Initiation and the Virtue of Gullibility

I prize gullibility in my own thinking–and I am generally gullible. I used to lament this fact. People often took advantage of my willingness to believe; usually resulting in my being fooled into thinking or doing or saying something that I would immediately regret out of fear or embarrassment. I developed a paranoid hypersensitivity to any inclination that I might have been duped, illogical, overly emotional, or anyhow inconsistent. My own held beliefs and understanding needed to stand up under scrutiny. This perspective centered my experience of social life. It seemed obvious that belief could directly determine action; so paying attention to the actions of others was a key to understand their beliefs–or maybe it was the other way around. I can’t remember. Anyway, this rarely mattered, and I concluded again that I was gullible to have believed anybody to be so consistent. It was terrible.

Now, beyond the display of pessimism and arrogance depicted in my childhood experience, I want to explain the title I’ve got in bold up there. I think that there is a real philosophical topic in gullibility. I am attempting to explore this unique connection between initiation as starting point, and the virtue of gullibility. I claim that we have moved so deeply into a culture of cynicism and ironical distance that we rarely have anybody to model gullibility for us growing up or in adult life. I believe we are losing gullibility as a common point of initiation to the world (of culture) and so will do what I can to hymn the praises of this virtue as one of its remaining votaries.

Persons Presumed to Know

There is no shortage of people who know; no dint of information. I believe it’s a modest estimation to say that, given of the volume and complexity of information any given person has access to (let alone how much one endures,) it’s rare to meet someone who actually does not know anything. I believe it’s a rare encounter to actually meet such a person. Therefore it seems strange to me how often I hear of other people meeting and interacting with individuals or groups who ‘don’t know anything.’ Action, conduct, and presumptions about other people brings me to talking about virtue.

Virtue ethics presume someone to be learning virtue (on one hand) and a virtuous exemplar whom the student recognizes as someone who knows (on the other hand.) Bandying the charge of ‘ignorance’ in our dealings with others forces a stopping point which prevent us from engaging in conversations and practices wherein we really give/abandon ourselves as ourselves to the other person. I won’t say that we can reach outside ourselves, nor, vice versa, suggest that we ever perfectly open-up inside ourselves. Rather, I mean that we can live in such a way that we do not shy from the consequences as they are determined in our reception and projection.

Virtue signaling and disavowal cut the common ground. Distance allows anybody to speak in the parlance of an expert with incredible facility. Fake News, to nominate something, seems to be a manifestation of these symptoms. The stratification and segregation of persons and discourses (which are all too common to our social forum and practice) puts gullibility at a premium for moving between circles. Above all, gullibility attacks the priority we place on our own person–our own discourse circles–without abandoning it.

Were we to take actual “non-knowing” to be rather hard to pull off, we are faced with an anxiety-inducing situation; other people are not merely ignorant of facts, rather they know or believe something else. All too frequently we happen to find something which alleviates any Real lack of knowing: here we encounter a lack of lack. Like a junkie finding a fix, it has become almost unbearable to do without knowledge–we fear we are missing out, and therefore, do not spend much without having new thought thrust at us. In the second degree, the moral order ‘to correct or exclude outsiders and dissenters‘ has intensified the memetic power of this in-formation. We demand that ‘the other’ does not know.

Information In Formation

The nauseating vertigo of a novel thought/expression can occur anywhere in the relative shadow of ignorance. Any time a new thought happens, it seems to animate in me a correlation of other thoughts to itself: I find myself wanting to tell somebody something about this new idea. I am almost certain that, if you are reading this essay, you too have found yourself in the situation I’ve just described.

Anamnesis is an historical process predicated on forgetting: you have a thought which you believed to be original to you, even though it comes prior to your thinking it–your thoughts aren’t always original. This is typically a thought whose trace you’ve lost; likely, it’s something you heard from other people. This is what happens as babies learn to speak. Plato speaks about this phenomenon in The Meno; and Kant talks about it again as “apperception” in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is, I argue, the originary in-formation of information; knowing in an absolute sense.

Now, assuming partial knowledge of a subject is incredibly practical(practicable). This is why people are compelled to speak (this is my fast-and-loose interpretation/appropriation of the psychoanalysis of Jaques Lacan). We assume that You or I or They know something without the prerequisite that You or I or They know everything. If we rigorously presumed that we could only really know something if we know it in this complete way, we would be rendered speechless.

Herein lies the root of my gullibility: I find myself always caught between non-knowledge and absolute-knowledge. Somehow, a thought will occur to me, whether by my own thinking or someone else’s saying. I am all too willing to believe it, so that I may say something. The matter and desire of my belief is this compulsion to speak the thought; to trace back and forward along the line of thought. This always begins and ends in partial knowledge.

