the censorship. Many never responded. Some gave unimaginative pretexts for why they couldn’t help. H.G. Wells declined, saying he was going abroad; he might as well have claimed to be mounting his time machine. In a letter to her nephew penned eight days before the trial, Virginia Woolf lamented the collective cowardice behind the litany of excuses:

Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins.

Among the courageous were fifty-seven esteemed writers and scientists, many of whom were ready to defend the novel’s social and political function as a call for equality and freedom, despite doubting its literary merit. Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s longtime lover and the inspiration for her own censorship-subverting queer classic — went to the trial ready to testify. The Bloomsbury set were particularly troubled on creative grounds. Lytton Starchey, one of Woolf’s dearest friends and a queer man himself, agreed to take the witness stand, but not without noting in a letter to E.M. Forster — also a willing witness — that “the book itself is pretty frightful.”

Woolf herself was reluctantly willing to be a witness on account of the novel’s political significance and her contempt for censorship, but dreaded defending what she considered to be a “pale tepid vapid book which lay damp & slab all about the court” — writing, in other words, afflicted with the malady of middlebrow. So when the magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ruled that writers couldn’t testify as experts on obscenity, only on art, which wasn’t permitted as evidence, she was immensely relieved to be dismissed from witness duty.

Woolf captured the larger significance of the trial in her diary:

What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject & the treatment?

A week later, Sir Biron ruled that the novel was obscene, ordering that it be destroyed and that the defendants pay court costs. The decision was appealed in a second trial — in which Rudyard Kipling was summoned and never actually used as a witness — but after deliberating for only five minutes, the five new magistrates upheld the original decision. Across the Atlantic, Alfred A. Knopf, who had acquired the American rights, cowered from publishing a book censored by its country of origin.

In a letter Woolf co-wrote with to E.M. Forster, she once again captured the grim enormity of the implications:

Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.

And yet The Well of Loneliness made its way into the body of culture. In America, the publishers Pascal Covici (who would later join Viking and become John Steinbeck’s fairy godfather) and Donald Friede took a $10,000 bank loan — around $137,000 in today’s money — in order to purchase the rights from Cape. They enlisted the help of Morris Ernst, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and set about defending the book against censorship. To protect booksellers from being targeted, Friede reached out to the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and offered to sell him a copy of the book directly. But even before Friede and Covici were taken to court, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year — despite its price point at $5, twofold the average for fiction, proving Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.”

The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned
The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned

Eventually, the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices and confiscated 865 copies of the book. But under U.S. federal law, literary merit was allowed as evidence against changes of obscenity, unlike during the U.K. trial, so Covici and Friede assembled a formidable roster of writers to stick up for the novel — including Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ernst argued for the novel’s value as a protest against intolerance and a tool of social justice. After a series of contentious legal battles, justice prevailed on August 19, 1929: New York’s Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall dealt with “a delicate social problem,” which in itself didn’t violate the law and therefore merited her novel’s free circulation. All charges were dropped and Radclyffe Hall went on to become a cultural icon.

Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery

As Lillian Faderman writes in her excellent book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), queer women in America came to call Hall “Our Matron Saint” and one mid-century op-ed proposed that the “inelegant word butch” be replaced with clyffe. Today, Hall’s influence can be traced to lesbian icons like Adrienne Rich, Jeanette Winterson, and Audre Lorde, and the cultural significance of her work finds no greater testament than in Lorde’s assertion the “visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”


On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay.”

On Nonconformity: Artist Ben Shahn’s Spirited Defense of Nonconformists as Society’s Engine of Growth and Greatness

“Society,” Emerson wrote in his timeless treatise on self-reliance and what it really means to be a nonconformist, “is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.” In such a groupthink society, Emerson cautioned, conformity is the most prized virtue, but whoever wishes to be a true person “must be a nonconformist.”

