Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Blessings of Ignorance and Political Life

No one likes to be called ignorant. That makes the word an insult when we use it to label others.

Oh, in Southern West Virginia we used to say “yr ignert,” to a person who had said something we found unbelievable. But we didn’t mean that as a real insult. It was merely our colloquial way of saying “I can hardly believe what you are saying is true.”

The often quoted, “ignorance is bliss,” was first used, as far as we know, in 1742 by Thomas Gray. However, the old cliché is simply not true, unless the perception of our own ignorance leads to greater understanding.  At any rate, Gray didn’t mean the phrase the way we have typically used it. What he actually said was (of those uninterested in learning) 

Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more.
Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise".

I have been thinking a lot about ignorance, especially since reading The Trivium, by Sister Miriam Joseph. I have been plugging away at that blessed book, almost every morning for a couple of months. I read and reread each page.  I often stop to ask myself “what IS she saying?”

Why do I torture myself that way? Well, figure that out and I’ll never spend another dime on a counselor! Perhaps I’m just an intellectual masochist, inviting mental pain because I find in it some kind of twisted pleasure.

Then again, maybe I just don’t want to be ignert.

Miriam Joseph’s book is about the foundation of a classical education, which of course is the Trivium; the three liberal arts of logic, grammar and rhetoric. 

Grammar is the process of understanding the building blocks of language, and hence, of thought.

Logic is the process of bringing ones thoughts into agreement with reality, with what actually is.

Rhetoric is the study of how to communicate one’s thoughts to another person, and do so in a way that allows the recipient to understand what the writer or speaker intends.

As it turns out, we have not been learning this stuff in school. Because we have not, discourse has become slippery – as though we are all speaking our own private dialect. We are not sure of the meaning of the words we use to think or of what they mean to the people with whom we speak. We just talk and use words however we want.

The study of grammar, logic and rhetoric was developed to give a culture common tools for interpersonal discourse. Without them, we have to yell at one another. We have to hope that some of what we want to communicate with others gets through somehow. Swearing can evidently help with this, since we are doing a lot of that these days to compensate for our lack of common communicative tools.

But back to ignorance.

I have figured out that there are four forms of ignorance:

1.     The uninformed; one who doesn’t know that he doesn’t know;

2.     The teachable: one who knows he does not know and wants to learn;

3.     The wisely ignorant: one who knows he doesn’t know but understands that his time and abilities are limited and so must therefore focus on learning things that most relates to his own life and vocation, and;

4.     The fool: one who knows he does not know and does not wish to learn

The wisely ignorant would like to know everything about everything and is willing to apply himself to learn. However, he realizes that cannot learn all the languages of the world, everything there is to know about botany, how to play the cello, do well in banking and become a first class surgeon. So he may learn a little bit about a whole lot, a lot about a little bit, or a do some of both. He knows he is not God. He realizes, therefore, that he will always be ignorance in some area of life. That is the nature of mortality and the basis of forming healthy community with others, who are hopefully knowledgeable in areas in which he is not.

There are two types of fools:

a.     The slothful and apathetic, who won't expend the energy to learn; and
b.     The intellectually perverse, who are proud of their ignorance and make it a mark of their identity.

When one has a disagreement with another he must first determine whether the disagreement is real. In a real disagreement, both parties understand similarly the words used in the discussion and follow one another’s arguments. Nonetheless, they reach different conclusions.  A Roman Catholic and a Jewish scholar may be equally sincere and knowledgeable and take the time to understand one another and still not come to agreement, for example. Their disagreement is real.  

A disagreement is not real when one or both of the parties have little knowledge of the things they are discussing, use words that mean different things to each, or when either (or both) are fools. If they are fools, they will finally shout and insult one another, having run out of anything meaningful to say. Their discourse is really much ado about nothing, generating much wind and little else. 

The purpose of a disagreement though is to discover truth, not to convince another that our opinion is correct. 

