The Arrogance of Ignorance

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meeta sengupta
Jan 27
The Arrogance of Ignorance
There is the ignorance of those who know, because they have worked hard at knowing the world. Maybe even peeked over the parapet, dizzying as it can be for first timers.

Then, there is the ignorance of those who do not know, because all they wanted to know was their world. It was only their world view that was important, and the rest of ‘them’ would have to fall in line. This is what was demonstrated by the now infamous French journalist who asked the celebrated Nigerian (I will not call her American today) author Chimananda Adichie if there were libraries in Nigeria. The breathtaking audacity of the question only served to highlight the unwillingness of the Frenchman to look beyond his little parapet. A frog in the well indeed.

I would apologise for the pun, but for the fact that it actually illustrates the point I am making. The cliche of a frenchman as a ‘frog’ reminds us that the English too, and so many others have used the arrogance of ignorance for the purpose of ‘othering’ their interlocutors.

There I go again, a newsy reference to Shashi Tharoor’s use of the word ‘interlocutors’ which has a very precise meaning but caused him to be ‘othered’ by the ignorant who were arrogant about their ignorance. It is the purpose of a language, of words to have meanings that convey a precise visual and emotion to the reader. To be ignorant of that is no matter of pride, but has always been the source of arrogance. Because ignorance combined with power begets this arrogance.

The Arrogance of ignorance is a force, a storm that blows often through the history of mankind. A species that prides itself in surviving because it is smarter, sentient and has the ability to progress based on cumulative knowledge, a people that pride themselves on the ability to think, feel, imagine and then respond is now facing a similar storm. It has led to great destruction, witnessed by the library and Alexandria amongst many others. The Dark Ages came upon us led by these storms.

The Arrogance of Ignorance was a fundamental tenet of colonialism too. The ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empire had a long and rich history of Empires that came and went, most of them originating in its own soil. The ‘Akhand Bharat’ idea postulates that all the land between Iran and Australia was India at some point of time in history. The ebb and fall of conquerers and empire builders was part of its history. Then came the Company Bahadur, and that too slowly adapted, like other attackers into the rich and comfortable cultural soil. Mulched, they too would have become a part of that soil. But a Colonising force could not allow that to happen — and thus was fostered wilful Ignorance and this was given the cloak of Arrogance. The denial of all that was good in the ‘native’ was intended to declare the aggressors superior. The ‘burden of the white man’ was born of this intent, to bring the morally affected into the fold of this force. Arrogance of Ignorance was the source of power, and it lasted centuries.

The rise of ‘common sense’ is to welcomed, but not when it comes at the cost of sensibility, and indeed of expertise and erudition. We progress on wisdom and knowledge, and this is not a simple aggregation of ‘common sense’, but a complicated architecture of opposing forces designed for good. Imagine it as a brick building. There is a difference between a single tower of simple bricks laid one upon the other and the grand brick architecture of the Bishnupur temples or the Grand Duomo of Florence. The single brick upon brick structure is also building, common sense tells us. But till the bricks were put together in intelligent juxtaposition of opposing forces, we do not arrive at anything that is either useful or beautiful. The wisdom of opposing forces brings us to greater heights of achievement, even literally.

The Arrogance of Ignorance will continue to ignore truths that are above their current capacities. How much easier is it to be lazy and strong, to not work hard to figure out complex stuff like architecture. Look we have bricks and stones, let us throw them! It is fun and we get to win! Some of us are bewildered, as we find ourselves in the middle of such stone throwing parties. This is not a world that we want to recognise, but if we don’t, we too would be giving in to the Arrogance of Ignorance. We have evidence of the Brexit vote, of the American election and so much more to tell us that the common prevails now, and wields power. Do not underestimate the power of this Arrogance. It is purely rational, self serving and solid. And predatory.

It would serve us well to be prepared for this storm that is heralded by the Arrogance of Ignorance. It has brought dark times in the past. It may do so again. It is ironical that those who refute Darwinianism (thus implicitly dumping the idea of linked up thinking and chains of evidence) also prove to us that it still holds true. For those of us who consider intellectualism and imagination a virtue, heed Darwin’s theory of adaptation in order to survive these times. Historically too, the wise have adopted many guises in times when the arrogance of ignorance held power. Courts have had their jesters and fools, the only ones permitted to speak truth, for who could take a fool for more. If we let the Arrogance of Ignorance prevail, then we should welcome again the Age of the Fool.

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Someone said this was the Dunning Krueger effect. Not quite. That is about stupidity. I am talking about a wilful choice to ignore or work away from getting to know complex things better. The smartest people choose this path to power.