Ignorance and Pride

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Few attitudes are as grating as ignorance, proudly stated.  Given the sheer amount of information available in the world, one always has areas of ignorance and one needn’t be ashamed of them if they fall outside one’s areas of interest, but actively stating your lack of knowledge as though it were an asset is never a positive attitude.

This is most obvious when the area of ignorance is of generally recognized quality and importance.  I know a guy who knows nothing about the Beatles.  He doesn’t just know very little about them–he knows far less than a normal human being would pick up through cultural osmosis, an amount that could only be sustained by actively avoiding learning anything about them.  If you tell him “eight days a week,” he’ll question your counting skills.  I know this from experience.  Aside from mild annoyance to others, his attitude is only harming himself, simultaneously denying himself the enjoyment of a lot of great music and impairing his ability to connect with others through cultural understanding, while gaining nothing but a feeling of being “above it all.”

Yet the sentiment doesn’t become a positive one when the area of ignorance is less valuable.  However little merit I might ascribe to Sex and the City, boasting that I can’t name its main characters won’t make me look good.  The reasons here are more subtle.  First, there’s the simple matter of audience.  If I’m bragging to friends who also dislike Sex and the City, then it’s a pissing contest of “I know less about it than you!”.  If I’m bragging to fans about how little I know about something they like, then I’m being a jerk.

Another minor reason is that this can become an pretext to change the subject.  Fans of STFU, Parents will recognize the MommyJacking phenomenon: “Did you like Avatar?”  “Haven’t seen it!  I never get to see movies anymore because I have a baby!”  More power to you, but we were talking about Avatar.  This goes from obnoxious to completely dickish when, as often happens, it comes with an implication of the superiority of one’s life choices over others’: “Having a baby is the most rewarding job ever!  I don’t even miss seeing movies, because I know I’m helping raise the next generation!”  (Needless to say, this isn’t limited to parents.  Anyone who suggests that they missed the thing you’re talking about because they were doing something much more important should can it.)

There’s also the conundrum: If I don’t know anything about it, how do I know it’s so bad?  Maybe it’s better than it sounds.  I have every right to decide that something falls outside of my interests based on as much or little information as I like, but I can’t actually condemn it unless I know something about it.  Doing so is a great way to look like a grade-A ignoramus; the “Life is Beautiful makes light of the Holocaust” contingent are a case in point.  By refusing to learn about a topic, I’m forfeiting my right to evaluate it.

But these points are primarily conversational.  Simple courtesy states that you shouldn’t reflexively disparage something another person likes, however little you like it.  Yet the attitude isn’t limited to conversation.  Being proud of your ignorance is wrong, even if you don’t broadcast it.  Jordan figured out why.  To be proud of your ignorance about a topic (outside of conversation), you must be thinking about it.  A topic in which you were truly uninterested simply wouldn’t occur to you very often.  If you’re thinking about it, it doesn’t really fall outside your realm of interests, and you may as well expose yourself to it so that you can dislike it with justification.

To reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with disliking something and deciding you aren’t interested in learning about it.  Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions, and to base them on as much or little data as he or she likes.  However, while deciding that you don’t care about a topic may be reasonable, actively taking pride in your lack of knowledge about it is not.  Knowledge is a virtue and, regardless of the topic, ignorance should not be reveled in.


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