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"Knowingness" and the Politics of Ignorance
Much ink has been spilled about "polarization." Most of it ignores a major cause: the widespread, misplaced faith that we already know that which we do not know.
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Samuel Johnson, one of the most distinguished writers in English history, once wrote that “Ignorance, when voluntary, is criminal, and a man may be properly charged with that evil which he neglected or refused to learn how to prevent.”
Intellectual exploration is a uniquely human gift, producing the most extraordinary pleasure for those who engage in it. As modern humans, we have access to more knowledge than anyone, ever. Even the poorest, most uneducated person has more quality information available to them today—in public libraries and on the internet—than the richest scholar with packed mahogany bookshelves from bygone eras.
And yet, paradoxically, deliberate ignorance has become one of the biggest threats to our fragile democracies. In the past, we needed to worry about uninformed voters, those who didn’t know much about politics. These days, we need to worry about the much more dangerous misinformed voters who are often wrong, never uncertain.
But uncertainty is a crucial feature of our world, one to be accepted, even embraced, because the world is a delightfully complex and surprising place, and it’s our human duty, every day, to discover a new slice of it.
Knowingness vs. Polarization
Certain tropes and buzzwords get arbitrarily entrenched in our public discourse. They become amorphous blobs, meaning a million things to a million people. One of those buzzwords that we hear constantly but that we rarely pause to consider is polarization.
We all have a vague sense of what it means: that we live in societies that are splintering, broken apart by divergent values, intensified by hateful rhetoric toward “the other side,” the tribal Granfalloon politics we warn others about, even when we engage in them ourselves.
Then, every so often, someone comes along and says “Wait a minute, let’s look a little closer at this amorphous blob and try to whip it into a coherent shape.” For me, that someone was Jonathan Malesic, a writer who recently wrote an essay for Aeon on the perils of knowingness, and how it may be more of a threat than polarization.
Knowingness is a term coined by another Jonathan, the philosopher Jonathan Lear. It’s defined by a relationship to knowledge in which we always believe that we already know the answer—even before the question is asked. It’s a lack of intellectual curiosity, in which the purpose of knowledge is to reaffirm prior beliefs rather than to be a journey of discovery and awe. As Malesic puts it:
In 21st-century culture, knowingness is rampant. You see it in the conspiracy theorist who dismisses contrary evidence as a ‘false flag’ and in the podcaster for whom ‘late capitalism’ explains all social woes. It’s the ideologue who knows the media has a liberal bias – or, alternatively, a corporate one. It’s the above-it-all political centrist, confident that the truth is necessarily found between the extremes of ‘both sides’. It’s the former US president Donald Trump, who claimed, over and over, that ‘everybody knows’ things that were, in fact, unknown, unproven or untrue.
This provides a challenge to the conventional wisdom that polarization is the root of our democratic ills. Yes, polarization, specifically asymmetric polarization, is certainly a real, dangerous phenomenon. But there are actually many disagreements that aren’t about divergent policy goals, but rather about the impenetrability of people’s minds. No matter the volume of ironclad empirical evidence presented, they think they already know. But you can’t solve problems if fresh facts never sway your viewpoint. In that way, knowingness is a poison to democracy—one that too many among us have ingested.
A case study in knowingness
Understanding knowingness is crucial, because the antidote to it is different from the antidote to misinformation. If someone is only misinformed, you just need to provide them with correct facts and they can become rightly informed. But misinformation persists precisely because knowingness shields a person from learning.
If you want to be steeped in the most toxic forms of knowingness, log onto Twitter. On social media, few are trying to discover ideas. Instead, it’s more often a form of intellectual jousting (something that alas, I, too, am guilty of engaging in from time to time). Recently, on Elon’s Hellscape, I experienced an instructive lesson in how knowingness directly causes democratic dysfunction, with real-world consequences.
This week, I responded to yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States by re-posting my “It’s the Guns” article, in which I systematically debunk all the major lies that pro-gun advocates parrot, with actual data and empirical evidence, drawing comparisons between where I live now (the UK) and where I’m from (the US).
I wrote that article precisely because I kept getting the same factually wrong arguments thrown at me whenever I wrote about guns. But when I posted a link to article—the article debunking common false claims—my replies were comically predictable. Hordes of pro-gun advocates responded with the exact same false claims! I couldn’t get them to just click on the link, where I had helpfully laid out all the data.
One reply took the cake. Mark Pukita, a pro-gun, former Republican candidate for US Senate in Ohio, responded to my UK/US gun comparisons like this:
This was particularly remarkable, because I did cover stabbings in the article he was responding to—with a fair bit of detail and data. With a sigh, I clicked reply and wrote this:
These are readily available pieces of knowledge, one Google search away. And yet, when I provided the information for him, Pukita doubled-down, pointing out, with the glee of knowingness, that the chart showed old data from 2017. Gotcha!
That was true, but a Google search would have confirmed that the data points were basically unchanged, which is why I used the chart. (In the most recent available data, of the 50 major cities with the highest homicide rates in the world, seven are in the US; zero are in the UK; and London remains safer than every major American city).
Now, the simple way of perceiving this exchange is that Pukita didn’t know what he was talking about. But there’s something deeper going on, a dysfunctional aspect of modern culture. And understanding that phenomenon is crucial to combating misinformed voters who are certain that they know Their Truth™, but never consider that they might not know the truth.
Pukita, like so many afflicted with knowingness, didn’t want to know, which made my attempt futile.
When evidence doesn’t matter
I suspect that if I sat down for a beer with Pukita, there’s a lot we’d agree on. Most importantly, we would agree that it’s essential to reduce the number of innocent people who get murdered in America. That’s not really polarization in its pure sense; we have the same goal and just disagree about the best path to reach it. That makes our disagreement an empirical one, and when hoping to resolve empirical debates, knowingness is a fatal condition.
There are a finite number of ways to achieve any shared goal. Some are better than others. Precisely one solution, by definition, will be the optimal one, though we may never know which policy that is.
With the gun debate, there’s no doubt: the political left and right disagree about what to do. But we don’t have to blindly guess: that’s what evidence is for, to help us make better choices and to avoid catastrophe. When evidence becomes meaningless, as it does in the intellectually incurious vortex of knowingness, well, then we’re screwed.
There are two distinct subsets of knowingness in modern society.
Type 1: People who think they know but they don’t; and
Type 2: People who don’t want to know.
Often, unfortunately, they overlap, with the person moving from Type 1 to Type 2 when inconvenient facts clash with their incorrect certainty. This case study was a classic example of moving from one form to the next, making it the most persistent and dangerous form of knowingness there is. Type 1 Knowingness can be cured. When someone also has Type 2, it’s much more stubborn.
Knowingness is why the culture wars are so boring
In the early 1900s, an obscure New England bishop wrote that too many people “think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” (The quote is often misattributed to the philosopher William James).
Good writing is so often about rearranging ideas so that they produce a genuinely new way of seeing the world, not just a shuffling of prejudice. And in that way, Malesic’s essay produced a brilliant observation that clarified why I hate culture wars so much:
Knowingness is why present-day culture wars are so boring. No one is trying to find out anything. There is no common agreement about the facts, and yet everyone acts as if all matters of fact are already settled.
He’s right: how many times have you witnessed a culture wars debate where someone changes their mind, or acknowledges a point of view they hadn’t previously considered? It’s the exact opposite to the joy of acquiring new knowledge. Instead, it’s the misery of ill-informed certainty.
This is particularly acute in the United States, which has a long history of anti-intellectualism. When Barack Obama was running for president, there were countless articles asking whether Obama was “too smart” to be president, and suggesting that his intellectual persona could kill off his chances of victory.
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Richard Hofstadter, an eminent historian who, in the 1960s wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life, defined anti-intellectualism as “resentment of the life of the mind, and those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to constantly minimize the value of that life.” But intellectualism in Hofstadter’s definition isn’t about being intelligent; it’s an approach to knowledge that treats intellectual pursuits as a constant opportunity for discovery. Self-assurance and certainty are rivals to true intellectualism.
Socrates and the recognition of knowingness
It feels good to be right, to prove others wrong, to win the combative joust that defines most of our national politics these days. But it feels even better to learn. I’ve experienced a transformation in my own research—and my life more generally—when I finally began to seriously grapple with my own ignorance.
Even with a robust knowledge of my specialist area, a lifetime of reading and study, there was so much I didn’t know. But when I began to read more widely—whether in the fascinating fields of evolutionary biology, quantum physics, or neuroscience—it quickly became obvious: I knew almost nothing. That recognition gave me a thirst to discover more of the most astonishing, wondrous snippets of knowledge, putting a tiny, lovely dent in my ignorance.
The point isn’t to acquire knowledge to eliminate ignorance. That’s impossible. Instead, it’s to treat knowledge as the joy of discovery.
This was the kind of revelation that Socrates produced long ago, as relayed in Plato’s Apology: “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks he knows. I neither know nor think I know.”
We, as a society, would be better off if our politics could become re-centered around a collective process of solving problems, made possible by exploring evidence, and learning from it. In the short-term, I’m not going to hold my breath, but perhaps by pinpointing that goal, we can get one step closer to finding the best path to get there.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed my writing, or learned something new, please consider supporting my work with a paid subscription. And please share the article, or forward this onto family and friends who might find it useful or interesting, as I rely on word of mouth to grow the newsletter. I’ll leave you with a recent photo of my two year-old Border Collie, Zorro, who would never commit the sin of knowingness. Enjoy your weekend!