“Disclaimer: I explored willful ignorance as a writer who believes in the power of information and as a concerned citizen who is a strong advocate of honesty and personal responsibility. I write this as a sinner who is guilty of the crime and as a victim in need of redress. I ask that you consider all information with an open mind. My contention is that willful ignorance is morally, ethically, personally, professionally, and socially wrong. The practice of willful ignorance has wrought deep wounds in every aspect of our society and we all have the scars to prove it.
“the practice or act of intentional and blatant avoidance, disregard or disagreement with facts, empirical evidence and well-founded arguments because they oppose or contradict your own existing personal beliefs.”
Let us consider for a moment what willful ignorance is not. Willful ignorance is not about simple ignorance (a lack of knowledge). Since no one can know everything, there is no escaping ignorance. It is why we learn. Or why we should learn. And why I try to learn.
Willful ignorance is not about stupidity (a lapse in judgment in applying knowledge). None of us are all wise. And since there have been times when I could honestly claim Stupidity as my middle name, I make no claims of superiority on this one either.
So, what is willful ignorance? What is it about?
The first part of the definition points to the determined denial of facts and well-founded arguments. Or, to put it more simply, the deliberate act of not wanting to know or learn.
Like the three monkeys See-no-evil, Hear-no-evil and Speak-no-evil, willful ignorance claims that if we see no fact, hear no fact and speak no fact, then the fact doesn’t exist. And if the fact doesn’t exist, then it is only logical to conclude that, the fact doesn’t matter. That the fact won’t impact our life. That the fact can do us no harm. But do we really believe that?
Let’s look at the latter half of the definition:
Now some may think this is addressing the motive behind willful ignorance. But this is really more about the how then the why. How can we ignore contradictory facts or well-founded arguments? Our personal beliefs, our bias, let us.
Willful ignorance is intentional. — We don’t ignore all facts and arguments.
Willful ignorance is selective. — We just ignore the ones we don’t like.
Willful ignorance is blatant. — We are justified in our denial of “false” facts because we are righteous.
But what is the motive behind all this denial? Why do we practice willful ignorance? Is it to win an argument or claim the moral high ground? No. We might tell ourselves that. We might want to believe that. But remember we are talking about denying a thing that actually exist.
The contradicting facts do exist. The well-founded arguments do exist. Even though we deny their existence they are still there. We are simply pretending they don’t exist. And since we are only denying the facts to ourselves and other self deniers, we are merely pretending among ourselves.
We are playing a game of pretense to try to fool ourselves!
Does that sound like winning? Does it sound like the moral high ground?
So why do we deliberately deny contradicting facts and well-founded arguments and pretend they don’t matter? Partially, because we are lazy. It is usually easier to pretend something doesn’t exist then to do something about it. But mostly, we do it to protect ourselves. We do it out of fear.
If we accept a fact or an argument that contradicts our own personal beliefs, then we would have to give power to that fact. We would have to acknowledge that fact as a truth and our own beliefs as not wholly true. And we would have to share ownership of that fact and that means sharing responsibility for that fact. Because knowledge is not just power, it is also a responsibility.
We take the path of Willful Ignorance because we are afraid that if we take the responsibility for honoring that fact or that well-founded argument then we would have the responsibility to act upon that fact or that well-founded argument.
Look around. Look at all we face in the world today – our economy, our environment, our government, our politicians, our media, our journalist, our corporations, our business people, our health care, our personal debt, our greed, our distrust, our incompetence, our lack of accountability.
Yes, this is ours. All ours. We own it.
So how can we all just be helpless victims in all of this? Have we not been guilty of the crime as well?
Have we all not, at some point, shrugged our shoulders and looked the other way? Have we not pretended “it” didn’t matter? Claimed “it” was not our job, our fault, or our problem. And weren’t we really saying — we do not want the responsibility for knowing “it” is wrong, because then we would have the responsibility to make “it” right.
So here is my definition of Willful Ignorance:
Think about all that we face with 2 wars, a financial crisis and global climate change. Think about our jobs, our schools, our personal finances, our relationships. What aspect of our lives today would not have been the better for having included more facts, more open and honest discussions, and more responsibility?
We are facing so much on so many fronts. And there is so much we are going to have to learn and do differently. Isn’t it time we stopped hiding behind willful ignorance?
Isn’t it time we called a lie, a lie – no matter who the liar is. Isn’t it time we called a fact, a fact and a truth, a truth – no matter how painful. Isn’t it time we stopped pointing fingers and started shouldering the responsibilities. So let us agree:
Winning at all cost is not a win.
The ends do not justify the means.
Life is real and pretend is a game.
Willful Ignorance is a game we play to fool ourselves and it’s a personal indulgence we can no longer afford.
Credit: My thanks to NQ commenter “fif” for expressing frustration over the “willful ignorance” and “determined denial of facts” exhibited by the opposition during the 2008 election. The words immediately struck a chord with me not just in relation to the election, but also as an explanation of the mind set I seemed to encounter frequently of late and in particular during the construction of my home. An apparently never-ending project that I am still actively working to correct.
So as I worked, I thought and as I thought, I wrote – a hazardous practice at best.
[first posted at No Quarter 12/18/08]