One of the joys of reading fiction is unexpectedly encountering a truth relevant to my daily life in a work written many years earlier.
Today, while listening to a book published eighteen years ago, I came across a truth that helped me to take a fresh look at Brexit and the election of Trump, two decisions that I have come to realise feel like a personal betrayal, undermining my understanding of the world.
The book was Ruth Ozeki’s “My Year Of Meats”. Published in 1999, it tells the story of, Jane, a documentarian who spends a year making a series called “My American Wife” that is intended to promote the sale of American beef in Japan by showing wholesome American housewives cooking wholesome American meat. By the end of year, Jane is no longer able to stay within the propagandist role she signed up for and wants to tell the truth about the adulteration of American meat.
Jane knows that much of this truth is already available in the public domain but that people, including herself a year earlier, resist knowing about it. She reflects that a constant barrage of bad news creates the self-defensive classification of some knowledge as “Bad Knowledge”.
What Ozeki wrote next made me stop and go “Yes. Yes, that. I knew that but not how to say it.”.
“Ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence.
…If we can’t act on knowledge then we can’t survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance.
…Fed on a media diet of really bad news, we live in a perpetual state of repressed panic. We are paralysed by bad knowledge from which the only escape is playing dumb. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. Stupidity become pro-active, a political statement. Our collective norm.
I’ve always preferred knowledge to ignorance, even when the knowledge makes me angry or afraid or depressed, as so much of what I learn about Brexit and Trump does, but I recognise that mine is an outlier reaction. Ruth Ozeki’s words capture the mainstream reaction and help me to understand the appeal of ignorance and why people put so much effort into preserving it.
I see now that sharing more “bad knowledge” is not the way to engage with “pro-active stupidity”.
What is needed is a way to defeat the sense of impotence, to give people the ability to act and make a difference, to stop lecturing and start offering help.