On a basic, almost primal level, we all hate ignorance. At the very least, a display of ignorance makes us uncomfortable, like a crawly itchy feeling that we just absolutely have to scratch:
In the more extreme cases, we react to ignorance with rage and loathing, with verbal abuse, and maybe even with violence.
Of course, in politics, the issue is always more complicated. Todd Akin’s remarks – that a woman cannot get pregnant from “legitimate rape” – angered many, but it’s hard to separate anger at his ignorance of biology from anger at his implication that women cannot be trusted when they say they have been raped and from anger on behalf of the thousands of women in America alone who do become pregnant from rape. People are angry at Todd Akin for a whole cocktail of reasons, and it’s not entirely clear how much of a role ignorance really plays in Akin’s remarks when compared with, say, callousness or hatefulness or misogyny.
Similarly, we tend to think of global warming deniers as ignorant, but many prominent global warming deniers are probably more greedy or power-hungry than ignorant – but you also can’t discount the possibility that a person has seen all the same scientific evidence that you have and simply drawn a different conclusion. In this case it could be skepticism – if we’re 98% sure of something, they want to be 99% sure – or it could be stubbornness – they’re unwilling to admit they’ve been wrong, or unwilling to admit that they have to change their lifestyle – or it could be irrationality – they just have a feeling that global warming isn’t real.
The key point is that we like to think that education would change people’s minds about the issues that we consider very important, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes people just have different values or different priorities.
And because ignorance in politics is complicated by all of these other factors – by callousness, greed, ambition, irrationality, bigotry, etc. – it’s hard to conclude that we hate ignorance per se. It seems just as likely that we hate the whole package, but ignorance is really easy to pick on.
Language ignorance, on the other hand, seems like a clearer case. There are none of the stakes of politics – language ignorance isn’t going to cause the seas to rise or drive women to get unsafe, back-alley abortions – and unlike with global warming, it’s hard to imagine what somebody would have to gain by pretending not to know the difference between “affect” and “effect”.
And indeed, the internet – just the English-language part – is filled with people who are clearly very, very angry about other people mixing up words, spelling things wrong, or putting two spaces between sentences rather than one. We all have little linguistic pet peeves. I hate when people say “step foot” instead of “set foot”, for instance, and it irks me when people refer to a blog post as a blog. But why do these things bother us – especially the ones that are completely arbitrary and simply a matter of taste? Why is reading “your welcome” like listening to the sound of nails scraping against a chalkboard when we all know (or should know – or should we?) that English spelling is a mostly arbitrary mess of conventions, accidents, archaisms, and mistakes that just stuck?
The other day I encountered a similar phenomenon in Georgian. The word for “now” is “axla”, but many people pronounce it “exla”. People with college degrees, and jobs, and families, people who grew up in Georgia, people who have been speaking Georgian all their lives, pronounce it “exla”. “Exla” seems especially common in Tbilisi but can be heard anywhere. As a New Yorker I am more than familiar with idiosyncratic regional pronunciations. I found myself in an argument over whether “exla” is correct or not, and a Georgian person told me that she believes that people who say “exla” – these educated, native-Georgian-speaking adults with jobs and families – are ignorant.
Americans certainly judge others as ignorant based on their accents. A foreign accent in America – unless it’s British – is almost certain to mark the speaker as ignorant (almost always unjustly, of course), but many northerners view a southern accent as a mark of ignorance. Many Americans view a strong Brooklyn accent as a mark of ignorance.
And I guess this leads me back to my main question: so what? Leaving aside the question of why we view someone with a different accent as ignorant, we should also ask ourselves why calling someone ignorant sounds like such a condemnation.
Of course, language is an important marker of identity. We associate language features – such as accent – with race, class, nationality, and level of education. We might mark someone with a very strong regional accent as being uneducated or uncultured, on the assumption that an educated and cultured person would reduce or drop their accent, and indeed there are people in the US who take accent reduction classes in order to be perceived as more educated. And of course, it’s important to be perceived as educated, because everybody hates ignorance.
When it comes down to it, everyone is ignorant. Even if you and I have both learned everything we could possibly learn in our time on the planet, there’s simply no way that you could know everything that I know, or that I could know everything that you know.
And that’s great, because if everyone knew exactly what I know, and nothing more, the world would collapse. I don’t know how to fly a plane or perform a heart transplant or build a microchip. I don’t know how to run an electric power plant or a farm or a telephone network. I mostly know about human behavior – politics, economics, linguistics, cognitive science, and enough anthropology and history to try to put everything in context. I don’t really know all that much about operating the modern world, and if I got shipwrecked on a deserted island I wouldn’t be able to build a radio out of coconuts, or even really find food, but I’d leave a really interesting account behind of the survivors’ final days, assuming I could find something to write with.
What studying human organization has taught me, though, is that we benefit from specializing to a certain extent. It can sometimes be frustrating talking to non-linguists about linguistics, but boy am I glad there are doctors and engineers and farmers in the world and I would never criticize people for choosing to spend their time learning things other than what I have chosen to spend my time learning. Our differences make us stronger. We are complementary, and we rely on each other to pick up the slack left by one another’s deficits.
When we react to ignorance, I think we are reacting to difference. I think that we all think that if everyone knew what we knew they’d make the same decisions and come to the same conclusions, and there would be no need for conflict, and all of our problems would be over. I think we inadvertently draw a continuum from the person who can’t spell to the person who doesn’t understand the urgency of saving the environment; from the person who doesn’t pronounce a word the traditional way to the person who doesn’t respect our deepest values and traditions; from the person who posts the article on facebook about a new Zodiac sign to the person who constantly fights for the same self-destructive economic policies that caused our latest recession.
I think we lose perspective because we can correct people who are ignorant about the small things, but we can’t do anything about people who are ignorant about the big things. We can point to hundreds of books and scientific journals that count the gestational age of a fetus starting from the end of the mother’s last menstrual period but we can’t point to a single book that proves beyond all possibility of doubt that God didn’t make the earth 6,000 years ago.
Finally, I think we hate ignorance because we’ve been taught to hate ignorance. Kids put peer pressure on each other – pressure to conform – and it’s painful. I think most of us, at one point or another, ran home and asked why people made fun of us for being different, and I think most of us got told that it was because the other kids were ignorant. They didn’t know about people from our culture, or people who liked what we liked, or people who dressed like we dressed, or whatever. Every time someone victimized us in some way, our parents and our teachers said that it was because our tormentors were ignorant.
I no longer think that’s true, and I also don’t think it’s a good message to give to kids. Ignorance is not an excuse, or a reason, for intolerance, or bullying, or hatred, or any other kind of abuse. A person can be simultaneously ignorant and kind, and a person can simultaneously be knowledgeable and cruel.
Certainly ignorance is not desirable. Ignorance leads to mistakes, and mistakes can sometimes have consequences just as bad as outright cruelty. But ignorance is not something to be hated, or feared. I say this not just as a teacher, but as a learner: ignorance needs to be met with tolerance, patience, and kindness; not with hate, but with love.
This is unusually wishy-washy for me, so I’ll just end with another xkcd comic: