Doubting Doubt

“Doubt is the big machine. It grinds up the delusions of women and men.” 

Thinking about cycling back and indefinite iterations, this course epigraph, what my first blog post of the semester dealt with, came up in my group’s discussion on Monday. This quote was the closing for chapter 50, the most recent section we were supposed to read, and one of my group members asked something to the effect of “what do you think of the course epigraph now that you’ve seen it in the book?”

Well, to be honest, I completely misinterpreted the quote originally. At first, as demonstrated by my first blog post, I took the quote as a criticism of doubt. I interpreted it to say that doubt, specifically self-doubt, takes in  people’s delusions and brings them together, exacerbating their negative influence. When reading the epigraph in its context, I realized that it’s actually arguing for people to doubt, not necessarily themselves, but institutions, power structures, etc. This is pretty obvious as the text mentions that “doubt is an essential human trait.”

When I read this, I immediately thought, “well darn, I was completely off,” but (!) I was not the only member of my group to misinterpret the epigraph. Some of my other group members also thought that the epigraph was a commentary on how doubt is a negative trait, contrary to the actual intention. This made me think, though, because we all interpreted the quote not only incorrectly, but in the same incorrect way. We all viewed doubt as a negative concept, but why? I mean, LaValle makes sense in Big Machine, as doubt does beg the question “Who do you believe in and why?” People should and often do question institutional structures and the information they take in. This puts doubt in an unquestionably positive position, but none of us thought to think of this. As Big Machine mentions, St. Jerome’s misinterpretation of the Bible story where Moses ascends Mt. Sinai caused Jewish people to endure an inaccurate assumption that they have horns. That’s ridiculous and no one ever doubted it, even though they should have.  Given this, why is doubt something that is, as seen by our common misinterpretation of the quote, always assumed as negative?

I don’t have a scientifically supported answer, but I think it has to do with power structures, something Big Machine grapples with over and over. Powerful institutional structures function on infallibility and blind faith. Look at most organized religions, for example. There is an institution with set tenets that a community is supposed to believe (have faith in), and follow without question. Looking at the Catholic Church as a specific reference, the Bible wasn’t even reproduced in the vernacular until the Middle Ages with John Wycliffe  and the Lollard movement and Martin Luther with the Reformation in general. The Church did this to specifically indoctrinate Catholics with teachings and made it difficult to question, or doubt, it—it would be rather difficult to question and doubt an authority figure if they aren’t even operating in the same language. Latin, what the Bible was written in and Mass was spoken in, was also a language for the educated, richer classes, further removing it from the masses. Doubt wasn’t really possible, and the institution (the Church) could retain its power.  This institutional power is so strong because of this that a man’s mistake can convince a whole community that Jewish people have horns. Moreover, St. Thomas is forever branded “Doubting Thomas” simply because he went with his inherent, essential human instinct to doubt—that’s a pretty strong label…

So people doubt doubt because institutions want to keep them indoctrinated and maintain power. This influence is so pervasive that whenever people hear the word “doubt,” they immediately think of negative connotations. A quick look on Pinterest after putting “doubt” in the search bar yields innumerable artisan t-shirts that say something like “No Doubt (probably referencing the band, but still),” “Never Doubt that You are Valuable and Powerful,” or “Believe in You and Your Dog” (yes, these are real, and you can buy them). This is just another example of how doubt is immediately seen as a negative; people are indoctrinated by power structures, even in the commercial retail market, to view doubt as something to avoid. People even indoctrinate each other without even knowing it, as the Pinterest t-shirts show. Doubt is systematically attributed to self-doubt and the response to that is to “believe” (yourself and your dog). To me, this is problematic because, if people are told doubt is to be avoided at all costs and to respond with believing, when they are confronted with institutions who have duplicitous intentions, their essential instinct to doubt is already suppressed. This makes the institution’s job of maintaining power all the more easy.

Yes, too much doubt to the point of absolute skepticism and self-doubt are not necessarily good things, but people are meant to question their surroundings, as Big Machine reminds us. It’s in people’s best interest to doubt and question as it protects them from danger. That’s why it shouldn’t be suppressed or thought of negatively each and every time. But hey, you can doubt all this, too.

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