I Thought the Know-Nothings Were Extinct


While I was in the jury selection room last year, I conducted a little anthropological research. This was not by choice; my intent had been to quietly work on the second draft of “Heart of the Warrior”, but the chatter of those around me made it difficult to focus.

The chief subject of my study was an older woman who had somehow managed to avoid a summons up until now. She had a number of odd opinions which she shared loudly with those in her vicinity, but what interested me was the way she closed off discussion when her notions were challenged.

In itself, there’s nothing unusual about someone shutting off contrary information. Certain news channels even cater to those who already know all they care to. What caught my attention was how she went about it. By way of example I’ll use the AT&T snitch discussion.

According to her, AT&T spontaneously detected that a) her daughter was cursing on the phone b) to her own daughter, c) who is a minor. The phone company then informed the police and unpleasant federal charges ensued. Therefore you should always be wary of technology.

By now we should all be aware that our communications are (at least) randomly scanned for certain key words and phrases by Homeland Security, but they frankly aren’t likely to give a shit about cussing. You’re more likely to attract their attention by saying that your car bombed out on the way to the airport.

But let’s posit that AT&T is itself scanning all conversations for cuss-words. That’s a ton of data passing through filters and detectors just to monitor naughty words, but let’s say they do it. They would then need to detect that there is a child on the line. Possible, within a small margin of error, for extremely young children perhaps. Older teens would be practically impossible, though. They’d then need to investigate possible instances of children hearing naughty words to actually identify all parties and their ages. This is a massive expense of additional equipment and labor just to protect virgin ears, purportedly being done by a for-profit company.

When one of those hearing this tale pointed out that it would be difficult for the phone company to assume the burden of policing language, she immediately shut down the discussion.

“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about that, but my daughter was convicted.”

She had launched into this story, not to talk about her daughter’s plight, but to back up her assertion that technology is evil. Now, with that portion of the tale challenged, she acted as though it was an irrelevant detail — one that warranted no discussion. Her reinforcement of the outcome served to assert that she’d been right, whatever she’d been talking about.

I didn’t get much writing done, as I was drawn into her bizarre performance. She held court for the entire morning, espousing her baseless views and deflecting any criticism with her trusty shield of Not Knowing. (Global warming doesn’t mean that there won’t be cold weather. “I don’t know about that, but I had to turn on the furnace earlier this year.”)

She even had theories about how we were being called up to be dismissed. Despite the fact that they were clearly just going through a stack of forms in no particular order, she had an elaborate explanation that evolved as names were called. At first this stunned me, as she’d resisted any input for over three hours. Then I realized the difference.

She disregarded only what she didn’t witness. Her experience informed her opinion, and she didn’t trust the experience of others (or at least of strangers). Human nature, really; it’s just that I’ve rarely observed it so blatantly and repeatedly expressed in such a short span of time. My own experience was that things get shouty when conviction butts into knowledge, but that never happened here. Perhaps it was that the others in the conversation were simply killing time and weren’t all that interested in convincing her of anything.

I don’t know about that, but it’s a probably a good thing I was only observing.

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