A Malnourishment of Modesty
In one of his wonderful collections of essays (The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher), the late physician Lewis Thomas tells of a highly successful doctor (a senior citizen back when Dr. Thomas’ father was an intern) in New York’s Roosevelt Hospital who was trained before the medical profession understood how disease spreads.
The elder doctor was renowned for his remarkable ability to diagnose typhoid fever, a common disease at that time and place. His method was to closely examine the tongues of patients. His ward rounds, the younger Dr. Thomas recounts, “were essentially tongue rounds.” Each patient would stick out his tongue for the doctor to palpate. Pondering its texture and irregularities, he would diagnose the disease “in its earliest stages over and over again” and turn out, “a week or so later, to have been right, to everyone’s amazement.”
The essayist wryly concludes: “He was a more productive carrier, using only his hands, than Typhoid Mary.”
I was reminded of the account by another, more recent, example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, a report that New York’s elected officials want to revoke the “Rockefeller Laws.” Enacted in 1973 as a popular response to the societal plague of narcotics use at the time, those statutes, championed by New York’s then-governor Nelson Rockefeller, imposed mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. Similar laws were soon adopted elsewhere.
Over ensuing decades, though, the laws in other states were revoked, and now New York’s governor and legislative leaders have announced their intention to repeal many of the original “Rockefeller Laws,” giving judges the authority to send first-time nonviolent offenders for treatment instead of to prison.
What provoked the abandonment of those drug laws was that in the wake of their enactment both New York’s prison population and its percentage of incarcerated drug offenders more than tripled. The attendant costs were not only financial but human: minorities and women were disproportionately affected, and recreational drug users who entered the prison system left it as hardened criminals.
It is sobering to consider that our best laid plans, even when born of sincere concern and seeming logic, can turn against us. The sobriety should impart, if nothing else, a modicum of modesty, a reluctance to feel as certain as we so often do that the paths we choose will lead where we want.
There are, of course, certainties in life, deep convictions that we rightly embrace without reservation. Religious Jews, for instance, affirm that Creation has a purpose and that the goals of their own lives are defined by G-d’s will as communicated through the Torah. We may also consider close to certain the measured judgments in specific realms of others whom we believe to be wiser than we are, be they doctors, lawyers or religious leaders. But to proclaim our own independent, personal certitude about a political or social position, to assume that any of us can know without question that a particular political philosophy, foreign policy, government official or piece of legislation is good (or bad) is, always, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.
To be sure, we have every right to make our personal analyses and to take positions on such people and things, to advocate what we think is wise and to make the cases for our opinions. But as we do, it is beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our brights and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.
And that realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of the Talmudic statement that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their minds.” For it requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.
Unfortunately, newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery. And contrary to the claims of some of its enthusiasts, such “free speech” does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; it suffocates them.
Contemporary society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty. It is evident not only in the realm of the physical – in contemporary dress and mores – but in attitudes toward issues as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so certain are so many of so much.
And so, suffused with self-assurance, the cavalier march forward, their points of view extended before them like bayonet tips. Confident of the infallibility of their judgment, the righteousness of their causes and the dire threat posed by others’ perspectives, they generously share not only their conclusions but their ill will, every bit as effectively as a doctor at a New York hospital once propagated a different disease.
© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.