“Life would be dull indeed without experimenters and courageous breakers-with-tradition,” wrote Marie Bullock, the courageous founder of the Academy of American Poets, a century later when she rose to defend E.E. Cummings from his detractors in 1951 — detractors who had attacked the Academy for awarding him their annual fellowship and accused Cummings, now one of the most beloved and influential artists of the past century, for being an “arch-poseur and pretender” and a “disintegrator of language” who had dared to break with tradition, invent new creative forms, and, in sum, be a nonconformist.

Five years later, the great artist Ben Shahn (September 12, 1898–March 14, 1969) made what remains the most elegant case for the transformative power and sheer cultural necessity of nonconformity in one of his six lectures for Harvard’s Charles Edward Norton Lectures, eventually published with original illustrations by Shahn as The Shape of Content (public library).


In the fourth of the six lectures, titled “On Nonconformity,” Shahn writes:

The artist is likely to be looked upon with some uneasiness by the more conservative members of society. He seems a little unpredictable. Who knows but that he may arrive for dinner in a red shirt… appear unexpectedly bearded… offer, freely, unsolicited advice… or even ship off one of his ears to some unwilling recipient? However glorious the history of art, the history of artists is quite a different matter. And in any well-ordered household the very thought that one of the young men may turn out to be an artist can be a cause for general alarm. It may be a point of great pride to have a Van Gogh on the living room wall, but the prospect of having Van Gogh himself in the living room would put a good many devoted art lovers to rout.

Shahn illustrates the value of nonconformity as a catalyst of cultural evolution with the story of the tumult that took place in France when officials proposed that one of the pavilions of the prestigious 1925 Paris Exhibition be set up in the space belonging to the Society of Independent Artists — the collective of nonconformists whose annual exhibitions had been setting the tone for modern art since their formation in 1884. It was suggested that these innovators had done their job and there was no further need for their tradition-upending sensibility, so they should relinquish their space to the traditional art establishment.


An art critic appalled by the backward proposition responded with twenty-five reasons why the Independents should keep their space and hold their annual exhibition. The reasons he listed were only names — the names of the most recent winners of the Prix de Rome, the venerated French art award that had been conferred upon promising talents in traditional art since 1663. All but one of those names were by then completely unknown. The critic juxtaposed those with the names of twenty-five artists who had presented at the Independents’ exhibition — artists who, as Shahn points out, “could not by any stretch of the imagination have won such an award [as the Prix de Rome].” Among those were Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, and Cézanne.

Shahn considers the allegorical moral of the incident:

By fulfilling current standards drawn out of past art, the applicants [to the Prix de Rome] had won the approval of officials whose standards also were based upon past art, and who could hardly be expected to have visions of the future. But it is always in the future that the course of art lies, and so all the guesses of the officials were wrong guesses.


The very quality that prevents artists like the Independents from being lauded by the traditional establishment, Shahn argues, is the same quality that makes them capable of shaping the future, unencumbered by the past. He writes:

All art is based upon nonconformity [and] every great historical change has been based upon nonconformity, has been bought either with the blood or with the reputation of nonconformists. Without nonconformity we should have had no Bill of Rights or Magna Charta, no public education system, no nation upon this continent, no continent, no science at all, no philosophy, and considerably fewer religions. All that is pretty obvious.

But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth, requires nonconformity, or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.


Shahn notes that while creative nonconformity is sometimes immediately recognizable as intransigence and deliberate rebellion, it isn’t always predicated on sudden and total upending of tradition — it often happens that a series of artists each contribute systematic small steps that eventually add up to an unexpected cultural leap. (Steven Johnson has termed this type of incremental innovation in science “the hummingbird effect.”) And yet all nonconformity — whether it operates on a small or large scale, whether it occurs in an instant or over time — requires a dissatisfaction with the status quo or, at the very least, a disinterest in its dicta. In a sentiment that James Baldwin would come to echo just a few years later in his unforgettable assertion that “the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Shahn writes:

The artist occupies a unique position vis-à-vis the society in which he lives. However dependent upon it he may be for his livelihood, he is still somewhat removed from its immediate struggles for social status or for economic supremacy. He has no really vested interest in the status quo.

