Willful Ignorance

This post first took form as an f-bomb filled rant against “people who don’t try.” Obviously there was no real-life inspiration for this. OBVIOUSLY.

But I always sit on posts for at least one night before publishing, like a good mother duck. And – as always – it was smart to let that little egg of an idea warm up and hatch in its own time. Turns out, I’m not mad at people who don’t try. They just make me sad. Turns out, I’m mad at people who try incredibly hard.

When I say someone who doesn’t try, I mean this: Dan complains incessantly about his job to anyone who will listen, but doesn’t take steps to look for a new job, go back to school, get a promotion, anything… he just fills the air with word pollution and continues to exist. We all know a Dan, and Dan is weak.

But. When I talk about someone who tries incredibly hard, I mean the woman who said (to my face): “The worst thing happened. I found out that the really nice receptionist at my gym is gay. Now it’s awkward every time I go in, because we used to talk and now of course we can’t anymore. It just breaks my heart.”

*** R E C O R D   S C R A T C H ***

What’s worse than someone who puts no effort into evolving? Someone who puts a lot of effort into intentionally avoiding evolution.

This woman, instead of doing the human thing and expanding her world view to include a gay man who is kind and funny, purposefully shut down the whole relationship. Why? Because she found his existence too threatening to her concept of every gay person being filled with evil and going straight to hell. She actively chose to not learn a powerful lesson. She purposefully avoided an opportunity to grow.

And this is what really burns me up. The ones I’m really mad at are the people who do try, exceptionally hard, to keep their lives utterly centered on themselves. This is called willful ignorance, and it’s what you practice when you want to maintain your narrow world view at all cost.

There is a point up to which I am willing to make excuses for people. Genuine excuses. Maybe his parents were really vocal about this, and that’s the only opinion he’s ever heard about it. She’s young, and all her friends go to her church, and maybe she feels like she’ll lose them if she speaks up.

But past that point… which lies somewhere around the time you turn into a GROWN-ASS ADULT… if you are afraid of people who are different just because they’re different, you’re pouring a lot of energy into remaining so shallow. In this day and age, willful ignorance means you’re intentionally avoiding certain people in your community, certain people who write online, certain books and restaurants and movies. And it means that you force your brain to shut up when it whispers that the actor you love to watch on Modern Family is actually also gay in real life, and does that mean you’d shun him instead of giggle if you met him on a… SHUT UP, BRAIN! STOP MAKING ME THINK ABOUT THE THINGS I DO.

As always, Calvin and Hobbes express my thoughts perfectly, so at this point I’ll just turn you over to them:


34 responses to “Willful Ignorance

  1. I’m with you, but I also find it hard to understand. Maintaining willful ignorance doesn’t seem easy–as you say. It’s seems difficult, and sort of unpleasant, the way hard work tends to be sort of unpleasant. Most of my experience suggests that people are constitutionally lazy. If there is an easier way, we’ll find it. And really what’s the benefit? I can’t see a benefit to it. It just makes the world hard to understand and hard to cope with. But there must be one, or people wouldn’t do it. They’d revert to laziness. It is a puzzle.

    • I agree with you. I think people who practice willful ignorance live in a persistent cloud of self-doubt and insecurity. They speak loudly and act as if they are perfectly sure of their beliefs, but – if pushed – they fall back on defensiveness instead of real conversation, because they know they can’t actually support their stances.

      I think – as the comic strip above illustrates – willful ignorance is all tied up with laziness, because with information comes a sense that the world could be better, and with that comes a feeling that you should probably be doing something to help, and that’s just too much effort for some people to make.

  2. Agreed. I’d just add that a ton of people (especially in their ’20s and ’30s right now) talk about being accepting of diversity and different points-of-view, but only if they like those people and their perspectives. Though I’ve always been a liberal and always will be, there’s really *is* a amazing amount of intolerance out there among people that I typically agree with. We all know it’s pretty easy to go off on a screed against Fox News-types. Fact is, though, there’s a surprising and embarrassing amount of willful ignorance coming from people who profess to be against ignorance and intolerance in any form.

