Embracing Ignorance

Statue of William Shakespeare captioned "The Only Darkness is Ignorance"


Something has been bothering me about the way we use that word.

Let’s turn to my preferred dictionary, Merriam Webster, to see its definition:

a : destitute of knowledge or education, an ignorant society; also : lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified, parents ignorant of modern mathematics
b : resulting from or showing lack of knowledge or intelligence, ignorant errors

: unaware, uninformed

Well, huh! I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t expecting to get to the point that quickly.

Let me back up for a second: definition 2 is just about what I expected. It’s nice and neutral, don’t you think? Unaware, uninformed — simply not aware, not informed. It’s a pretty evenhanded definition. I thought that might rank first. Maybe that was naive. Maybe that thought, in itself, was ignorant.

Definition 1, though, take a look at that. Destitute. That sounds pretty dramatic. And those examples!

An ignorant society. Uh oh, that doesn’t sound like something we want.

Parents ignorant of modern mathematics? Yikes! That sounds pretty judgmental to me. I’m gonna be honest, not that I’m a parent or anything, but when I think of skills necessary for good parenting, mathematics doesn’t rank especially high on that list — budgeting, maybe, but not calculus. This example seems to want me to change my mind. How will they raise their children? How can they support a young mind through the modern education system if they can’t rattle off the Fibonacci sequence or explain a Gaussian function with a quick sketch on a napkin? Irresponsible boors!

Okay, yeah, I’m being facetious. Seriously, though, let’s give this a hard look. Is that negative stigma really there? Let’s take a look at the same dictionary’s definition for destitute:

lacking something needed or desirable, a lake destitute of fish

lacking possessions and resources; especially : suffering extreme poverty, a destitute old man

Lacking resources; in this case, knowledge or education. That’s not so different from unaware or uninformed.

Lacking something needed or desirable — that’s a little closer. Well, knowledge and education are certainly desirable, right? And depending on the specific type of knowledge and the specific situation, they are often needed, too. I have no problem with that implication.

But let’s go a little deeper than the dictionary definition. There’s a subtext here, isn’t there?

We’re supposed to feel bad for somebody who’s destitute. Depending on how charitable your attitude is, you’re either supposed to pity them or judge them for not working hard enough to get out of their situation.

Either way, it’s a bad thing to be. Nobody wants to be destitute.

Ignorant, too, is a bad thing to be.

I want to challenge that.

Here’s why:

I believe that we’ve elided ignorance with ill intent. In its purest form, to be ignorant is simply not to know something.

There are many things I am ignorant of. I’m ignorant of the Croatian language. I’m ignorant of the Latin names of trees. I remember the term basal ganglia from high school, but I’m ignorant of what the hell they are or what they do. I’m ignorant of the discography of The Lumineers and I’m even more ignorant of why anyone thinks they’re a good band.

These aren’t bad things about me. Believe me, I can self-doubt and self-flagellate like a goddamn champ, but these types of ignorance don’t say anything bad about me.

Unless you’re a militant fan of The Lumineers, I guess.

Here’s the thing, though. I don’t hate The Lumineers. Okay, I kind of hate their music. I’ll probably roll my eyes or switch the station when their music comes on, sure. But I don’t hate them as people. I mean, if I met The Lumineers, I wouldn’t be like, “Ugh, you people,” and spit in their faces and step on their feet. It would probably be more like, “Uh, hey, The Lumineers, it’s, um, it’s nice to meet you. Remember that time I said that I hate your music on my blog? Hahaha, um, anyway, soooooo…. what’s your favorite… board game.”

And The Lumineers would say, “Who are you?”

But we would all play Parcheesi and everything would be okay. Awkward, but ultimately okay.

Uh… whoops. That took a weird turn and veered a little closer to The Lumineers fanfiction than I’m comfortable with.

Back to the point.

The point is that this kind of ignorance — the simple lack of information or knowledge — is very rarely what is meant when I see the word ignorant used these days.

Ignorant carries moral baggage. An ignorant person is a mean-spirited jerk, someone who tries to revoke someone else’s civil rights, someone who says this is America so you’d better speak goddamn English.

That person isn’t ignorant. That person knows exactly what they are doing. That person is hateful.

Now, I’m not a linguistic prescriptivist. Language changes all the time. Words change as the people who use them change. I think that’s awesome. Far be it from me to become a demagogue with a dictionary.

But it worries me, this one.

If we make ignorance synonymous with hatred, we’re doing two dangerous things at once.

The first problem is the implication that just because someone is unaware or uninformed that means they’re a bad person.

Let’s say some father has just had his son come out to him as gay. Maybe this dad doesn’t know many people who are gay, or queer, and he’s not sure which one of those is an insult anymore, and he loves his son but he’s also afraid of what this means for him in a world that’s often hostile to gay people, and he doesn’t know how to say both of those things at the same time. He doesn’t know which words are okay, or if these words his son is using still mean the same thing they did when he was that age (they don’t), or maybe instead of “gay” his son has come out as “pansexual” or “genderfluid” or “ace/aro” and he has no idea what the hell any of that means.

