Sunday, November 27, 2011

Varieties Of Ignorance

I was recently reminded that it is impossible to argue with ignorance. Why I even made the attempt is beyond me. Yet, ignorance is a sneaky devil, cropping up not only in discussions of religion and politics, where it is like kudzu, spreading almost too fast to control. One can find it most anywhere.

It wears all sorts of masks. On the one hand, of course, we have the fundamentalist, ignorant equally of science and Biblical interpretation, screeching on everything from the age of the Universe to sexual ethics, without any reference at all to anything but their own prejudices, guesses, and poorly informed reading of the Christian scriptures.

My favorite ignorant folks are the New Atheists. These are the people who parade their ignorance like one of those balloons at the Macy's Parade. They know nothing of church history. They know nothing of Christian doctrine, the varieties of expressions of faith - Catholic, Orthodox, Evangelical (Lutheran), Reformed, Anglican, Anabaptist. The insist one need not read the Bible, Christian theology, church history, or anything else related to religion to understand it is wrong. Like young earth creationists and other fundamentalist ignoramuses, they say the things they do about religion out of a deep well of ignorance.

They have spawned a kind of weird child who crops up in the weirdest places in comment threads. These are the folks who, for some reason, see the "enemy" in any and every discussion as religious folks who, they insist, believe in something they all call (I have seen this so often over the past five or so years it cannot be a coincidence) "the sky fairy". Like creationists who insist that scientists are secret antinomians, bent on destroying human moral life by convincing us we are "only animals", these folks seem to think they understand what religious folk (and here, religion is conflated with Christianity, an insulting and ignorant position) think without any reference to anything Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus or Buddhists or followers of Shinto or Santeria or anything else actually believe.

Duncan features comment threads in Philadelphia papers' on-line editions as a source of humor. Folks making comments on articles regarding various urban issues such as the perennial matter of parking, public transportation, residential density, crime, and so on have a tendency, to be polite, to speak without actually understanding the issue at hand. Freedom of speech surely means that folks who don't know anything can talk about whatever they wish. Prudence and humility would seem to suggest there is a certain virtue to keeping one's yap shut on a matter about which one knows nothing.

Now, I am ignorant about the vast majority of matters in the world around me. Ask me a question about, say, diagnosing a problem with an automobile, and I'd be lost. I can replace the inner workings of a toilet tank, but I can't do plumbing, and wouldn't know where to begin. If my computer were to go on the fritz, I wouldn't dream of taking it apart and trying to fix it myself; I'd either send it off for repairs or buy a new one.

There are discussions on these, and thousands of other topics on the internet. I do not engage them, not because they are stupid topics, or boring, or irrelevant. It would probably be wise for me to learn a few tricks about diagnosing car problems. I've tried and it just doesn't work with me. Which is why I am grateful there are people who can tell, from a certain knocking or shaking or pulling, what, precisely, is the matter with my car and how to go about fixing it.

I have often wondered why it is that people who are as ignorant of religion and politics feel this isn't a barrier to participation in discussions about them. I wouldn't go to the retired machinist across the street if I had a toothache. He's a really great guy, has a sweet dog and a mouthy cockatiel, but he isn't a dentist. If he demonstrated some knowledge of dentistry, I might go to him and ask his advice about a problem - a loose filling, say, or receding gums - and accept the information he gave me. Since I happen to know that, while a nice guy who knows all sorts of things, he doesn't know anything about dentistry, I am wise not to heed suggestions he may have on tooth care.

For some reason, we don't think the same approach applies to matters like religion or politics, or social or cultural discussions. This is not to suggest that "only" "experts" should speak on these matters (God, how I've heard those lines before!). I do not like the word "experts", and most self-proclaimed ones are blowhards. I am saying, however, that if you wish to write about, say, the efficacy of tax cuts and their economic impact, spend ten minutes with Google and read up on what folks who know economics are actually saying. Read a bunch of people, too!

Last week, I read an article in the New York Times that claimed the Pentagon had no contingency in the face of looming, drastic budget cuts. Apart from being a bit of a muddle, something about the article and its central point didn't pass the smell test with me. I did something that makes perfect sense. I emailed someone I know who knows something about budgeting in public agencies, and after a cursory reading, this person let me know the story was, to be generous, really really bad.

For some reason, whether it's a discussion about reading the Bible, or talking about a particular theological position, or the effects of tax cuts on public revenue or the Occupy movement, there are people who think they can say whatever pops in to their minds, type it, send it out on to the internet, and, hey! like magic, they have contributed to public discussion. Instead of thinking, "Man, I just broadcast to the world that I don't know my ass from my elbow."

Simple word of advice: If you're going to write about something, learn something about it. It saves readers headaches from beating their heads against various walls.

Virtual Tin Cup

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