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A response to ignorance

Written by Jesse Wilkinson

Smart’s the new sexy.

It has to be since this growing sense of ignorance is just so damn ugly.

Scratch that – it’s not even a sense.  Saying we have a sense of ignorance today is like saying there is a sense of danger when you stumble upon a few bear cubs in the woods.  It’s beyond a sense – it’s a goddam high alert of ignorance.  And what is the most troubling part of this epidemic, is that there seems to be a pride in it.   To carry my analogy further (in rather needless fashion), it’s like being proud of keeping your food out at campsites in the hopes that danger finds you.

Well, danger has found us, and as the saying goes: ‘sometimes you eat the bear…and sometimes, the bear, well, it eats you’  Well those people who have been so proud to relish  in this absurd sense of ignorance are going to get us all eaten.  Ok, I’m done the with bear metaphor now, but you get my point.

I’m going to skip over all the common ignorance we encounter each day (the glaring/laughing at people with mental illness, the misogynistic remarks, and the glaring stereotypes) and get straight to the good stuff.

Like this:

The MP for Grey/Bruce/Owen Sound said recently that if Niqab-wearing muslims didn’t want to abide by Canadian customs, “they can just go back to where the hell they came from”.  Journalists across Ontario were just salivating over this sound bite and it made headlines.  Rightly so. Many argued that it was taken out of context because of the point Miller had been trying to make leading up to it.  But what is the larger context here?  How far does this reach?  Surely, we can elevate this discussion to include the Canadian identity, Islamaphobia, and cultural relativism.  But why stop there?  Why not open this discussion to what I feel should be the real underlying issues: ignorance and empathy.

Ignorance is an active state.  The word is a nominalization of ‘ignore’ which is a transitive verb, meaning it must take on an object.  Therefore, it requires agency.  In short, ignorance requires the act of  consciously ‘ignoring’ something. It is not a passive condition.

In today’s digital environment, it is both difficult and easy to ignore something; everything is at our fingertips.  We can easily find opposing views to our opinions, and you would think that people would want to do this, in order to strengthen their own views.  I mean, if you are against religion and have not read the Bible, the Koran, or any other religious texts, you are hardly taken seriously as an anti-theist or an atheist.  Alternately, if you believe in a religion and have not read the new Atheists like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris or Dennet or books like The God Argument: A Case Against Religion, your belief is one-dimensional.  Furthermore, If you believe that terrorism is the number one deadliest threat to North Americans, and you haven’t researched at the statistics, you cannot be taken seriously either.  But the Internet is a double-edged sword – while it is very easy to find the opposing views to our own beliefs, it is even easier to find information that just agrees with our point-of-view regardless of the source or factual basis.

And herein lies the real epidemic of ignorance – the inability to say “I don’t know….let me look into it”  before forcing our opinion on the rest of society.  Why can’t we admit that we don’t really have a good grasp of an issue or that we haven’t spent time looking into it? (and by this I mean reading, although there are many good interviews, talks and Youtube videos that apply here, as well)

Why must we constantly be arguing belligerently for one side without having read, to some extent, the opposing side?  Sure, it takes time to do some reading/listening, but this is the only way to really be sure of our beliefs or our stance.  If we haven’t seriously considered the other side of the issue before asserting our views, we are fooling ourselves and wasting everyone’s time.  This is when it is better to just keep our views to ourselves and let those who have researched both sides weigh in.  This is when we should be silent and listen in order to gain some insight.

Many will say they don’t have the time to look into the opposing side, but there is always some time that can be spent.  There are almost 170 hours in a week – maybe we need to take one or two and use it for this purpose instead of watching the next episode of whatever reality show is being talked about at work (could I give up my hour of Mad Men or Game of Thrones every week?  I’m feeling panicked just thinking about it!)

People need to challenge their own views.  Do we just want entertainment over substance?  We need entertainment sometimes but what kind of society does it leave us with to choose entertainment constantly?  An ignorant one; it might be a happy one, but happy for who?  Certainly not happy for the targets of ignorant comments.  Certainly not happy for people who suffer from these ignorant arenas we create in society.

It might make someone happy to believe that marriage is just for a man and a woman and that homosexuality is condemned by their god. This viewpoint is neat and simple and might make sense to this person, but their view results in millions of gay people suffering and feeling ashamed.  It takes empathy to put ourselves in the place of the marginalized group suffering from ignorant stances.  Howard Zinn was fantastic for approaching history from this very standpoint – the standpoint of the ignored, the marginalized.  His ‘People’s History of the United States’ is a book that could be subtitled ‘the ignorance buster’ or ‘a guide to empathy.’ His work, among many others, makes it clear that there is a void in society that empathy could fill.

When people like Mr Miller make comments like he did, it not only echoes this lack of empathy in society, it involves a level of ignorance on many levels.  He is ignoring the fact that most immigrants want to be a productive part of Canadian culture, but don’t necessarily want to leave behind their sacred traditions. I would ask him if he’s read any of their cultural or religious texts in this case or if he has sat down and spoken at length with any new immigrants. He is also ignoring the fact that these immigrants are extremely important to Canada’s economic future.  I would ask if he’s read any of the recent research on the positive impact of immigrants on the Canadian economy, or books like ‘The Next 100 Years’ by George Friedman, who outlines the crucial role immigrants will play in our future economy. To further this point, Chris Sorensen of Macleans magazine recently outlined Canada’s upcoming employment crisis by arguing that a “skills mismatch” will require employers to “look at new immigrants to fill…jobs”. (Future of Jobs in Canada)

Is it wrong of me to expect an elected official to be well read on the issues he/she participates in?  Where are we headed as a country if we do not start demanding this?  I have no problem with someone having a different opinion than I do, as long as they haven’t ignored the opposing view.