    God knows, I’m certainly one of these. I’ve seen it in you more than once. I’ve actually seen it in most liberal-minded people I know. And I forgive everyone, but we need to recognize that liberals can be astonishingly judgmental and hateful people in our own way, chock full of assumptions and prejudices of our own. When I hear the phrase “purposefully avoiding an opportunity to grow,” the first thing that comes to my mind is actually some of the “forward-thinking” people I see on TV and all around me, typically throwin’ out f-bombs. Once I got to know these kind of people better, I discovered that – wow! – they actually make very little effort to read, and not really very open-minded, and seem bafflingly reluctant to have anything but the most stilted encounter with anything that would truly challenge their own views. I think we’ll see more progress when *we* stop doing this stuff. Because we do it all the time. (And FYI, because you and I had this debate, I’m talking about far more than abortion or any particular hot-button political issue here.)

    The big thing is, I can’t tell you how hugely liberating it has been to face up and recognize this strain in myself and people around me. Once you realize that you, too, remain deliberately ignorant and intolerant of alternative perspectives and of the people that you think you have nothing in common with, it actually becomes easier to practice real empathy and have real conversations. It can be damn hard, and damn disheartening, but we should do it anyway.

    The even bigger thing is – and this is the major thing I’ve learned from taking some of the lessons of Christianity seriously recently, which has really changed my life for the better (I can’t tell you how much bullshit in my personality I’ve seen drop away over the last few months, though it’s an ongoing process….) – the big thing is: nobody – and I mean *nobody* – needs f-bombs. They need your compassion, love, and wisdom, and the liberating acknowledgment that you, too, are not a saint, that you have *also* done hurtful and ignorant things. Also that no matter what the cynics say, it is *not* human nature to be this way.

    As far as prejudice against gay people goes, that’s breaking down pretty fast. I’d like to see it totally dead, but we all know it’s on its way out the door. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that most liberal prejudices are going anywhere soon, and that’s what I wish people had more willingness to face up to.

    • I think this comment is excellent. I wish you would write posts about this kind of thing – as much as I love your mysterious boats-in-the-woods tales, this might be the offering you bring that the world really needs.

      But anyway, yes. It is far too easy to write off someone who disagrees with you politically as being a person of little worth, which is almost never the case. Luckily, coming from a family in which I and my beliefs are the black sheep, I have a good deal of practice loving people with whom I passionately disagree. I think the issue of gay rights, though, is one I focus on so frequently because it’s one of the few cases in which, when someone’s opinion differs from mine, it brings me to a complete and utter halt. When I think people are being willfully ignorant on other topics, I can try to focus on how generous they are with volunteering their time, or how loving they are with their family… some admirable quality that rounds them out. But when you want to deny other people the right to create the families they desire, I lose any respect for how kind you might be to your own family. All that amounts to is hypocrisy, and, in my eyes, your benevolent actions lose their value.

      I am very glad to hear that your new principles are leading you to places of clarity. Share away! I think that most focused religious/spiritual practices would advise one to remain calm, and look within instead of judging others, and come from a place of compassion and connection instead of anger and dissent. This is definitely an area where I find myself teetering all over both sides of the balance. Wise as your counsel is, and much as I try to live that way in most cases, I have often found that, at the end of the day, the loud, challenging tone can be the one that people take note of. If more people hear an important message because it’s presented stridently; if the message was clearer and stronger because it didn’t take a lot of time to lay the base work of “I too am guilty,” than that, in my opinion, was the right decision in that case.

      There’s also a cause to be made for harsh honesty. I wouldn’t want to cheapen the compassion you are describing by confusing it with white-washing over real issues. There’s a place for understanding and empathy, but there’s also a place for expecting people to be good citizens of the world and at least attempt to make it better instead of worse. I realize that “Dan” may feel stuck in his soul-sucking job because he just can’t find another one despite months of searching, or maybe he’s got great health insurance he can’t afford to lose because he has a sick child to support… and in those cases, I’d try to support him with encouragement. But there are many “Dans” in the world who make it perfectly clear that they are unhappy of their own volition, and are simply to lazy to search for more. In those cases, I do think the expression “either change it or make your peace with it” is a fair response.

      P.S. Insert F-BOMB here.

