“Ignorance is bliss”. Is it true? Or do we need to examine our belief that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, particularly when it comes to things like racism and inequality?
What is ignorance, really?
It’s easy to say that ignorance is simply ‘not knowing’.
But sociology would argue otherwise. Ignorance is more often the ‘known unknown’. Aware the information exists, we choose to veer away from it.
A simple example is a child who realises if she always asks adults if she can do things, she can be told no. If she does does things without asking, she can claim later she didn’t know she wasn’t allowed. Without realising it, she is practising ‘strategic ignorance’.
And while we like to think, as responsible adults, that ignorance is deviant, shocking, and outside of our reality? It’s actually a pervasive, often accepted part of society, with ‘rational ignorance’ used in things like business interactions.
Research by British social theorist Linsey Mcgoey, titled, the Logic of Strategic Ignorance, looks at how this works in the pharmaceutical world. She shows how, from physicians to manufacturers, profit arises from who can “attest to the least knowledge of the efficacy and safety of different drugs, a finding that raises new insights about the value of ignorance as an organisational resource.”
In her paper, “Advancing a Sociology of Ignorance in the Study of Racism and Racial Non-Knowing”, Jennifer C. Mueller summarises it well:
“Ignorance is socially constructed, negotiated, and pervasive; ignorance is often socially inevitable, even necessary; and, without a doubt, ignorance is socially consequential.”
We can learn wilful ignorance. It might be that our parents taught us to make certain assumptions and not self-educate. Or it could be we were educated to be ignorant. (Until recently, for example, Canadian text books claimed there were only a handful of North American Indians when the settlers arrived, as opposed to a vast civilisation.)
And again, we can gain socially from ignorance. We can use it to get what we want, such as money or power.
But often ignorance is related to our innate need tofeel part of the ‘tribe’, a social phenomenon called ‘pluralistic ignorance’.
What is pluralistic ignorance?
It’s a term used in social psychology when the majority of a group don’t actually agree with or support something, but go along with it anyway, because they incorrectly assume everyone else supports it.
Think of the story ‘the Emperor’s New Clothes”, where everyone assumes everyone else assumes the Emperor is dressed so says nothing. Except in real life the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance is at once more powerful and more dangerous.
Pluralistic ignorance and racism
Pluralistic ignorance is linked to how racial segregation stayed in place as long as it did. Professor of Sociology Hubert J. O’Gorman wrote in the late 1960s about how White Americans overestimated how other Whites supported racial segregation. Even if they personally didn’t agree that segregation was a good thing, they agreed with things like discrimination in housing because they thought everyone else did.
A great excuse to indulge in a lot of politically correct talk, but not educate ourselves or take action.
Ignorance is bliss, or ignorance is expensive?
What about the personal cost or not pushing ourselves to know more?
1. You never know your own potential and power.
To really know what we are capable of we need to accept we do not know everything, and learn to ask good questions of ourselves. This leads to a search for knowledge and knowing that also leads us to realise our own inner resources and power to choose and create change.
2. You damage your self-esteem.
Again, ignorance is often a choice to not know. On a certain level we know we are avoiding something, or making a choice that affects others negatively. And when we know we aren’t doing our best, it affects our identity and self-esteem.
3. You miss opportunity.
Ignorance might be comfortable, but it actually means we are unconsciously shutting doors. We stay stuck with social groups that don’t challenge us, or even hold ourselves back career wise, when higher-ups notice our disinterest in awareness.
5. “Ignorance is bliss” means constant dissociation.
Another reason we can claim ‘ignorance is bliss’? We are avoiding being ‘triggered’. If you had childhood trauma that caused you psychological and emotional pain, you can spend your life trying to avoid information and situations that might ‘trigger’ that pain. But this doesn’t heal the trauma and leaves you in a constant state of dissociation, floating through your life and never hitting your potential.
The real bliss?
Often the first step away from ignorance and towards understanding others and the world around us it to start with understanding ourselves.