The normal or contemporary structure/process of information (e.g. social media) is also predicated on this kind of forgetting. The digital reiteration of this situation has become quite profitable, at least in limited contexts. Our contemporary encounters with information are now structured so as to replicate and imitate this unlimited ignorance by limiting or staging the conditions for its occurrence. We are to distracted to lose track: we know too much to be ignorant. There is too much to enjoy.

Gullibility, Naivety, or Falsehood?

Information comes to us in formation. We already know this, and come into the context rather gently, at a safe ironic distance. We believe we do not believe what we believe–we are at our leisure to consume what we will, and that we may form our opinion in time.

Simultaneously, and paradoxically, we do not have time to be gullible. Behind and within the formation of information there lurks the pernicious danger of being brainwashed or mislead by the “false” information. This fear, taken-up in defense against the appearance of lack in our knowing, motivates our flight from gullibility and into irony; into the commodity exchange of information on social media. The Real question hinges on what you think false information looks like. Algorithms are quite good at seeing this for us. Is this gullibility?

Gullibility, as I’d like to think of it, is a willingness to believe; a generosity and attitude of credulity. Naivety, on the other hand, has something to do with being natural, native, unspoiled or unchanged. Falsehood is an intention or attitude of posing and dissimulating, which will serve as a foil for our discussion.

Naivety is a our presumed “neutral” point: a lack of experience which increases or decreases proportionally to the time one could have spent living and thinking: e.g., a naive person advanced in years is more naive than a naive child, but both are still absolutely naive.

Falsehood, when we notice it, is usually already at play. Whether in irony, gullibility, or naivety, we cannot escape falsehood. The ultimate-absolute-truth of a situation remains unattainable. We recognize falsehood as this distance from, or this absence of, the truth as we have come to know it. I argue that this phenomenon is a symptom–the contraction and dilation of online spaces has a function. Because of the curated online experience, we are always finding our way toward certain experiences, and driving away others. The simultaneity of our most frequent social experiences (social media) and the limiting factors which give particular shape to those online experience might be problematic in this case.

Virtuous Gullibility

Disavowal is seductive. Cynical and post-ironic perspectives bend our backs toward the embrace of falsehood. Foreclosure of the knowledge of the other as falsehood: the same stroke of the nomination of fact/anti-fact. This problem is the first point of concern in my praise of gullibility.

As persons compelled to speak, we first become (paradoxically) persons compelled to listen; and the listening is often staged so as to slip-by unnoticed. Our way of speaking is somehow integrally related to our way of listening–or maybe our way of listening is integrally related to our way of speaking. Either way, there is an obscene verisimilitude which we are helpless to distinguish.

When we initiate ourselves to the social space via gullibility, we embrace this paradoxical identity of listener/speaker. From here, I argue, we can begin to reckon with words in a radically different way than those who foreclose and disavow. To start the end of the essay, the gullible person speaks and listens in a different way.

How to Be Gullible

I’m talking about real gullibility as relative to ignorance (as developed in another essay here.) Ignorance is “not knowing something” in its full sense. Gullibility is a negative image of ignorance. It is a kind of limited not-knowing that has room for knowing baked-in. What’s more; the sort of not-knowing particular to gullibility signals itself to the other persons as an opportunity.

In ignorance, information is seen to be lacking. It’s presumed that ignorant people are not aware of it. Being seen as gullible, on the other hand, shows other people to themselves, they appear to themselves as the person who knows. Almost nobody today will bother to say something important or helpful to someone they believe to be ignorant. On the other hand, people are almost compelled to speak when in the presence of a gullible person.

Now we must consider: Am I truly a gullible person, or can I get away with pretense? Are we truly expected to place our trust in the hands of others? The answer is difficult to say. Being truly gullible, you may end up hurt or worse. But, just as the virtue of courage seems like foolhardiness in excess, so too does gullibility seem like naivety when it’s excessive. Strange, eh?

Again, I don’t mean to suggest that you should be naive. A gullible person needs to have convictions, and yet remain credulous. Which is to say, gullible people must give credit where it is due. I will admit; I am struggling to determine a motivation or a ‘reason why’ you’d practice this virtue. Typically “they say” virtue is its own reward.

Here’s where I would practice gullibility–find moments where someone would otherwise find you to be naive, and see how long they hang on as you put up your convictions. Find moments where someone would find you ignorant, and see how much they are willing to grant in explaining themselves to you. It is this positioning that (I hope) can interrupt the curation and segregation of online spaces.

Gullible people make assumptions but ask questions. At its most virtuous, gullibility is action in good faith. This brings me to a final point. You should not believe everything that you read. Specifically, I mean to say that anything that an author has published ought to be received without fully giving in to gullibility. The dynamism of a conversation is essential to this virtue. Once you leave text to die in your brain or on the page, you have been gulled by it. The termination of your gullibility comes in the moment you form a belief about such and such a thing. Gullibility is not sufficient on its own–it needs the opportunity for assumption and questioning. When it comes time to believe something, gullibility loses its motion; it is best when it speaks levity to the question of truth. This is a starting point.

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