  3. Also this quote by Nat Hentoff, liberal Jewish atheist libertarian, about a woman he admired:

    “Frances Sweeney is the one who has most influenced my life. She was a devout Catholic. She was also furious at the anti-Semitism in Boston, spoke against it, wrote against it and was very angry that the Catholic press never said anything about it. So she went to see then Cardinal O’Connell, not O’Connor — I knew O’Connor later. O’Connell paid no attention to it. He almost threatened her with excommunication if she didn’t stop. Of course, she wouldn’t. Frances got some of us to attend various meetings including meetings of anti-Semitic groups. And that is when I learned not to take notes when people are watching you. But anyway, I so respected her and what she did for us. Then one day, she had us take a test as to what our prejudices were. The next meeting she threw the papers on the desk and said, ‘You are all a bunch of bigots.’ Our own prejudices came out. That impressed me. But I supposed what most impressed me was she never stopped doing what she wanted to do. Her doctors told her to soften up her schedule. She had a heart condition. She had a heart attack on one of the main streets in Boston. She fell into the gutter and could not speak. But she did remember afterwards when she could speak that people would come by — I guess she looked very Irish to them — they didn’t do anything to help her. Some people would say, ‘See? Another Irish drunk.’ She recovered from that for a short time. This encapsulates the kind of life I most admire.”

  4. Well said! This is the type of attitude that results in so many books being challenged (which is what I wrote about on my blog yesterday for Banned Books Week). People shouldn’t avoid exposure to new ideas. If they’re so afraid that their world view will crumble as a result, then they’re probably fighting a losing battle. Great post!

    • Oh, I’ll have to go read your post next. The whole concept of banned books astounds me, and I find it hard to process that so many bans are still in effect.

      I do agree with you (and find it very uplifting) that many world views which require a blind eye to maintain are slowly going the way of the dodo. Racism is still very real and present, but at least now we are talking about it openly, loudly, and constantly, and that’s a vital step. Anyone who wants to remain bigoted toward people of other races now finds themselves having to work pretty hard to maintain the idea that everyone “other” is suspicious, or lazy, or whatever other insult they’re accustomed to slinging.

  5. Sometimes rants turn into the best posts! Love this one.

    Change is the hard work that people are avoiding, I think. There is so much involved — monitoring your thoughts, being curious and (gasp!) thinking about the world and your responsibility to be a better person, which leads to looking inward and dealing with that mess, then actually changing your thoughts, oh and then changing your actions and interactions. Phew!

    I think people find it easier to blame everyone else than to work through the shame, guilt, anger, and a whole host of other unpleasant emotions, in order to get at understanding why they think and behave in certain ways. That’s time away from the recliner watching Gerry Springer.

    • I have to admit that I sometimes adopt a “good enough” attitude. When I come across something that really challenges me (which is rare) it’s such a shock to my system that my initial reaction is frequently closer to, “Oh, let me just not add this to my list of issues,” than, “Oh, look, a fascinating opportunity for personal growth!” We all get tired, because you’re so right – changing our own thoughts is exhausting. It’s much more fun to think about how rad we are already!

      But… I try. I try to see both sides, and I try to rise above my baser self. And I do believe that intent carries a lot of weight, even when the results are less than perfect.

      By the way, several people have told me recently, “If you’re going through something rough, you should just turn on Jerry Springer. Seeing those people always makes you feel better about yourself.” Now that just makes me sad.

  6. Just think of that wonderful word “evil”. Anything seen as different tends to fall into this category. Such an easy category, the moment a different idea, different perspective, etc is labelled as such, all the good boys and girls stay away. Their loss, someday when they go to stars they will look back down and realise what they have missed. Life is too short for small mindedness.

    • This is such a beautiful comment. You have reminded me that I have called people “evil” before as well, when I just cannot understand why else they would cause so much hurt in others. But as I don’t believe in Hell, or any sort of eternal punishment, and as I think that, despite everything, people are essentially good… I think my world view is really more based on “good” and “not yet good.”

      That’s a damn hard thing for me to remember in the moment – it always feels like the people who are full of hate play so much dirtier, and it’s nigh on impossible for me to view them as merely “non-evolved” when their actions are so purposeful, and based in the exact “willful ignorance” I discussed here. But… even if I can’t forgive, I suppose I should try to at least not generate more hate. There is a way to expose people’s misdeeds without calling for them to be burned as witches.

