Your Right Not to Know — and Your Duty to Try Not to Know
What often strikes me when listening to or watching news is that at root it’s an industry. Every turn of phrase, the tone, the urgency, every second designed to upset us, excite us, rouse us, to buy what the industry is selling.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw the problem. It operates under the slogan: “Everyone is entitled to know everything,” he wrote in his famous Harvard commencement address in 1978. It was titled “A World Split Apart.” He continued: “This is a false slogan, characteristic of a false era. People also have the right not to know and it’s a much more valuable one. The right not to have their divine souls stuffed with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. A person who works and leads a meaningful life does not need this excessive burdening flow of information.”
The news outlets need us to tune in, otherwise their business fails. They stuff us with gossip, nonsense, vain talk. It’s a very bad model, and it has significant negative consequences in our lives.
We are Made to Feel
We are made to feel that we cannot get by without knowing what is going on out there — as if the news were somehow presenting what is really going on in the world. Particularly harrowing of late is the obsession with impeachment hearings, and any number of other scandals fabricated or reported to grab our attention.
As is often the case today, we need to learn to look out for ourselves and our loved ones, in this case in defense of our right not to know. I am not suggesting sticking our head in the sand. I’m suggesting that part of the problem is the assumption that not lapping up the news is doing precisely that.
But what if turning to the news is actually putting our head in the sand? What if feeding on the news lets us think that we are keeping up with important things, while in reality it both focuses our attention on the wrong things and distracts us from what really matters?
In his justly famous address, Solzhenitsyn suggests we have a right not to know. A right not to know in the sense of not having our souls stuffed with “gossip, nonsense, vain talk.” These dull and blind our spiritual powers of perception. They build walls in our divine souls against what’s really real. A media-induced hurly-burly makes deeper things seem impractical or even out of place.
Cleanse and Purify
We need to consider how to cleanse and purify our vision. Such a cleansing will be difficult. Surely it will include freeing ourselves — to the extent we reasonably can — from the incessant drone of news and social media. It will require finding ways to know what we need to know about politics, business and world affairs.
That’s actually the easiest thing. The even more challenging thing? To find good food for our souls.
A right not-to-know the vain and shallow is rooted in an imperative to savor the substantial and enduring. We refuse to fill our minds with lies because we want to know the truth.
It will take a choice — both to say no, and to say yes. The two go together. We must carve out a space, especially when we’ve let it be filled with gossip, nonsense, and vain talk. Then fill it with richer fare.
How Not to Know
How to do this? We might begin by spending more time in prayer. Spend time with God in silence, blocking out the gossip, nonsense, vain talk.
Savor the natural world in some systematic and intentional way. Walk in the woods. Garden. Make and eat good food.
Spend real quality time with loved ones, unplugged but connected in the flesh and in spirit. There is nothing like being in the real presence of people, speaking, listening, laughing, loving.
Turn to time-tested sources of deeper reflection. Read Scripture, or the ancients. Dust off or discover for the first time Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Dante or Shakespeare, or so many other classics, ancient, medieval, modern or contemporary.
Reinvest in good work. Even if it’s not our profession or source of income, do the kind of work that connects us with people and what’s real. The kind of work Solzhenitsyn suggests is a source of meaning in life.
We can become freer from and perhaps even immune to the “burdening flow of information.” For the depths of reality are never far away, if we cultivate the native soil of our divine souls.
John Cuddeback is a husband, father, professor of philosophy at Christendom College, and farmer. This article is adapted from his website Bacon from Acorns. He describes the site as springing from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families and we must hearken to it. He and his family host summer retreats for reflection called the Bethany Weekend.