Context, and the Perils of Bullet-Point Wisdom

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A few years ago, while studying Rabbinical commentary by a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, I came across a line that resonated with me quite deeply. It seemed to point me to direction, a sense of purpose, and a new perspective to human existence.  Ecstatic, I phoned a friend in Israel to tell him about my breakthrough. This friend, a US-born businessman, converted to Orthodox Judaism in his late 40s, after a secular Jewish upbringing stateside. He is an interesting mix of worldliness and pragmatic spirituality, despite the rigours of his Orthodox Jewish observances. For about a year, he had followed my studies – more out of amusement than the joy of seeing the Tribe increase. With patience born of experience, he listened through a forty minute soliloquy.

“Nate, if you change the context, they’re just hollow words.”

He went on to explain, that the concept in question was a key responsibility of orthodox Jews that included liturgical duties, matters of observance in terms of Jewish law, and crucially, the application of Orthodox Jewish morals in interacting with the world. While the words themselves would ring relevant to anyone who grappled with complex questions of existence and purpose, my interpretation was no longer faithfully conveying what the sage intended. My friend was right. Though I had read several hundred pages in the lead-up to the line, I had conveniently dropped the entire context at the aha moment. I knew what the Rabbi was advising; in fact, I was critical of most of his exhortations – which were delivered to Eastern European Jewry at a terrible time in their history. This realization was the beginning of the end of my interest in religious commentary. At that moment though, I had been a heartbeat away from proclaiming a profound insight to the world via Facebook.

In the years since, Bullet-Point Wisdom has exploded – catchy sayings flood Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp. Jalaluddin Mohammed “Rumi” is probably more read in 21st Century than ever before in history – his esoteric concepts of divinity flogged lifeless by nation-hopping trust fund brats and the miserably single. “Listicles” – articles in the form of a list – have emerged as a new class of content with titles such as “seven signs that you’re dating the right man”; “ten signs you’re in an abusive relationship”; or even “seven ways to lose weight now”. These articles offer bullet-point guidance on dealing with complex emotional, spiritual, and worldly crises. This form of content is outrageously popular. Each morning a bunch of usual suspects flood my Facebook and Instagram feeds with their fix of the day. I also receive links to such articles that senders perceive to be relevant to my personal circumstances.

While social media has just made such content ubiquitous, the bullet-point approach has been about for a while. Physicians I know have expressed their exasperation with patients who demand a line of treatment that they saw on WebMD or Wikipedia; fellow Krav Maga instructors complain about students who have been experimenting with fancy but ineffective techniques seen on youtube; qualified fitness trainers I know kvetch about the latest fads that’s affecting their clients’ progress.

Bullet Point Wisdom is dangerous. It almost always lacks context. More than ever, with increasing tools for communication, anybody with a keyboard can ask a question, and anyone similarly equipped can answer. Looking at sites like Quora, it is clear that many people dealing with challenges in areas such as workplace politics, relationships, money, and sexual identity are turning to the anonymity of the internet for answers. The answers, unfortunately, are largely from people out to prove that they are “holier than thou”, and holding the “seeker” in judgment. Also, people who lack the credentials to give qualified advice seek out patterns in their own past and apply the half-baked wisdom of hindsight to the other party’s predicament – this is unwise, ineffective, and in the worst cases, condescending. It can increase one’s emotional burden to be told that the solutions to their problems are simple, and that they just don’t “get it”. With issues like weight loss and health, this advice can be factually incorrect or even harmful. As a secondary consequence, bullet-point wisdom has killed our respect for specialists. Physicians, therapists, physical trainers, and other trained experts are flippantly dismissed in favour of the internet experts at Quora.

“Why are most people broke”? was a question asked on Quora a few days ago. The answers were from scores of holier-than-thou people who claimed to acquired and retained a fortune through astute investing and frugal living. Nearly every answer to the question was a clear or veiled boast of how someone had “made it”. No one even bothered to ask for more information about the question. Was the person posting in despair about the situation of his family or community? Was he desperately trying to find direction to improve his circumstances? Another question by someone who had fallen out of love with a partner had responses full of judgment and condemnation – nary the trace of an answer. This probably has as much to do with the questions asked as the irrelevance of those who answered, but I pity the person who would have to read through those answers – especially in the latter case.

Now, more than ever, this world needs expertise. Human existence is increasing in complexity each passing day. Doctors spend more time than ever studying. Even lawyers and engineers have to turn to super-specialization to thrive. Unfortunately, with easy access to superficial information on almost any subject, anyone can proclaim themselves an authority.

It’s unclear what the future of expertise will be. 50 years from now, will your doctor speak your symptoms into a smartphone app, that will draw up a prognosis and line of treatment? Will we receive legal advice from a text message bot?

Crucially, and this is scary – will we ever again have insightful, compassionate, and objective advice to life’s questions from people who understand the importance of context?

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