November 12th, 2009


Fool if you think it over

Why do people display apparent pleasure -- and even pride -- in their ignorance?

(Like so many of my posts, this one's powered by irritation; and like many irritations, they were all on Radio 2.)

The first of these was perpetrated by Sarah 'TBW' Kennedy. Following a news item which mentioned the Taliban, she moaned, in her (thankfully) inimitable gin-sodden gurgle, "Why won't somebody tell me what the Taliban really want?" ... Well, let's see. Could it be because you work for the UK's flagship news and media organisation, and thus have access to current affairs reference resources that most people can only dream of? Could it be because they think that, even without all the BBC's resources at your fingertips, you could probably manage to type 'taleban' (spell it how you like, Google will figure it out) into the idiotbox and read (maybe even comprehend) some of the results? Could it be because, in short, you're an adult living in an age of unprecedented access to information, and "nobody told me" is absolutely no excuse for your continued ignorance on issues which involve actual factual content and where you have a desire for more knowledge? (This is, of course, begging the question. We'll come back to that.)

The second incident was perpetrated by Terry Wogan (yes, I suppose I do bring this irritation upon myself). Following a news article about a predicted increase in flooding in Wales brought about by climate change, Wogan cheerily chuntered "Why would it flood in Wales? Is there a scientific reason for it?" Well, I suspect that even the most green-crayon-fingered of climate change deniers would probably agree that there's a "scientific reason" for flooding: lots of water comes out of the sky, and doesn't drain away fast enough. Oh, you want to know why that happens? Well, my extremely dim memory of GCSE Science (I'm doing this without research, you know) is that the sun heats the ground, which heats the gases in the air, and then at higher altitudes they cool down, turn back into water, and fall to the ground. Or something. ... Oh, you want to know why that happens? Er, dunno. Physics. Most things are Physics, when you come down to it. Go and look it up. Eventually I guess you get back to the primum movens, and (I'm really handwaving now) you either say "God done it" or you say that it's Physics all the way down. Now, I suppose it's possible that Wogan a) is such a fundamentalist Christian that he believes that the only relevant cause for any occurrence is God -- that not a single sparrow (or raindrop in Wales) falls but that God wills it to be so, and/or b) is a less fundamentalist Christian who believes in chemical/physical cause and effect but believes that it is set in motion by God, and that by calling the 'scientific reasons' into question he's subtly challenging the atheistic orthodoxy of the age. (We'll come back to that, too.) Frankly, I just don't think he's that clever. (Maybe part of the problem here is that I'd rather believe that stupid people don't believe in climate change than that clever people are using their cleverness -- not to mention their mass-media platform -- to undermine the general public's understanding of climate change. But that's a digression, and not one that I want to follow up in a comments flamewar, thanks.)

The third incident was, surprise surprise, Wogan again (the reader's sympathy with my irritation will by now have long since expired!). Following a news item (do you see a pattern here?) about the Lisbon Treaty, he burbled (and I paraphrase because I can't remember the exact wording) "Everybody is getting in a state about the Lisbon Treaty but nobody knows what it is -- you don't know, I don't know, the people who are talking about it don't know." Well, sorry, Terry, but you're wrong: lots of people know. Some of them are paid to know a great deal about the Lisbon Treaty. Others know because they're interested: in politics, in law, in current affairs, in things which affect the world and society in which they live. Even I, with my relative ignorance about (and lack of interest in) European politics, know that it's something to do with reforms to European politics... a bit like the Maastricht Treaty? ... and is a Good Thing for human rights. Bleh, I'm embarrassed at how little I can articulate about it. But, like I said, I'm doing this without research, and I don't work for the BBC; I'm not surrounded by newsmakers and broadcasters, political knowledge resources, expertise. (Okay, I'm surrounded by expertise; but I still don't work for the BBC, and I'm neither asked nor expected to comment on the news.) I don't think I've even read any news articles on the Lisbon Treaty. I fail at current affairs. But if I wanted to know (and we'll come back to that, too) I could look it up. I could read the Wikipedia article to get a kind of overview; I could read (or at least skim) a couple of news articles and figure out the basic outline of what had just happened; I could read a couple of more in-depth news articles (preferably from different viewpoints -- the Economist and the Guardian would do here, no need to check out whether the Daily Mail thinks Lisbon causes cancer) and learn a lot more. But either way, I wouldn't cheerily proclaim my ignorance to my colleagues, and certainly not on national radio. I would admit that I find it hard to feel really engaged with politics at any level other than the local (which is not to say I have no interest in national and international politics, just that I find it big and confusing and everything you read about it is either very dry and academic or very partisan in ways which are not always obvious). I would also sheepishly admit that, for an educated person with access to all the information in the world (or at least the world wide web) I know embarrassingly little about Lisbon, Maastricht, the EU... oh wait, I did admit all that, back there. The embarrassment doesn't make the ignorance any 'better'; I feel (though would struggle to defend it) that the pride makes the ignorance worse; but rather than exercising moral judgements, I want to look at why people wear their ignorance so proudly and shout about it so loudly...

... but I don't have time to do that tonight. (To be continued in a few days' time, probably, as I may not have time to finish writing/keying the rest tomorrow or Saturday.)