  7. It can be hard to understand anyone who is hurtful to others, never mind categorise them! The way I see it, is everyone says and does things for a reason. Be it a bully, an ignorant comment etc.and it’s up to use to deal with them in whatever way is best for us, while not getting dragged to their level. It can be hard, but it’s worth trying. LOL

  8. I think a lot of people don’t evolve because they don’t think they need to. That’s the nature of conservatism — “things were better before or as they are, so why do we need to change?”

    Everyone starts out as a “relative conservative,” meaning that you basically have the beliefs that your parents (or whoever raised you) gave you until your personal life experience tells you something different. But for some people, this never happens — they don’t leave the town they grew up in, they don’t seek out the news of far-flung places, they never develop a taste for culture or media outside of the mold they are used to.

    So of course these people don’t evolve. Why should they? From their standpoint, the world is the same place it’s always been. The same things are still right and the same things are still wrong for the same reasons.

    These people see the world and popular perception changing all around them, but they hold firm. Why? Two reasons. First, they believe they are in the right of things. Obviously. Second, they perceive some strength of character in not changing. To change is weakness — it’s giving into a peer pressure of sorts, the same type of peer pressure you were taught is bad in high school, just amplified and applied to a global scale. They see virtue in continuing to stand up for what they belief is right.

    I pity these people. They live small, insignificant lives. They will never contribute anything positive to the larger world society,because they don’t live in the larger world. They live in cloistered communities (whether physical or intellectual) that are, by design, shut off from everything else. They don’t want to broaden their horizons because what it means to broaden your horizon is to first begin mixing with new types of people that you’ve always thought of as sordid or unsavory (whether you’re brave enough to admit that to other people in public or not).

    • I think your whole argument makes a lot of sense. Why should people evolve, if they’re not in any discomfort? I suppose I expect them to have compassion for their fellow people and want to support those among them who are being hurt… but maybe that’s the trade-off. You can have your completely comfortable life, but it will be small, or you can do some hard work to expand your world view, and you will be rewarded with wonders and stories and new relationships.

    • I’ve really been enjoying your introspective posts lately. I feel like part of your message is hey – I might not always get it 100% right, but I am trying and I am well-intentioned and if that’s not worthy of a meaningful conversation, than fuck off…

      I don’t want to put words in your very capable mouth (I did NOT mean that to sound as dirty as it did, but now it’s funny, so I’m leaving it…) Anyway, I just enjoy reading about your POV on things, as I fall in pretty much the same place you do when it comes to the value of trying to understand.

      • That’s exactly it, and I’ll take that compliment about my mouth. (…Now that was creepy.)

        For me, a lot of my writing is getting my own thoughts in order before it even entertains or informs. I don’t think I know everything or that my opinion is always right, but if nothing else I hope it gives someone else the courage to have a view about something that may not be the majority opinion.

        There’s so much out there we don’t hear about, you know? And some of it’s the good stuff.

  9. I like that you sit on your posts overnight before pressing “publish” – I think you have much better products as a result.

    My manager is fond of this quip: “If you dislike change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”

    As for willful ignorance – not to be a contrarian, but I think we are all “willfully ignorant” to some extent. An “easy” example to see this is in the food we eat: Do we *really* want to know the realities of how our food is produced, manufactured, slaughtered, harvested, etc? It’s simple – almost ‘moral’ – to condone individuals who are bigoted in some way; but I think nearly all of us (save the most absolutely enlightened humans) actively protect our own ignorance in many different ways. Now, please note that I’m *not* justifying bigoted thoughts/behaviors; rather, pointing out that maybe those individuals aren’t so different from the rest of us, after all….

    • I absolutely do get better results by waiting – especially when I’m as mad as I was when I wrote the first draft of this one. Also, I really enjoy that quote – to the Facebook page it shall go!

      To address the meat of your comment (Oh, that is about to become a very bad pun)… I have to agree with your excellent point. I was strictly vegetarian for three years because of what I learned about factory farming. I currently eat meat, and have no plans to stop, despite being just as aware of the atrocities now as I was then. And what I would have said originally in rebuttal was that well, those people are hurting other people, and I’m not… but wait… I am contributing to animal cruelty, which I theoretically find just as despicable.

      So. where do we go from here? At the end of the day, perhaps all I can do is be the best person I myself am capable of, and hope others are on a journey to do the same (even when all signs point to the contrary).