The only vested interest — or one might say, professional concern — which he does have in the present way of things rests in his ability to observe them, to assimilate the multifarious details of reality, to form some intelligent opinion about the society or at least an opinion consistent with his temperament.

That being the case, he must maintain an attitude at once detached and deeply involved. Detached, in that he must view all things with an outer and abstracting eye. Shapes rest against shapes, colors augment colors, and modify and relate and mingle mutually. Contrasts in life move constantly across the field of vision — tensions between the grotesque and the sad, between the contemptible and the much-loved; tensions of such special character as to be almost imperceptible; dramatic, emotional situations within the most banal settings. Only the detached eye is able to perceive these properties and qualities of things.

Within such contrasts and juxtapositions lies the very essence of what life is today, or any day. Whoever would know his day or would capture its essential character must maintain such a degree of detachment.

And yet where the artist differs from the scientist, Shahn argues, is in the necessity for feeling things in addition to merely perceiving them. Unlike the scientist, who may exhibit what Einstein called “a passion for comprehension” but goes about pursuing that passion with the cool tools of reason, the artist operates from an intuitive place of deep feeling. Echoing Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is essential for creativity, Shahn writes:

[The artist] must never fail to be involved in the pleasures and the desperations of mankind, for in them lies the very source of feeling upon which the work of art is registered. Feeling, being always specific and never generalized, must have its own vocabulary of things experienced and felt.

It is because of these parallel habits of detachment and of emotional involvement that artists so often become critics of society and so often become partisans in its burning causes. And also it is why they are so likely to be nonconformists in their personal lives.

More than a century after Kierkegaard contemplated the power of the minority and why we conform, Shahn points out the paradox of nonconformity, which has only grown more pronounced in the decades since:

It is an amusing contradiction of our time that we do applaud a sort of copy-book nonconformity. Everyone laments the increase in conformity; everyone knows that too much conformity is bad for art and literature and politics, and that it may deal the death-blow to National Greatness. The deadening effects of over-conformity are well understood. Yet, when it comes to the matter of just what kind of nonconformity shall be encouraged, liberality of view recedes. There seems to be no exact place where nonconformity can be fitted in.


Without the person of outspoken opinion, however, without the critic, without the visionary, without the nonconformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay. Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.


Nonconformity is the basic pre-condition of art, as it is the pre-condition of good thinking and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present — and tolerated — in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.


Shahn considers the primary species of conformity:

There is always an impressive number of artists who are overwhelmed by the nearest outstanding figure. They adopt his point of view and mannerisms and become a school; that is one kind of art conformity.

Another kind of conformity is derived from the wholly venal business of catering to a popular market. Still another results from trends and the yearning of artists — an almost irresistible yearning — to be in the forefront of things.

Writing half a century before the filter bubble of the social web, that ultimate generator of groupthink, Shahn adds:

All these kinds of conformity are inevitable and to be expected. But there has grown around us a vastly increased conformity. One could say “conformism” here; for this is conformity by doctrine and by tribunal.

Shahn ends with a timeless and poignantly illustrative parable of the difference in motives driving the various conformists and the nonconformist — a parable a version of which the poet Sarah Kay, a true nonconformist of our time, likes to tell. Shahn writes:

I remember a story that my father used to tell of a traveler in thirteenth-century France who met three men wheeling wheelbarrows. He asked in what work they were engaged and he received from them the following three answers: the first said, “I toil from sunup to sundown and all I receive for my pain is a few francs a day.” The second said, “I am glad enough to wheel this wheelbarrow for I have been out of work for many months and I have a family to support. The third said, “I am building Chartres Cathedral.”

I always feel that the committees and the tribunals and the civic groups and their auxiliaries harbor no misgivings about the men who wheel their wheelbarrows for however many francs a day; the object of their suspicions seems, inevitably, to be the man who is building Chartres Cathedral.

Complement Shahn’s thoroughly invigorating The Shape of Content with James Baldwin on the artist’s struggle for integrity and Teresita Fernández on what it takes to be an artist, then revisit Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel and the vintage satirical gem How to Be a Nonconformist.

Thanks, Wendy


View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated