We have all experienced the frustration of trying to impart some kind of knowledge only to be met with obviously fake arguments. What we may be less aware of, however, is the extent to which people come up with such arguments because they simply don’t want to know. And even if we are aware of this, we may not know what to do about it.
A first step when we realise this is happening may be to remind ourselves that sometimes people have good reasons not to know something, for example they may be afraid of getting confused or filling their heads with useless information. At other times, acquiring the knowledge we are trying to impart would cause significant cognitive dissonance, in the sense that it would disturb the person’s worldview to an extent that makes them seriously uncomfortable.
What can make this especially difficult is that often people don’t even want to know that they are afraid of knowledge. In other words, they are afraid of realising that they are afraid. This is especially pernicious, since if one acknowledges that one is afraid one can at least make a rational assessment of the risk one is perceiving (“How bad will it be if I actually acquire this knowledge?”), whereas if one doesn’t even acknowledge the fear then one can only come up with whatever desperate excuses come to hand for deflecting the feared knowledge. And of course, this leads to the obfuscation and angry rhetoric that we are all too familiar with in both public and private discourse.
Because we sometimes have good reason to fear knowledge, those of us trying to impart knowledge therefore sometimes have good reason simply to back off, and respect the other person’s right to be ignorant. If people are failing to acknowledge fear, however, then I think a case can be made for being relatively coercive in making them more aware of their fear. IEET readers do not need to be convinced that ignorance threatens our future.
To put it in more economic terms: ignorance comes with externalities, and this creates a legitimate (utilitarian) case for curing people of it, even (to some extent) against their will.
To illustrate this point, consider someone who has parked their car in front of a garage entrance. That person might really not want to know that this has happened, because it may be terribly inconvenient for them to move said car, but most people would approve of someone pointing it out to them, even against their will.
If I knowingly tell someone something they don’t want to hear then to some extent I am being coercive, even in a sense violent, and it is good to be aware of that and the harm it can do. And the more passionately I insist, the more coercive I am being, and the more potential for harm there is. But sometimes it is justified.
The reason why failure to acknowledge fear is a particularly good candidate for coercive correction is precisely the role it plays in polluting public discourse, and thus undermining society’s attempts to effectively address the challenges we face. Once again, if we know we are afraid, we can attempt to identify and think rationally about the risk we are perceiving. If we don’t even know we are afraid then we are liable to resort to obfuscation and rhetorical trickery to deflect the risk, and thus pollute the discourse.
So what do we do if we suspect someone of an unacknowledged fear of knowledge? One answer to this is that we need to get comfortable talking about emotions, including our own. We also need to pass the message that fear is normal, for example by pointing out that it’s what kept our ancestors alive for long enough to procreate.
We need to recognize our own fear, and be willing to talk about it, even to those people who may see fear as weak or dishonourable. We also need to assess how important, and especially how urgent, it is to impart whatever knowledge we are trying to impart, and if it is not both important and urgent then we should probably just go into listening mode (and pay attention to our own fear and frustration).
If it is important and urgent, however, then we may need to point out that our interlocutor appears to be fearful or angry, bearing in mind that anger is always a result of fear and the perception of a threat.
Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.
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