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For some, ignorance is bliss; for others, ignorance is something else


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file-20220208-21-bqsh48.JPG?ixlib=rb-1.1.0&rect=9%2C0%2C6095%2C4078&q=45&auto=format&w=496&fit=clipSupporters cheer on truck drivers in the "freedom convoy" headed for Ottawa from an overpass in Kingston, Ont., on Jan. 28. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

Is ignorance truly bliss? Or is it destructive? What role does it play in our daily lives? What harms can it cause, or leave behind?

These are just some of the questions my colleagues and I are studying in our ongoing research of agnosis.

Agnosis means without, or lacking, knowledge. Agnotology is the study of ignorance, the apathy towards knowledge and the creation of non-knowledge and stupidity.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples to suggest ignorance continues to be a concern in Canada.

Often, victims of ignorance are left unaware, or at least uncertain, about the source of their harms — and sometimes, they’re not even aware they’ve been harmed.

‘Ignoring’ as an activity

People, organizations and governments can all partake in “ignoring” as an activity. When information isn’t sought out — in other words, ignored — it can offer motivation and excuses for the perpetration of even the most harmful actions.

For example, we continue to live through world events that suggest many Canadians are “ignoring” the harm they can cause when they disregard science and public health measures needed to combat COVID-19.

Too often, marginalized and immunocompromised communities face the brunt of these choices. By ignoring science and believing in conspiracies, these communities are placed in harm’s way.

Read more: 5 ways to tackle ignorance about evidence during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King Jr. says “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

And in the current era of “post-truth” politics, there are new and very worrying developments in the generation of false “facts,” ignorance and stupidity.

When we study ignorance and stupidity together, we see how ignorance and stupidity act against a persons own self-interests and how there can be fatal consequences.

Fatal consequences of ignorance

Consider twice-impeached and disgraced former president Donald Trump. His administration’s politics invoked potentially moral dimensions of ignorance, where ignorance in decision-making processes were an indication of choosing stupidity by avoiding responsibility.

Such avoidance of responsibility by the anti-vax and “freedom” rallies that we have seen throughout this pandemic similarly speaks to Trumpist politics, as the ongoing ignorance and denial quietly (or not so quietly) moves us towards further challenges, suffering and loss.

In both cases, public attributions of stupidity are political, and the role of power here points to the challenges of balancing ignorance with, and alongside, an absence of knowledge.

Trucks sit parked with tractors in front of a giant sign that reads 'MANDATE FREEDOM' Trucks and tractors sit parked as a rally against COVID-19 restrictions continues in Ottawa on Feb. 5. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

Ignorance and the absence of knowledge

We know pandemic public health measures work, and complicit ignorance and denial of scientific evidence does not. But, has a failure to embrace critical thinking, or claims to extreme conservative ideologies, provided comfort to people wishing for “bliss” in their lives? Regardless of the cost to and sacrifice of others? Some would say so.

Read more: COVID-19 ‘freedom’ rallies actually undermine liberty – here’s why

In any case, when “freedom” rallies incorporate conspiracies, Nazi symbols and Confederate flags, it is difficult to see how someone’s rally stands for freedom or is backed by knowledge.

If someone’s cause garners support from conspiracists, Nazis and other hate-filled groups, it is probably worth wondering why. But I would guess there is a deeply embedded and dehumanizing ideology at work here.

Studying ignorance highlights how there are certain groups of people who become excluded from the moral and legal protections normally owed to others. It has been a shocking revelation to some, in recent years, that human deception and self-deception have remained as undiminished as they have.

Efforts to spread false “facts,” ignorance and stupidity have never been as easy as it is to spread now.

The potential of our “post-truth” era far exceeds what George Orwell could have ever dreamed of in his time. He presented a predictive and dystopian vision in 1984, but even he couldn’t have envisioned the agnosis we see today.

Our age of agnosis is increasingly coming into contact in ways beyond historical standards and recorded memory. Empathy, not apathy, is needed now more than ever before. My colleagues and I continue to explore agnosis, hoping to save critical thinking from obscurity.

The Conversation

James Gacek does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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