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The Intelligence in Ignorance

Ethan philosophizes on knowledge, ignorance, and ideology.

Christopher Hitchens once remarked that “It’s only when you have gazed on the lower slopes of your own ignorance and begun to understand the great vistas of non-knowledge that you have, that you can claim to have been educated at all”. Recently, I found that one of my favourite authors, Thomas Sowell, said the same thing: “It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance”. After a brief Google search, the sentiment appears to originate from Confucius. While the relationship between the two seems paradoxical, I find it appealing but also disappointingly uncommon.

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Enemy Number One is ideology. While realising one’s ignorance imbues a sense of realism, humility, and perspective, it can also produce discomfort and insecurity. Afterall, one’s knowledge and one’s ignorance hardly exist in equal proportion. Instead, ideology furnishes a one-word answer to all of our problems. A common and recurring ideology blames a single group of people for all that is afflicting a country. Another, one of the most prevalent today, is to assume that all differences between groups are a consequence of discrimination. One need not look at mundane matters which are not someone’s fault: culture (what is most valued?), history, geography (degree of isolation), familial composition (strong or less so), education, average age in a population (is the median person 55 or 25?) or the plethora of other features, including discrimination, which determine outcome. As Sowell argues, modern intellectuals are as attached to this as the eugenicists and “scientific” racists of the early twentieth century who attempted to explain every conceivable difference with reference to genetic quality. Even at the time, there were reams of evidence to the contrary, but when did evidence bother an ideologue?

I cannot think of a single phenomenon that can withstand this kind of simplistic analysis. Rather than grappling with the complexities of the case, these explanations allow one to feel like they know something – nay, that they know everything. Worse still, if all problems are reducible to a single cause, then it is reasonable to tramp the streets toward a single solution (after all, how many placards are large enough for nuance?). Given their power to rally less than thoughtful activists, I have come to prefer the notion that people do not have ideologies – ideologies have them. This particular parasite produces automatons – replications, much like the hatcheries of Huxley’s Brave New World.

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The very fact that someone can suggest “a Marxist would say…”, “a Christian would say…”, or “a Feminist would say…” surely shows that the individual person doing the saying is not present. Rather, there is just an obedient pet, parroting the words of another person or the news publication they happen to read (if I wanted to hear what The Guardian or The Daily Mail thought, I would read them myself). As Jordan Peterson said to his GQ interviewer, they could be replaced with some else who thinks the same way and the discussion would be identical, as if it had been rewound and played again. That is not a trivial matter of being bored or unsurprised – it seems to be a rejection of the fundamental point of dialogue. If the only reason for one’s presence is to present the “picket-sign” views of someone else, then that is not a conversation. If two similarly possessed people get together, it is just a game of ‘Rock-em, Sock-em Robots’ – a zero-sum war, rather than a trading of partial ideas to create something more whole.

Why would one give into this zombified non-existence? Well, the alternate question would be, why go to the effort of reading both Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and Keyne’s The General Theory? Why read Christopher Hitchens’s God is not Great and his brother’s The Rage Against God? If we confine ourselves to the Thomases, why bother with Sowell and Piketty? Few people have the time to investigate point and counterpoint to this extent. Indeed, it is not so much this that I find lacking in contemporary discourse. Rather, it is the ability to expound upon a subject with profound certainty without having engaged any of the literature or data in a serious way, whether the topic be the average variations in earnings between men and women or the good and evil in a country’s history.

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That is the opiate of ideology. To recognise that the matter is not caused by a single factor would be to accept the uncomfortable extent of one’s own ignorance. Ironically, by not realising this, the great vistas of one’s non-knowledge are made all too clear to everyone else. Perhaps, if I can quote him without appearing pretentious, David Hume said it best: “Where men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken, and have there given reins to passion, without that proper deliberation and suspense, which can alone secure them from the grossest absurdities”.

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