We assume that our opinion is correct of course, or we would not have it. However, if we are wrong, we want to know that. Hopefully, we want to discard ignorance in favor of truth.  Therefore, we do not fear being ignorant as much as we fear dying without becoming wise.

Paradoxically, wanting to become wise is a form of wisdom. If we want to become wise, we may actually develop the habits of life and thought that cultivate wisdom. 

When wise people have a discussion, they will often begin assuming they are using words in similar ways.  At the first whiff of disagreement however, they stop to ask for clarification. If the other person in that discussion uses a word in a slightly different way, each takes note of the difference and keeps that in mind as he or she speaks and listens.

A wise person also acknowledges the superior knowledge in a given area of another. He admits it when his opponent makes a good point and asks questions to grasp the implications of that point.

“I can see that your grasp of paleontology is greater than mine. Would you mind taking a moment to explain the background of your last statement?”

“Wow, that’s a great point. I admit that had not occurred to me.”

“I’m not sure I was following you. Would you recommend a book I could read that might help me understand this point better than I do?”

“If what you are saying is true – and I’m not certain it is – the implications are staggering. We may have to resume this discussion after I have gained a better grasp of what I just learned.”

This is the process by which an uninformed person becomes informed. It is also how the consciously ignorant person learns, and thus ceases to be ignorant.

These are good things to consider as we enter the final stage of our heated political contest. If we want to learn and become informed voters and citizens,  we must seek to understand the opinions of our opponents. We must figure out why they think as they do.  When they make a valid point, we must concede it. We must humbly seek more knowledge about what they teach us. If, in the process, our opinions becomes more nuanced than what either party can presently accommodate, that may be the price of pursuing wisdom.

Of course, if learning that we are ignorant becomes too uncomfortable, we can always decide to become fools. 


Cheryl said...

I have been diligently working on educating myself since 2010. What I find to be most frustrating is that grave important issues are reduced to cartoons leaving out the meat of the issue. Winning is more important than leading. Some voters are too busy to actually find out what is really at stake. Others are selfish thinking as long as they and their family are not affected they don't need to get involved. Some voters think that they are punishing the politician by not voting. Seriously? The ignorance of voters in this country absolutely astounds me. Our system of government a precious gift yet so many treat it with distain. I hated going to the delegate convention in my state, on my birthday no less. It was boring, it was long, and it was poorly run. Pulling out my finger nails would have been less painful. But I hung in there, I know there must be more people who will do the hard thing, the unpleasant thing for the good of those coming behind us. There were people I don't know who paid heavy prices for what I have today. So I continue to endure the drudgery of politics, going to meetings that are endless, walking my neighborhood in the hope I can bring some dignity and voice of reason to my teeny, tiny part of the world. I hope in November I will find out that there are thousands of people like me who have been doing the hard thing, digging in, finding out the real story and then exercising their right to vote in a responsible way that is consistent with the profound gift we have been given of this great Republic of the United States of America.

Clay said...

Thank you for sharing this.

I believe the world of the Internet and social media, while presenting great opportunities for growth and learning, also encourage ignorance.

For my newspaper, I wrote a column in support of Chick-fil-a. A relative said she cannot support a business that donates to a "certified hate group."

I asked her the name of the hate group. I asked her who certified the group as a hate group. Who supports/funds the group that certifies hate groups? What were the reasons? Etc.

Of course, she had no answers. She merely saw on the Internet that Chick-fil-a donated to "certified hate groups" and took no time to do any research on her own.

Ignorance not only continued, but it was promoted and encouraged through the most powerful tool for knowledge technology has offered.

What do we do to fight ignorance? I don't know...

Benjamin Hicks said...

Pastor Dan,
I have a friend in your congregation that regularly sends me links to your thoughts. I am a post-christian secular humanist who attends a Universal Unitarian Church, but I wanted to express that I enjoy reading your blog and the deep thoughts and reflections that are often found here. Your attitude about education and understanding conflict are a real encouragement to me.
(Hopefully)Another "wise" ignoramus,

lee woo said...

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. See the link below for more info.