I’m Ignorant, and That’s Okay
This article is for information only and doesn’t call for any action.
There is a simple phrase in most languages that holds a great deal of power. Three simple words that when strung together have the power to irrevocably alter our relationships with other people. Those words, of course, are “I don’t know”. In the Western world, and particularly in the United States, society has developed a strange aversion to this phrase. The act of admitting you lack knowledge, even on topics for which there is no logical reason you would have knowledge, makes us feel less valuable somehow. This is especially true for modern men, and the impact of this misguided belief is prominently displayed in some of the reactions to movements like gun control, feminism, LGBTQ+, and transgender equality, #metoo, and so on. Human nature often trends toward caution, suspicion, anger, and sometimes violence in our reactions to things we do not understand. That is because when we do not understand something, internally we feel uncomfortable, inadequate, or even threatened, especially if the thing we don’t understand goes against our conditioned cultural norms.
Personally, I have no issue admitting that I am ignorant about many, many things. In truth, we are all ignorant about many things. It isn’t realistically feasible to know everything about even a single subject, let alone have an in-depth understanding and expertise in all of the many different topics that draw our attention on a daily basis. On top of that, human knowledge about the universe we live in is constantly evolving as new scientific discoveries alter previously held truths. For centuries, people knew the Earth was flat and at the center of the universe. People knew that witchcraft was real and their neighbors were casting curses on them. In the modern era, conspiracy theorists are especially adept at knowing things even when they conflict with all of the available evidence. A popular one in recent years is the “truthers” who know that terrorist attacks and mass shootings are false flag operations used to impose gun control measures as a precursor to the government confiscating everyone’s guns. The examples are endless because our minds are endlessly adept at twisting ideas and facts to fit into our own comfortable narratives rather than accepting uncomfortable truths. All-knowing creatures belong to the realms of fantasy and religion, and even the numerous mythologies and religions humankind has created over the millennia have all had a hard time explaining how their various deities can be described as all-powerful (omnipotent) and/or all-knowing (omniscient) but still make mistakes, have flaws, or be influenced by prayers, rituals, sacrifices, and other religious trappings. For my part, I know for sure that I’m ignorant of more things than I have knowledge of. I have no idea how to do calculus, play the guitar, build a house, fix my air conditioner, speak Chinese – I could go on and on, but I imagine you get my drift. The point is that there is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” if, as is likely the case, you, in fact, do not know.
Men (and especially boys) are conditioned to believe this line of thinking thanks primarily to cultural influences like movies, TV shows, and other forms of entertainment which have created the false narrative that in order to be a “real man” you have to be an expert at everything. Fictional characters (Tony Stark/Ironman is a perfect example) somehow became the ideal norm that we should strive for. A real man should be handsome, physically fit, charismatic, and highly intelligent. He also happens to be an expert at firearms and marksmanship, fixing cars, hacking a computer, developing biological agents to cure diseases, seducing women, drinking like a fish, and holding his own in lopsided fistfights, while also being stoic and just barely above sociopathic on the scale of emotional unavailability. We have allowed entire generations of boys and men to be conditioned to feel constantly inadequate by comparing themselves to wholly unrealistic fictional characters.
Unfortunately, the era of 24-hour news networks loaded down with panels of “expert commentators” and social media feeds full of Google scholars and self-proclaimed “experts” has made this problem even worse. It has become an intolerable sign of weakness to profess those three simple, honest words – I. Don’t. Know. Or worse, to openly admit that you might have been *GASP* wrong about something in the past. Instead of being taken as an honest admission of ignorance, saying “I don’t know” or “I was wrong” is misconstrued as you can’t be trusted or you’re too stupid to be involved in the discussion, when all it actually means is that you lacked adequate information to make an informed statement or opinion. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of honesty. It is the kind of introspective realism that should inform all of our discourse, from mundane discussions about movie reviews all the way up to critically important debates about climate change and human rights. Yet it is exactly that kind of realistic honesty that is missing from so many discussions.
We now live in a world where expertise is apparently determined by how many followers you have on social media rather than, you know, actually having expertise. The word ignorance has morphed from a simple descriptor denoting a lack of knowledge about a particular subject into an insult hurled between groups implying that ignorance is equitable to stupidity or bigotry. While it is true that ignorance certainly leads to states of being that could best be described as prejudiced, hateful, or stupid, it is a shameful misappropriation of the word to call someone ignorant just because you disagree with their position. It is especially bad form to call someone ignorant when they clearly have more knowledge than you about a topic and you just don’t want to admit it. “Well, you’re just ignorant” is a cop-out phrase for lazy debaters trying to rattle their opponent by taking a shot at the other person’s intelligence or values rather than making a cogent point (see also “Do your research” and “That’s offensive!”). In the real world where we are faced with monumental problems that in some cases threaten the very future of our species, we need reality-based discourse and an acceptance that honest ignorance just means “I don’t know”. We need to get to a place where it is acceptable to say those three simple words without inviting judgment and ridicule, or having actual experts on important topics threatened and attacked (sometimes physically, sometimes even fatally) merely for pointing out that they have more knowledge than we do.
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April 8, 2019 at 04:33AM