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Ignorance Can Be Bliss

During the pandemic professor Renata Salecl delivered a fitting lecture on ignorance and its relation to our current situation. Professor Salecl, professor at London school of economics and Senior Researcher at the Institute of Criminology in Lubjana, is an internationally renowned scholar and she combines the fields of psychoanalysis, legal theory and social theory. She has previously published on the overabundance of choice in our current age (The Tyranny of Choice) as well as the ‘age of anxiety’ (On Anxiety). This evening she was invited to talk about her recently published book: A Passion for Ignorance – What We Choose Not to Know and Why. In this lecture she gave an outline of her book and related it – among other things – to the pandemic, vaccines and climate change.

Helpful Ignorance

Professor Salecl began by noting one of her key points, namely that ignorance can be connected to the search for knowledge. This means that if one is collecting information, it does not necessarily imply that one is looking for the truth. Behind the desire for knowledge can be the will to look away, or to ignore the truth. This can be illustrated with an example from Salecl. A friend of hers was obsessed with collecting information when the pandemic just kicked off. He collected this information to prove to himself that the virus did not exist. So, one could look for information, but still ignore the truth.

Later on, Salecl highlighted the similarities between the psychological mechanisms people display when they are facing a life-threatening disease like a heart attack and people dealing with the current pandemic. People underestimate their chances of getting infected, although they possess the necessary information to understand that they could be. People show different kinds of ignorance: some feel like they have an exceptional immune system, or they perceive illness as some kind of fate or destiny. Moreover, some people in fact digest the information, but ignore the negative emotions that result from this data. These kind of denials can be helpful, because they help people cope with the situation at hand.

This aspect of ignorance’s helpfulness ties to dealing with trauma as well, professor Salecl notes. Pushing trauma away, which is ignorance towards trauma, could help overcoming it. Trauma is pushed outside of consciousness to (temporarily) mend the broken psyche of traumatized people. Ignorance is thus often tied to negative information.

Ignorance and Recognition

The fact that ignorance is often tied to negative information, makes it relevant for this pandemic. Salecl asserted that if we want to overcome denial of the situation or negativity towards vaccines, it is not necessarily helpful to just throw more information at people. As she already noted: more information does not necessarily cause less ignorance. She expanded on this thought by discussing different kinds of people who are opposed to vaccines. Only a very small amount of people is whole-heartedly against vaccines: Salecl said around 5% of people. Other people who are not eager to receive their vaccines are less passionate. Professor Salecl called these people “vaccination-hesitant people”. This second group of people may be susceptible to change their mind, but we should be careful in our approach.

This ignorance is often driven by emotions. People often share conspiracy theories because of some kind of “emotional gain” they get from it. Salecl told the audience the surprising fact that people that are sharing conspiracy theories often do not believe them. Rather these conspiracy theories provide the sharers with some kind of recognition within their conspiracy community. This recognition can be in the form of shares, likes and views. People outside of these communities get angry or irritated because of these stories, thereby providing a kind of recognition as well. In other words, generating anger in our audience provides us with a source of recognition as well. Salecl gave us the valuable lesson that if we want to analyse social phenomena, we should pay attention to the power of affect and unconsciousness.

Structural Ignorance

Professor Salecl spoke about structural ignorance as well: this could be described as some sort of omnipresent ignorance in our current age. Although we seem to live in an age of information, it could be better described as an age of ignorance. Information is often privatised, access to knowledge is frequently limited by paywalls. For example in academia, where people have to pay to access scientific publications in journals.

Countries and companies partake in structural ignorance as well. Salecl gave several examples of countries displaying different modes of structural ignorance at the start of the pandemic. For example China, where the government tried to silence doctors warning about the risks of the pandemic. Another example was Turkey, president Erdoğan asserted that some traditional Turkish dishes possessed protective powers against the coronavirus. To this day, Bolsonaro in Brazil shows structural ignorance, downplaying or even completely denying the effects of the coronavirus.

Countries are not unique in this aspect, companies also show this kind of behaviour. For example, companies that claim not to know the environmental risks of their business activities. Salecl noted tech companies and their algorithms as the pinnacle of this kind structural ignorance. These tech companies deploy ignorance in a manifold manner: they ignore consumers (unreadable terms and conditions) and their algorithms are opaque.

Two Search Engines

During the discussion professor Salecl gave another very helpful suggestion on how to embrace ignorance in the face of an information overload: using two search engines. This would aid us in getting more acquainted to and less scared of doubt. Embracing the anxiety that accompanies difficult questions might open up new possibilities of dealing with it. In this age of information overload, it is important to realize that more information is not equal to more knowledge.

This report is written by Sami Dogan as part of the Research Master Philosophy at Radboud University.