This man is ignorant of LGBTQIA issues. That doesn’t make him a bad person or a bigot. It doesn’t mean that he loves his son any less. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t want to understand and support his son.

Now, if he was ignorant of LGBTQIA issues because he hates queer people, that would be different. That’s a choice. The problem here still isn’t his lack of knowledge or information, it’s his attitude.

But when someone tries to ban queer people from their business or deny them marriage licenses, someone’s still going to say “that’s just ignorant.” And maybe when the uninformed but loving father hears that, some part of him thinks people think I’m like that. That’s not fair. That doesn’t make the distinction between knowledge and attitude.

Note that I’m not saying a good-hearted person can be turned to hatred and prejudice just because other people say that they’re ignorant. If someone calling you racist makes you behave in a racist way, here’s a clue, it wasn’t the label that made you racist.

But what about someone who has a kind attitude, someone who is willing to listen and learn, but isn’t informed? What happens when the word you use to say that person needs information is the same word you use to say that person is intolerant?

I’m dancing around this a little, but I’ll just say it: the implication that ignorance is the same thing as hatred is classist. You don’t need an education or a degree to have empathy for other people. In a country where education is not open and accessible to everybody, where there are still huge gaps in the kind of education someone can get based on their race or where they live or how much money their parents may, that’s as good as saying that being poor makes you a bad person.

Which brings us to the other side of that coin.

The second danger of eliding ignorance with hatred is the scapegoat that it gives to those who are well-informed enough to know better, but choose to hurt others anyway.

I’ve seen a lot of little, seemingly innocuous jokes along these lines over the last year of fighting medical care cuts and plutocratic tax bills. These jokes seem to come at the expense of grossly wealthy buffoons who just don’t understand what anything costs because they’re so disgustingly moneyed that they don’t have to worry about it. Maybe these jokes stem from ignorant statements real politicians have made, like the comparison of the cost of an iPhone to medical care bills.


Sure, these jokes are funny. But they open an insidious door, and dishonest politicians are shrewd enough to jam their foot in that door.

Let’s follow that implication to its logical conclusion. Let’s say these folks really don’t know what anything costs, those lovable goons. Silly Paul Ryan! The poor ol’ guy just doesn’t know how to balance the national checkbook, who can blame him if he misses a decimal point and oh whoops there goes health care for nine million children. Oh, well! Everybody makes mistakes, right?

We tend to cut people more slack for making harmful choices if we believe that they don’t realize what they’re doing. This narrative is a lot more useful to these politicians than the truth, which is that they of course realize that they are screwing people over.

Sure, maybe they’re ignorant of certain information such as the cost of the average worker’s monthly health insurance premium (which they absolutely should know), but more to the point? They don’t care. They don’t want to learn this information because it doesn’t matter to them. Nothing personal! It’s just business!

Either they’re intentionally hurting others or they don’t care that they are, and at some point there ceases to be any difference.

The point is that, whether it’s selfish politicians in Washington or people on the street committing hate crimes, these people are not ignorant. They are self-interested and they will hurt as many other people as they need to to get what they want. (And what they want is as much as they can get.)

Don’t give these people the excuse of claiming ignorance. They know exactly what they are doing.

It doesn’t take any kind of knowledge or education to be kind to other people. You can be stupid as a brick and still be kind. Give me a kind brick over a genius prick any day of the week. It’s a hell of a lot harder to teach a prick to be kinder.

And in case you think this is all a political screed, I see this come up in really innocuous ways, too.

Think about the way we talk about pop culture. If you tell someone you haven’t seen a certain movie or played a classic game — that you’re ignorant of it — more often then not they’ll react with incredulity, judge you, maybe even shame you. To that I say: come on, man! You have the opportunity to share something you love but your first impulse is to make them feel bad about it? Way to go, asshole! Do you think they’re going to want to watch that movie now?

To be clear, I’m not claiming some position of moral superiority. I’ve done this, too. But it’s not a great way to talk to someone else, and it’s definitely not a good way to bring them around to liking that thing you like.

We’re all ignorant of something. So stop making it into a bad thing. View ignorance not as a moral failing, but as an opportunity.

Without ignorance, there can be no curiosity.

Imagine knowing everything in the world, everything there is to know. You’re completely un-ignorant.

How boring is that!

Take all my knowledge, instead, and let me keep my curiosity. It will be harder, sure. I’ll make mistakes. But it will be so much more interesting, so much richer. I’ll have the opportunity to learn and explore, and I wouldn’t give that up for all the knowledge in the universe.

To be ignorant is an amazing opportunity.

To be ignorant is to be human.

So, come on. Let’s take back ignorance and make it into something better. Open minds and open hearts.

Share something that you’re ignorant about right now that you want to change. It could be a big thing or something small.

I’ll start: I’m ignorant of gardening. I’m ignorant of how my credit score is determined. I’m ignorant of how the prison system works.

I have a chance to broaden my world by learning about these things.

What are yours?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *