Be careful with the ‘obvious’

I often find myself in conversations, gleefully sharing something I’ve just read or discovered, only to be shot down. “That’s obvious”, they say.

I find this problematic not only because what you find obvious is pretty specific to your education, experiences and context. But also cause things that are “obvious” so often prove false.

Common sense just isn’t a great indicator of reality, especially when it comes to abstract subjects. The world, and especially what we should do about it, is often counterfactual. Something feeling right really isn’t indicative of a larger truth.

For the past couple of months I’ve been running a script that sends me five random articles every day from the bottom of my pocket queue.

Lately I’ve gotten a lot from the 2016 US presidential election. “Donald Trump may not have a second act” said one New Yorker headline. “How Donald Trump Loses” said another from the New York Times.

I don’t mean to call these out specifically. At the time, I read these and similar articles vociferously (hence why they are over-represented in my pocket). I made much the same arguments. But the under current through all of this is that Trump obviously can’t win. That’s simply not how the world works.

Again, this may seem obvious. We’ve all had a reckoning since Trump (and Brexit etc. etc.). But when you’re reading articles from two years ago, day after day, you realise the tone hasn’t actually changed that much. We still talk like this. Stories are still often framed or dismissed from the same hubristic certainty – that’s not how the world works!

The spectacular bias

We must remind ourselves again that history as usually written (peccavimus) is quite different from history as usually lived: the historian records the exceptional because it is interesting-because it is exceptional. If all those individuals who had no Boswell had found their numerically proportionate place in the pages of historians we should have a duller but juster view of the past and of man.

This is from The Lessons of History, a short book that is deeply problematic in some parts and refreshingly frank in others.

This is somewhat understandable given it is more than fifty years old. But the exhortations to not strip history from both historians and ourselves, and so the context within which it has been understood and transmitted, are timeless.

To begin with, do we really know what the past was, what actually happened, or is history ” a fable” not quite “agreed upon”? Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. “Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice”.

I’d argue the same is true for the present. Our view of the world is inevitably shaped by what we find noticeable, what others do, and the context within which this happens.

This could be dictated by the medium – stories related visually are inherently biased by the availability and power of the images. It could also be impacted by time, technology, ideology, culture and many other factors.

But the spectacular reigns supreme. No one sets out to tell a boring anecdote in a bar. The world, the story, reality, as in history, is probably far more mundane.