I listened to Lesley Hazleton talk about doubt. She was talking about how writing a biography of Muhammad led her to think about how important doubt is to faith.
Self-doubt often runs so high within me that it is paralysing and destructive. Thankfully, I also have the time to doubt things other than myself like the meaning of life, the Big Bang, infinity and Simon Le Bon. For me doubting others, or ideas presented as certain, is not a matter of cynicism; I see doubt as pragmatism based on my own experience of human beings. Doubt is essential. People without doubt have heartless conviction, and dogmatism and righteousness. In short, as Hazleton says, the arrogance of fundamentalism.
What is the true nature of things? What’s the right thing to do? At best we should say: “probably this, but it’s hard to say for sure”. In the meantime I guess that being compassionate to each other is the best starting point. In the matter of the large questions of life you must, I believe, be prepared for struggle, restlessness, and… doubt. Acting with compassion, after all, doesn’t answer any of the big questions in a life, it is a way of acting and not a solution. I find this unsatisfying. I would like answers, or – at least – to be free of the desire for an answer, but accept that this very feeling is part of at least this human’s life, and that the best a doubter can do is try to live in a way that attempts the doctors’ starting rule: first, do no harm. You must resist settling for a view that seems to answer everything.
Even living that first rule is hard. After I’ve felt the white hot lightening of anger bolt through me again I lapse into a funk and wonder when I will ever sort my head out. Then there is being the victim of other people’s lack of doubt about how people should live. If you are sufficiently on the outside, on the fringes of what your society without a doubt thinks is right, then you are going to be vulnerable.
I wonder how the various moments of the Arab Spring are going to look in twenty years? A matter of deciding which insurrections, revolutions and reforms were the worst or the most disappointing? Has life improved for the poor, for the minorities, for women in these countries? I don’t mean, have they all become like model versions of some ideal, non-existent, Western country, I mean just what I said: after all this upheaval has life at the very least improved for the vulnerable?
Sarah Dohrman’s Lost Girls is mainly about a few women working as prostitutes in Morocco. I suppose that this is how you would summarise it as a narrative. In another sense it is about “how to behave as a woman” in that society, and where your actions as a woman put you on the sliding scale from saint to whore:
If you smoke cigarettes in public, people will think you are a prostitute. Do not put lipstick on in public, not even lip balm. Don’t put anything on your face in public at all. Don’t overly wax your eyebrows — you can have them waxed, but not too waxed. See? Don’t sit on the ground. Don’t spread your legs even a tiny bit while sitting and especially not while sitting on the ground. Don’t chew gum in a solicitous manner. Don’t chew gum at all. Don’t go to nightclubs. Don’t go to bars. Don’t go to cafés. If you must go to cafés, at least go to the right kind, and go with a girlfriend, never a man. Never be seen alone with a man, never, not anywhere. Don’t wear anything that shows your knees. Don’t show your feet, don’t show your upper arms, don’t wear red. Don’t walk alone after the sun has gone down. Never go out alone, and especially not at night — I mean, you can do whatever you want, you’re a foreigner, but not even prostitutes go out alone at night.
In this world where marriage is crucial to a woman’s economic stability how she acts and her virginity acquire a fetishisized status. For those women who fail the test there are options like poverty, or prostitution. Men, of course, have another set of standards they apply to themselves. Prostitutes don’t exist without clients.
Prostitution sits in the cross hairs of moral claims about what is proper for women, sex and family. When it comes to any issue like this, where black and white moral belief trumps doubt consistently – prostitutes are bad people, sad people, tragedies or failures or trash – my heart always falls on the side of the history of human nature. Has murder ever not existed? Rape? Suicide? Have some people always turned to prostitution to survive since surviving was invented?
It is hard to know what the solution to the human heart is. It is hard to know how to create a society free from suffering. It is easier to make rules, to inherit our morality, and put people inside and outside the law. Easier to believe in fixed moral states, that people don’t change, that nothing needs to be reviewed, that the key can be thrown away once the judgement has been made and the cell door locked. Doubt is the enemy.
Cathy and I watched Making a Murderer last week, and this series seems to be about exactly the same thing: that it is easier to make rules and then put people inside and outside the law. Easier to believe in fixed moral states, that people don’t change, that nothing needs to be reviewed, that the key can be thrown away once the judgement has been made and the cell door locked.
Doubt is the antidote. It cures arrogance, intolerance, fundamentalism: all kinds of things that make life worse for the group on the outside like the prostitute in Morocco and the “white trash” family on the edge of town. Things that make life worse even for those on the inside who become intolerant, and monocultural, and loving only to what they see in the mirror.