by Emilio DeGrazia
I used to believe God gave us two eyes so they could fact-check each other. I was young and idealistic then, trying to sort sense from nonsense in order to decide who or what to believe. Nowadays beliefs seem to matter more than facts and good sense, so I’m in no hurry to fact-check my old belief about why I have two eyes. I can just close my mind and believe everyone would be better off seeing everything my way.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’m still curious about nostrils, especially why we have two of them. Do we have two because they don’t trust each other? Do two nostrils always see eye to eye? Do they argue and take opposing stands about what they insist is going on? Or do we have two because two are better than one for making sense of what’s in the air?
As a family man I (only) now and then turn up my nose to my wife and kids when we disagree. As a citizen with a vote I’d rather just tell everyone what I believe without letting anyone disagreeable fact-check my train of thought.
The troubling thing about noses is that they’re like ears. You can’t just turn them off as you would the evening news on TV. No matter how hard of hearing I am, my ears can’t help paying some attention to the signals they’re sending into a mind trying to make up its mind about who and what to believe. When ears are on very high alert they also can send us messages about what’s not being talked about, and even troubling silences. I’m usually good at ignoring such silences if there’s a lot of noise in a room.
Now and then I stop to think: What’s the difference between music and noise? A lot of music these days is so loud I sometimes wonder if it’s causing pleasure or pain. If it goes on long and loud enough, I don’t give the difference between pleasure and pain much thought. My nose also seems to go deaf and dumb in a really noisy room. I sometimes call being deaf and dumb fun.
But I’m ordinary enough to require episodes that make me deaf and dumb. There’s a lot of noise out there in the real world, some of it full of sadness and violence. Sometimes the only way I can pretend problems are not real is to turn the volume up, turn off the news, tune out facts I don’t want to hear, and tell everybody to just shut up. These episodes give my mind needed vacations from thoughtfulness.
I’m also attracted to the noise made by a cheering crowd. Crowds love winners, and when I’m cheering with a crowd it makes a winner of me too. It also makes me more sure about my beliefs and loyalties. In a crowd I can get so sure about what I believe I have half a mind to tell the losers to shut up.
When big-mouth politicians, tyrants, preachers, and talking heads go on and on about how right they are I sometimes can’t tell what my nostrils and ears are telling me. They want me cheering for them so I don’t have the peace and quiet that might help me decide what I really think. Being entertained by them makes life easier for me. I don’t have to stop, look, listen. I don’t have to let my nostrils, ears, eyes and mind fact-check what’s being said. I don’t have to base judgments on carefully considered evaluation of evidence. I don’t have to bother finding out who the genuine experts and professionals are, especially when professionalism is defined by income level rather than by expertise. I don’t have to study or learn.
I’ve decided to rely on my nose’s math skills to help me decide what to believe. A thoughtful nose knows when facts and opinions are adding up, and when they’re so far apart from each other division is at work. When I hear inaccurate news reports, or when I’m exposed to disingenuous ads, or when I’m I’m preached at by a propagandist sponsored by a stranger living on a one-way street, or when I have to endure deliberate disinformation, wild conspiracy theories, or outright lies repeated until they become part of normal everyday life — my nose gets busy figuring out what my ears and eyes are telling my mind to believe.
Well-tuned nostrils have a lot to sort through these days. They don’t snort. They sniff first and then sift through the difference between fact and opinion, the believable and hard-core belief, probability and certainty, knowledge and entertainment. Then they work together to suggest to us the difference between a fragrance and a stench, even when the stench is smiling at us.
They quietly tell us that the stench nonsense leaves behind is like noise — divisive, loaded with nasty fragments, and that when noise gets arrogant it blasts things apart, like bombs, or with actual bombs. Like hate.
When what’s in the air begins to make good sense, nostrils take it carefully in. There it begins a musical conversation with our minds, with melody, rhythm, structure, harmony of parts. This conversation has the power to bring different, even disagreeing people, together into community, even friendship and respect. Like love.