Being good at one thing doesn’t mean you’re good at another. In short, we should normalize the response, “I don’t know,” being acceptable when asked to opine on something, and if not asked, not say anything if you’re not as knowledgeable on a subject! There’s nothing wrong with not knowing something and not having the requisite knowledge about something. The beauty of our short time on Earth is the humility of knowing that we will never know all there is to know. That can seem counter-intuitive, but I find beauty in the struggle satiate our unlimited curiosity and thirst for knowledge up against our limited timespan.
Unfortunately, people are not that great at admitting to not knowing something. We’ve seen this to comedic effect when standup comedians or late night talk show hosts do those “man on the street” videos where they ask something preposterous of a person on the street, such as, “Do you think the United States should have a trade treaty with Trixistan, despite them getting more out of it than us?” See, how that’s a leading question designed to make someone frustrated that Trixistan is getting something more out of it than us? So, despite Trixistan not existing as a country, the person being asked that a.) doesn’t want to appear stupid by not knowing about Trixistan and its treaty with the United States; and b.) there’s enough in the question to at least opine on being mad that Trixistan gets more out of its deal with us than we do.
Thus, they opine instead of either recognizing that Trixistan is a made-up country or offering up a, “I don’t know.” So, they end up contradicting the former objective anyhow!
Here’s a similar example, where people are asked about foreign countries:
Now, to be fair, I understand that this is a comedic television segment. As in, they edit out the non-funny answers or the, “I don’t know,” answers I’m looking for, but still, the inability to simply admit to not knowing exists out there! Also, while I’m surprised somewhat that the people in the video couldn’t name the United States, there is a fun brain trick at play here. Americans are used to seeing global maps where the United States is on the left side and Europe, Africa and Asian countries are on the right side. So, the United States being on the right side on this map seems to be throwing people off!
Also, Africa is a continent, not a country.
Anyhow ,that’s regular people. This is even more pernicious relative to the platform among those who acquire a certain status in the United States, whether that’s as a political pundit, a popular astrophysicist (looking at you, Neil deGrasse Tyson), or in the example of what set this blog post off, one of the most successful and prolific authors in American history, Stephen King.
Because you are good at one thing — writing enormously successful, classic books, which I love, by the way — doesn’t mean you are good at another: Opining on legal matters.
Do not take advice from King on legal matters. Not that I think many people are seeking King out on legal matters, but I do think that 1.) King is reflecting a popular belief among Americans that people who lawyer up are projecting their own guilt, and that’s a very dangerous belief; and 2.) King is opining on something he clearly doesn’t know much about.
Lawyer up. Always. In every case. Big or small. The police, the prosecutors and the judge are not your friend in the criminal justice system. Lawyer up. Always.
And yes, for our system to work, despite it being difficult to always adhere to, rights and principles apply to those we despise, including those within Donald Trump’s orbit, which is the context of King’s remark. Or a serial killer. Or a terrorist. Or whomever.
Often in those cases of the worst of the worst, applying principles and rights to them is not so much for them, although it is, but it’s more so for us. To protect us as well, should we ever get into a similar situation. And to safeguard our own souls, too, or whatever placeholder word you want to put in there for “soul.”
One of the reasons I admire Ta-Nehisi Coates so much is that despite becoming thought of as a public intellectual in society for his writings, he often and unabashedly (and in contrast to how he’s depicted by his detractors!) will respond, “I don’t know,” to questions beyond the scope of his knowledge and research. I respect that a great deal.
More of, “I don’t know,” please.