A bit on Ignorance

I’m fascinated by ignorance for several reasons:

1. Few people completely understand it because few spend actual time acknowledging their ignorance, understanding why it’s there, and what it actually means. Can I identify something if I don’t understand it? Is ignorance a bad thing? If so, why? Everyone takes it as a given that ignorance is something that must be extinguished at all costs. The ability to discern why certain things are worth knowing and others aren’t is underrated. Discretion is the better part of knowledge as well as valor.

2. Many conversations rarely enter into the realm of actual knowledge, much less wisdom. I’m of the opinion that when we talk, we generally don’t know what we’re talking about, especially when we are talking about ourselves. There are many ways in which we lie to ourselves, to reify the self-image we deem most palatable, and to reinforce the image of the world that makes us look most congenial and intelligent. If you look into the world, and don’t like what you see, why blame the world? The world is a mirror — also, a mirage.

3. Everyone thinks they know what ignorance is for any given topic, and they’ve defined it such that their definition doesn’t describe them. What if there are different types of ignorance? It’s quite remarkable that we can be scared to death of a state of mind as natural as ignorance. If you don’t know something, you just don’t know — it’s OK. Feynman knew that it was inevitable, and almost glorious, to live and NOT know — this was part of his genius.

4. Ignorance is not the culprit, our attitude toward it is. We despise others for their ignorance about certain things[1], for example: American whites being ignorant about black history (conveniently forgetting that many Americans *in general* are ignorant about such), men being ignorant about feminist history (same argument as above). Generally, conversations along the lines of race, sex, or class discrimination tend to disparage and denigrate those who are ignorant, crying, “Oh my god, how could you NOT know about all this discrimination inherent in the system! You’re so ignorant! You’re such a bad person and so self-absorbed!” The rage comes to a boiling point and the person with “privilege” is made to feel as if they are despicable scum who walks around with rose-colored glasses. And yet we are all products of the same society, although we see it through different lens. I imagine if this rage was handled more delicately and respectfully when faced with the blinding glare of someone’s ignorance, conversations about social justice could actually be productive — instead of revolting and polarizing. More often though, people seek to educate and remedy the ignorance of others, instead of understanding the perspective of the other person and honestly asking themselves if they do not sleep in the same bed of ignorance.

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Here are a few of my vignettes on ignorance and knowledge:

* Those who know much, realizing knowledge is gained from personal experience, advise little. Those who know little, assuming experience rises from knowledge, advise much. Beware of penguins that advise you how to fly.

* The most common type of ignorance is not knowing the many masks ignorance cowers behind. And yet, given enough wine and enough time, can we not figure them all out? — or, at the very least, die laughing at ourselves in the process?

* Everything is difficult when you don’t understand it – and only when you do understand, is its difficulty most completely realized.

* (Below presupposes knowledge of The Fall in Genesis. I highly, HIGHLY encourage you to read it again, here.)

Taking pride in what we know, the main barrier to further knowledge, is our original sin. This is the real reason God was upset with the couple’s fall in the Garden. The serpent enticed Eve with the “knowledge of good and evil” — it was clearly an offer she couldn’t refuse. After the couple admits they know they’re naked, God said, “Who told you that you were naked?” – interpreted – “Who gave you knowledge – and why are you proud of it? Who would do such a thing?”

Today, nothing has changed; behind every conversation and argument is “What do you know?” or “What do you want to know, and why don’t you know it yet?”: both of these can be summarized as “Where does your pride lie?” It is fashionable for an educated person to talk of “love of learning” as the most admirable trait in the world.[2] And yet, is this rarely love of knowledge, but rather, love of pride in knowledge – and pride always goes before a fall.[3] For the more proud we are of learning and accomplishments, the less we are able to question it.

* Everyone asks to find out what they don’t know – but shouldn’t we ask to refine what we already do know? I need other people’s interpretations to counter and refine yours. [It is smart to ask questions about what I think I know — in conjunction with what I know I don’t know.]

And finally,

These are the lyrics to Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd. It’s a great critique of our views on ignorance and knowledge, and how both fit in our pursuit of happiness.

So, so you think you can tell Heaven from Hell, blue skies from pain. Can you tell a green field, from a cold steel rail? A smile from a veil? Do you think you can tell?

Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?Hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Cold comfort for change? Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in the cage?

[1] Yet, we are rarely this hard on ourselves for being ignorant.

[2] They are so desperate to know. They panic and wither without their certainty and credentials.

[3] Proverbs 16:18

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