  10. I’m 71 years old . . . in my life I have know everything so many times I now know that I really don’t know much at all . . . my truths are mostly perceptions of the moment and many of my strongest have feet of clay and . . . that I must be far more careful about who I judge than who I choose to be kind to . . . actually why not be kind to everybody? Their karma will judge them just fine. . . .

    • Thank you. I have been trying for several days, due to a personal issue, to find a way to teach someone an important lesson; to make them better against their own will. (In this case, I do not think the “better” is merely my own opinion; they have done some very hurtful things). Perhaps you are right and this isn’t my place; maybe I should drop my sincere (but still arrogant) approach and trust karma to sort everything out.

      I just have so much trouble finding this balance, because part of me wonders if my intervention might speak to them, and help them be a better/happier person now, while there’s still time. I know I have learned major life lessons from people who found enough value in me to take the time to open my eyes about some of my misconceptions that were getting in the way of my own happiness.

      Working in social activism, I also find that there can be power in anger, and strong words, and action as opposed to patience – sometimes these things are required to call out injustice and make change happen. Loving kindness is often misinterpreted as weakness, unfortunately…

      I’m sort of rambling, but these complexities are why I get tangled. I think at my core I know that kindness is always the way, and that it’s possible to be kind to an individual while still maintaining your stance on why some of their actions are reprehensible. I just need more practice – I wasn’t born with a “be the bigger person” chip installed in my body, and am apparently a slow learner.

      • Have you ever spoken to a person and somehow everything just flows? . . . you don’t have to stumble around trying to create anything or find the right words, it just happens? . . .

        We communicate on so many levels it gets confusing, and speech is one of the lowest forms of communication.

        I have never sat back and allowed karma to do the job that perhaps I should be doing . . . thing is you have to know when to speak and when to walk away . . . If it is right (and this is how I go about it) everything will flow, if you sense a blockage coming from the person you are trying to help you may not be getting through and never will. . . stop and wait until they are ready, but perhaps they never will be. . . . we can only do so much and you can’t blame yourself ever if you have laid your heart at anothers feet and they chose to stomp on it. . . .

        arrogance and self righteousness all comes from the immature state. . . just be careful with that because we all go there fairly easily. . . .

        keep on keeping on . . . you’re doing just fine . . 🙂

  11. Holy record scratch moment! It was nice to read this post right now – lately I feel like I’m stuck in the “short-term, stupid, self-interest” mind set, yet I’m unhappy. The worst of both worlds! But change is haaaaaaaaard. I think I’m going to just go watch another episode of Modern Family. Wait. The actor is what now? 😉

    • Yeah? I love when a good thing lines up. Hooray, timing! I actually came across an article by chance today, too, that I *really* needed to read.

      To be honest, I jump back and forth between a long-term and short-term focus all the time. I feel like any meaningful amount of real introspection deserves some good sitcoms and an energy recharge! And probably some pastries,too.

  12. There so many good responses already published to this incisive post; I’ll try not to duplicate. Someone, I don’t know who, said there are just two states: love and fear. I would say fear is behind both Dan and the willfully ignorant. Sometimes the best response for me is to ask myself re Dan, what am I just talking about but avoiding changing? And what am I just refusing to see because I want to stay in my comfort zone, re the willfully ignorant person? I completely agree with your frustration. As a therapist I move in a fairly enlightened bubble We have to be able to look at our own stuff I order to do our work. . Plus we know that if we make a not pc remark in front of our colleagues it WILL be noticed! Lol! Then I get out in the world and hear a remark like the one you mentioned and I’m s crat hing my head., incredulous that someone think or say that. Excellent post!

    • Thank you, thank you, for this comment. First of all, it’s always good for me to be reminded of the fear/love states, because I do believe in that concept. It’s easier for me to interact with someone who’s being hateful if I can remember they’re doing so because they think they have something to lose, as opposed to being simply vicious at their core.

      But also, I really appreciated your words about moving “in a fairly enlightened bubble.” I sometimes worry that people will think I am arrogant or pretentious because I delve into conversations about the motivations of why we do the things we do, or because I think I see a situation clearly enough to have an idea of how it could be improved. And certainly, sometimes I am a little full of myself. But generally, I’ve just had a lifetime full of jobs and experiences that have forced me to self-examine and be mindful, so that’s just the way I approach the world. I’m glad to have words for that.

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