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To be or not to be an idiot
The public exhibition of ignorance is scary

By H. Utanazad
March 3, 2003
The Iranian

9/11 might have changed a lot of things, but I was still as much of an idiot on the 12th as I was on the 10th. Much has happened since. There have been wars, rumors of wars and of course, the most massive outpouring of activism the world over on February 15th of this year. Yet, I am still the same idiot today as in the years past.

Is it not terribly obnoxious how a life in exile works? The three dreaded D's of despair, disillusion and despondency overshadow one's desire for connection, human interaction and optimism. But come to think of it, all is not gloom in exile. At least, one has come to learn a language or two.

There is something peculiarly odd about learning a foreign language don't you think? I am sure we all remember that annoying feeling that comes with having to look up, yet again for what may seem like the zillionth time, the meaning of an unfamiliar word, only to be confronted by the thousand and one different ways in which it is being used everywhere.

It is almost always as if only after one has looked up a word that one would come to notice how it is plastered on the billboards, on the buses, in the subways, in the media as well as employed in the daily conversations of the assorted number of one's colleagues, acquaintances, friends or relatives. How could one have missed something so omnipresent? What does that say about one's ability to be observant? Learning a new language, one may conclude, inevitably demands of one to be more introspective.

Let's pause a minute on the additional question of the meaning of a given word. There is usually a slight problem associated with meanings -- only if one continues this introspection. It is not a problem to be exact, only an opportunity. Words are not always what they appear to be.

Words, if understood in their root constitution, open a small window into an absolutely enchanting dimension of being so easily overlooked. I don't know about you, but I never learned to decipher words when studying Farsi. We just do not do many exercises in etymologies the way some students of other languages do -- we simply have no experience.

Take this same multi-syllabic word as an example. Experience is a funny word when you think about it. It is everywhere and everyone has it and those who don't have it always want it. On the surface, this "from-around-being" appears to be a fundamental cornerstone of our culture and our political identity.

Our theocracy is the rule of the fagih, the proverbial mujtahed -- the depository of ijtehad or simply one who has done hard work. But a lot of people, one may wonder, work hard in their lives and yet no one -- no one reasonable at least -- expects them to get to run our lives automatically and for perpetuity.

We don't simply cower and relinquish all independent thought, all our aspirations, desires, hopes, dreams and wants the moment we encounter someone who has worked hard. Sure, we are willing to listen to their counsel, and to re-evaluate our thinking. But that's about it. A hard worker doesn't automatically get to decide the shape of our lives.

It is not that simple, is it? Politics, religion, history, culture, these are complicated subjects that don't easily avail themselves to being deciphered. Years of labor is needed to qualify one to even begin to pass judgment on things so directly affecting the contours of one's life. Making a fetish of experience seems to lie, in a fundamental sort of a way, at the center of our cult-ure.

Have you noticed how there are hardly ever people with a simple first or a last name in dinner parties? Lots and lots of titles roam around. Experience, it seems, once acquired and worn as a badge of honor, automatically qualifies one for monologues and rules out the possibility of having a genuine con-ver-sation: that collective, tormenting, painful act of turning, or bending oneself in/towards a different direction.

Isn't this the ability most essential in examining a position, proposition or belief? To look at things from a different perspective presupposes the propensity to hesitate, to doubt, to pose questions; a readiness to be tentative in embracing an easy answer, and a willingness to be wrong, to start from scratch, to be frustrated, and yes to experiment, and ultimately a desire to work collectively when seeking solutions to the problems one confronts.

What seems to lie at the center of this enchanting creative process is precisely the qualities that don't bode well for a spiritual disposition that simply venerates and defers to the experts, the prophets, the imams and to the kings. To hesitate is to exhibit one's ignorance -- to reveal to the public what a "fraud" one really is. This is tantamount to being caught with one's hand in the cookie jar; to admit and to be perceived as the dreaded none-expert; as the one lacking experience.

This public exhibition of ignorance is scary, wouldn't you think? This embarrassing moment got us the low grades in schools and made "cheaters" of a lot of us. As adults, it is wreaking havoc on our existence. We are fundamentally scared and all the chest beatings and aggressions (matalak) and all the violence and the verbal jousts, (rajaz khooni) will not mask this fear.

But is fear not, one may wonder, rather healthy? Should it not be embraced? Does it not lie literally at the heart of the much venerated ex-per-i-ence? Is this not the primary impetus for -- the motivation, that which propels/animates -- one's moves in the right direction?

Isn't what lies at the center of the constitution of ex-PER-i-ence, this literal "from-around-being", in reality a healthy fear --'the one that manifests transparently in the French puer, or in the per of the English peril -- the fear of loss, the fear of calamity and the fear one ultimately overcomes the moment one has taken a chance to learn "by trying."

And when it comes to learning by trying, no one has done better than the Greeks. Sure there have been some wise Persians and the one in particular whose advice was ignored oh all those many centuries ago. There is still a family of his around somewhere, yet they too are lost for they have forgotten. I digress though.

Thus we are left with the example of those pesky Athenians -- you know the ones who expected their citizens to be involved in all decisions that affected their community. They closely listened to all foreign envoys and worked out their attitudes. They discussed, debated and voted, often acrimoniously, and loudly, and yes occasionally unwisely and unjustly, on all matters of war and peace.

As for the question of domestic administration, their system was one in which every citizen was expected to and got to serve in various capacities, chosen through a process that has come to be known as sortition, a sort of selection by lot. This magnificent mode of experimentation, this readiness to learn by doing, has given humanity one of the most vibrant epochs of its history.

They had a name -- those Greeks -- for the occasional one who refused to get involved: they called him the idiotes, the private person, the one who cared not for the affairs of the community, or for politics. I have had enough, I tell myself today, of being an idiot.

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