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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

You don’t know what you don’t know

I am not sure how it came up, but late last Friday night, my friend and I got into a heated discussion about the complex geopolitical issue of Israel and Palestine. Now, believe me, I will not try to tackle that issue in this article. I am by no means informed enough to come up with a solution (and if I were, someone a lot smarter than me would have come up with it a long time ago). But that is the point of this article. After I slept on it, I realized that I should have had that self-awareness the night before. There was no point in having that discussion; we were both set in our opinions. In reality, neither of us had the requisite knowledge to make a coherent argument, let alone convince the other of what we were thinking. As I reflected on the interaction, I was reminded of something I had forgotten: it is vital to recognize that you don’t know everything and admit to yourself that this is the case. 

There are two main reasons why I think this type of self-awareness is vital. First, it gives you credibility. If you are someone who will fight to the death over every trivial issue, people will be less inclined to believe what you have to say. Instead, others will think you want to sound smart or cannot admit when you lose an argument. I have a friend like this, let’s call him John. And although I love John to death, I can sometimes find myself avoiding confrontation with him. This is because when it comes to John, I sometimes know there is no point in discussing the issue, whether it be something personal like Notre Dame’s quarterback competition (John is a big Tyler Buchner fan) or something serious like Israel and Palestine. Instead, if someone can admit when they don’t know something or were wrong, other people will take what they have to say more seriously and will be more willing to engage with them. Again, this is because others will understand that when they say something, they mean it and believe they have the credibility to share it.

Second, admitting that you don’t know everything allows you to stay open to new ideas. If someone is always busy trying to come up with how they plan to counter someone else’s point and defend their own argument, it means that they are not truly listening to what the other person has to say. They are depriving themself of the chance to hear and consider someone else’s insight. Instead, they should be willing to consider what other people have to say. That way, they may actually learn something or at least further clarify what they believe. 

To be clear, I am not trying to argue that you should refrain from having an opinion. Conversely, everyone must think critically about issues to determine what they believe. I am saying, however, that part of having an opinion is recognizing that it might be wrong or that you may not have all the relevant information, especially if the subject is something you are not particularly well-versed in. 

This perspective is especially crucial in a time when many people get their news from sources that are clearly one-sided. When one intakes selective information, it is easy to think that their side is infallible. And, if they believe their opinion is infallible, then there is no point in them discussing it; when someone disagrees with them, that person’s opinion was discounted before the conversation even started. In a scenario like this, it’s easy to imagine the conversation proceeding with one side simply regurgitating that opinion piece they read in the New York Times and the other coming back with the talking points they heard on Fox News. In this case, nothing is getting through to the other person, and the conversation is not productive. 

And so, again, it is crucial to understand that you don’t know what you don’t know. It is hard to admit sometimes, but no one can know everything. And so, after writing all this, I know what I have to do… To my friend who I got into that heated discussion with: I’m sorry, I didn’t really know what I was talking about.

Patrick Condon is a sophomore studying electrical engineering and living in Siegfried Hall. He serves as the director of marketing for BridgeND.

BridgeND is a student-led discussion club that is committed to bridging polarization in politics and educating on how to engage in respectful and productive discourse. BridgeND welcomes students of all backgrounds, viewpoints and experiences who want to strengthen their knowledge of current issues or educate others on an issue that is important to them. The club meets weekly on Mondays at 7 p.m. in the McNeill Room of LaFortune. Want to learn more? Contact or @bridge_ND on Twitter and Instagram.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.