Columns / Discourse / October 16, 2008

Acknowledging ignorance

I don’t know. I do not have enough information to understand, and that is okay.

As I was writing my follow-up to last week’s column on how to end discrimination, it was turning into oversimplification. Ironically, similar generalizations are the root of the stereotypes employed as justification for discrimination. Noting this, I have tried to focus on one step towards ending discrimination: admitting our ignorance.

In our society, there is intense pressure to appear intelligent. Perhaps it stems from a desire to feel powerful. Knowledge is power, right? But what is knowledge? Do “rough guesses” count? Maybe. We do live in a culture where often the student who raises her hand first gets called on, and praised, while a student who takes more time with her answer is rarely acknowledged. The quickest answer, not the most considered answer, is the most appreciated. Does it follow that the one who makes the most assumptions is the most powerful?

What if this urge to know and understand leads to assumptions about people both as individuals and groups?

I reflect on my time in Argentina studying abroad, how I tacitly competed with my peers to “figure out” Argentines. This drive makes sense to me now: in a different cultural context, where my purpose was more ambiguous than at Knox, I was considerably less poised to control my life than in other positions. I felt weak, and as a result, drawing some “conclusions” on Argentines gave me some insight or security. Over time, however, I realized how superficial this “insight” was, and that my experience was actually richer when I could revel in the uncertainty and lack of understanding, rather than try to force some system of control on the world around me. I would like to see this shift adapted more broadly in our culture. Often we don’t know, and that is okay.

But generalizations persist, partly because they are comfortable; with them, one can write people off, and feel like he knows “how the world works”.

Defense mechanisms and justifications for unfortunate situations can come in the form of rationalizations based on stereotypes. A male (or female) might feel confused or guilty about a sexual act, but push away these feelings with “It’s okay, women want it, even if they say they don’t”. A person categorized as white who loses a race to a person categorized as black, might assuage herself with “oh well, blacks are more athletic anyway”. This takes responsibility away from the speaker, and agency away from the subject.

Generalizations where large groups are treated as a homogeneous manifestation of a stereotype are dangerous. While it may make for conveniently “clear-cut” public policy, or “bold” claims in a written assignment, the false insinuation that Muslims are inherently violent and US-hating is not only offensive, but can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, creating policies which actually encourage violence and anti-US sentiment.

Let’s imagine an alternative. What if instead, you encounter an individual, do your best to stop the flood of expectations about whatever group you assume this individual is part of, and tell yourself: I do not have enough information to understand this person, and that is okay. Instead, I’ll try to learn about him or her on this person’s own terms?

What if when policy makers face decisions, instead of just filling in vital blanks with assumptions and hunches about how the French, Muslims, or some politician due to the fact that he is a French Muslim, will respond, they admit where they lack concrete information?

I don’t claim there are no common characteristics within groups, merely that on an individual level, at least in a completely safe situation like a classroom or the Caf, there is no reason for you to jump to conclusions. In the big picture, common characteristics should be taken into account only if there is concrete data supporting them (which itself must be intensely scrutinized to ensure that its collection and/or presentation was not founded on stereotypes).

We should acknowledge our desire to feel powerful by “understanding” someone right away through snap judgments, or smart for coming up with quick snappy statements about what should be done about group X, and let it go. Often this means examining long held beliefs and altering or casting them to the side.

When appropriate, we must accept that we are mistaken and/or ignorant and proceed to learn from there.

My claims are still oversimplified. I have not discussed, for example, privilege (white, male, etc.). Nor have I noted that mitigating said generalizations is complicated by the fact that, as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in his book Blink, they come in two forms, the conscious and the unconscious or implicit (Gladwell’s treatment of this issue is excellent and I recommend you read it). I never can nor will say all that needs to be said. Due to the communal nature of these issues, me saying it alone would not accomplish much anyway. Thus, if I fail to address an issue of importance, please write in and elaborate on it yourself.

Next week, I will address the integral next steps in the cycle of combating discrimination; ignorance acknowledged, we must educate ourselves with compassion and work as a community to find means for healing.

Joey Firman


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