Instead of alienating new immigrants by demanding they shed their religious and cultural remnants of the home they left, we should be embracing the diversity.  Diversity is a good thing – a thing Canada has celebrated since its inception in 1867.  Employment and Social Development Canada states Canada has over 200 different ethnic origins and that “this diversity continues to be a prominent feature of Canada. Immigration is the most important component of Canada’s population growth, and changes in the origins of new immigrants suggest that Canada will continue to be a diverse country” (Economic and Social Development Canada).  But this diversity cannot pick and choose which cultures it wants and which it doesn’t.  That is not progress.

This is where we must return to empathy.  All of our families at one point came to this country as immigrants – scared, curious, ambitious, often poor – and were given a chance to contribute to the prosperity of this country.  It seemed to work out pretty well.  Why don’t we feel empathy for these immigrants coming to Canada now?  They are in the same position as our ancestors (old or recent) and, therefore, we should relate to their struggle, and if we don’t agree with their request for cultural allowance in certain ceremonies, then fair enough, but do we have to take an aggressive, arrogant, ignorant stance and posit boldly that ‘they should go back to where the hell they came from’?  Not if we want a strong and healthy economy.

And it’s not to say that ignorance is not bliss.  It sure does seem to make people happier.   For example, you don’t need to look much further than pop culture to see a shining example of this.  One of the most ignorant people alive today is Phil Robertson from the show Duck Dynasty.  His ignorance shines brighter than most, and what is his favourite catchphrase?  “Happy, happy, happy!”.  He sure is one stupid, happy, son-of-a-bitch.

And there have been studies linking higher levels of intellect to increased amounts of worrying and anxiety (The Telegraph).  The way I interpret these findings is that the more we understand how things work in the world, the more we worry.  This may be due to an awareness of fragility.  When you learn more about how the world really functions – scientifically, politically, economically – you begin to understand how fragile and interdependent all the variables are and it can be scary.

But it takes education and awareness and intellect to change the way the world works, as well, in order to make it better so that it doesn’t cause so much damn anxiety to those who venture to understand it better.

It is always easier to slide back into an ignorant state where we assume the world works in one way and just ignore anything that might suggest otherwise.  This is why it’s so easy for things like misogyny and racism to continue – based on past practices, it is easy to continue thinking that one sex should be dominant over another or one race is superior over another.  It takes education and empathy to move beyond those outdated notions.

Education is very easy to attain these days, if we want it.  It has never been easier in the history of civilization to educate oneself on nearly anything.  But it is difficult to choose an intellectual debate on the Internet over the latest trending idiot doing something stupid.  It is easier to maintain a view using the Internet than have it challenged.  While there are endless hours of intellectually stimulating video on the Internet that can increase the amount of empathy in the world, there are just as much, if not more, distractions.  Distractions are useful, and fun and can give our minds a break, but they should not be relied upon daily for hours on end.  They do not increase our empathy for each other.

We learn empathy by understanding the pain someone is going through.  It can be argued, and has been argued, that empathy is the key to all human progress.  Empathy only began as an extended feeling to  family or tribe and slowly expanded to a community then to a region then to a country, and hopefully one day, to the rest of the world.  Throughout time, it has only been when we have understood how our actions, policies, laws and cultural practices negatively affect another group besides our own, that we come to change things that need changing.  Many terrible things have ended because some people had a strong sense of empathy and appealed to the empathy of the masses to make change.

Will racism end if people don’t internalize the impact it has on a marginalized group?  Is it naive to think this could happen?  Well, comments from MP Larry Miller don’t make me overly optimistic, but at least it offers a place to start.  “If racism can’t be shown to be natural, then it is the result of certain conditions, and we are impelled to eliminate those conditions” (Howard Zinn).  But how do we eliminate ‘those conditions’?  Well, one place to start is by admitting that its wrong for a bunch of middle-aged, white men to have a public conversation about a culture they don’t seem to have much insight into and make strong, bold statements that hint of little forgiveness for the consequences their words will have on other human beings.

All I’m asking is that when conversations like this take place, anyone ignorant of the issue at hand should just begin their comments with “I don’t really know much about this culture”  or “I haven’t really done much reading or research on this matter”.

At least this way, we know that whatever follows can be taken for what it is – ignorance, and just hope that the person saying it isn’t an elected member of parliament.  But I guess it’s too late for that.  There have been too many ignorant comments made by public figures recently to avoid this high sense of danger we are currently in.  Yes, the bear is upon us (remember that bear analogy from the beginning that I said I was done with?  Well, I lied).

But you know what they say about bears – you don’t have the outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other guy.  (I will take the high road here and refrain from a joke). Let’s all hope that those of us with education and empathy can outrun the ignorant ones who lead us into this danger in the first place.  So lace up those shoes if you’re feeling empathetic, and prepare to run!

 

 

About the author

Jesse Wilkinson

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