The Insidious Influence of Ignorance

Terry Pratchett, in his holiday classic Hogfather, states, “Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.” We are living in a day where we encounter jaw-dropping incidents of apparent stupidity, misunderstanding, idiocy, and absurdity from people in incredible positions of power and influence. It is all too easy to dismiss these things under the umbrella term “ignorance,” but our biblical languages of Hebrew, Greek, Latin (and even Coptic) offer us a varied and nuanced approach to the concept of ignorance. I want to unpack seven different levels or types of ignorance, each one exerting incredible influence and damage in our current cultural context.

Simple (or ignorant) ignorance – “we don’t know what we don’t know” is the current, common clichĂ©. But it is a fine description of the most basic and innocent form of ignorance. We are simply unaware of good information or knowledge about a subject or issue. Most people, when they are confronted by this form of ignorance, will make some attempt to learn or find out.

Oblivious ignorance – not knowing that we don’t know what we don’t know. At an age just a month shy of 65, I am constantly amazed when I learn things that I had absolutely no idea existed. Having no idea that something exists or happens reveals an obliviousness that is a normal part of the human condition, but it should be viewed as an opportunity to learn and grow, not a simple excuse to continue in blissful ignorance.

Indoctrinated ignorance – as a child, I was taught most of my prejudices and misconceptions at home. I was indoctrinated to be suspicious of other races. My mother would state her opinion as fact about a whole host of things. One silly example was my mother’s adamant declaration that “lobster is terrible.” I refused to try lobster until well into my 30s, when I found out it is delicious (in my opinion) and I came to regret three decades of indoctrinated ignorance about wonderful delicacy. This is the root of much prejudice and bigotry in our culture.

Disinterested ignorance – a willful or apathetic ignorance about those things we simply don’t care about. Ask me about rock polishing, I dare you. I know a lot of things, have opinions and even expertise about many things, but I do not know about, understand, or care about the fine practice of rock polishing. I consciously choose not to learn about it. I make no apologies to being completely and earnestly ignorant about rock polishing.

Willful or intentional ignorance – a more toxic and potentially damaging form of disinterested ignorance. A woman recently said to me, “I won’t talk to anyone about any -ism. I have no interest in sexism or feminism or racism or classism. I know I am not racist or classist and I am proud to be a woman. I get tired of people trying to stir up problems where there aren’t any.” Enough said: willful ignorance. People who simply do not want to know.

Aspirational or feigned ignorance – ignorant by choice – Oddly enough there are some people who see ignorance as a career path, choosing to defend minority opinions and bad science to make a name for themselves. A number of politicians are prime examples of aspirational/feigned ignorance. One may ask, “how can they believe such things? Don’t they know better?” The answers are – they can’t and don’t believe such things, and, yes they do know better, but pretending they don’t allows them to manipulate those operating from the other forms of ignorance. Look at the recent testimony of Fox news hosts who admitted they knew election fraud claims were false, but they chose to manipulate the credulous by pretending the claims were real. Many people in positional power are perfecting aspirational ignorance into a very dangerous art form.

Outright stupidity – a man is mauled to death trying to pet a lion in a cage, a woman falls from a fifteen story balcony trying to catch a butterfly, a man dies of burns after throwing gasoline on a a brush fire, college males are seriously injured trying to mimic stunts shown on the television show Jackass. There are millions of candidates for the Darwin Awards just waiting to do the most mindless, stupid, and self-destructive things imaginable. This level of extreme ignorance can become a weapon of mass destruction when turned outwards. A legitimate defense of a recent mass-shooting was “my client was simply trying to send a message; he had no idea that people would die after he shot them.”

In this day and age, with good information and knowledge available with a few strokes on an iPhone or tablet, there is little excuse for most ignorance. People get defensive when accused of ignorance, yet widespread ignorance is now being exploited, marketed, and institutionalized by manipulative voices in government, business, education, and religion. Unless we are willing to make a renewed commitment to enlightenment, critical thinking, lifelong learning, and calling out the irrational and unreasonable, we are going to continue down a path that can only lead to harm and heartache. We need to renew cultural values for honesty, integrity, research, expertise, and common sense. It would be wonderful to get more people off the internet and back into well-written, well-researched books (a pipe dream, but, oh well…). It seems that we have become a country that celebrates and is proud of a growing ignorance, promoted by social and corporate media, and capitalized on by a number of ambitious and egotistical political leaders.

Pastors, preachers, and laity leadership have a responsibility and important opportunity to raise the bar on veracity and intellectual rigor. Of course everyone shares a bias and an opinion, but beyond that we can present some of the best scholarship and a variety of perspectives on biblical interpretation and the ways to live our discipleship faithfully and well. We can make open and honest discussion and debate welcome and relatively safe. We can foster civility, respect, dignity, and a high value on reason and common sense. We can help to make our congregations bastions of real knowledge and learning in a culture of growing and spreading ignorance.

Categories: Uncategorized

2 replies

  1. Wow! He had no idea people might die after he shot them….. Hadn’t heard that one.
    Thanks for this. So glad to see you sharing your writing again.

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