Is it immoral to not educate myself about political issues that affect thousands and millions of lives. If I’m a voter? If I’m a resident of a (the) superpower? If I, as a scientist, try not to have opinions?
I ask these questions from the far extreme. I get my current events by reverse engineering jokes on the Daily Show. And I rationalize my ignorance with a language game. In science, especially social science, total ignorance is the default state. Exceptions to that are mainly brief, trivial lapses into insight.
A few years ago things were going badly, and I wanted to stop making unqualified judgements about the state of the world. I asked my friends to kick me in the nuts every time they caught me speaking as if I knew what I was talking about. It didn’t really work — no one wanted to kick me — but it was a fun exercise, and it represented something I still want to cultivate. Maybe I’ve taken thing too far, but I believe that the ultimate purpose of science is nescience. I think that the best way to survive feeling like an idiot all the time is to love the feeling of ignorance. That’s awe.
So what happens when someone with those habits ends up in a political conversation? Ignorance is considered bad in politics, as if we have a choice but to be 90% ignorant about the causes and effects of social phenomena. I think that that ignorance of ignorance continues on down to the American social fabric. “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Or even better: “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” So if you ask me to say something definitive about some current event, I’m either going to tell you that I don’t really know, or I’m going to throw something together from the thin fabric of my prior beliefs. And I’m no exception.
When I look around, I get the feeling that the people who identify as politically informed are those with the strongest opinions. As I write that, I realize I must be a strange creature, because when it comes to society, I believe its delusional to have strong opinions.
My attitude as a social science, the only non-delusional attitude that a social scientist can adopt, is that every informative declarative statement about society is wrong and riddled with exceptions. Race? What about light-skinned black people, dark-skinned white people, Arabs (“white”), Latinos, multiracial Americans, multiracial immigrants, 1/64 black people now, 1/64 black people 100 yeas ago? The race of each of these people depends on what and when they were born, what they do and who they spend their time with. And its never so simple that this person or policy caused that social catastrophe.
Now imagine a politician who adopts the same view — treating a social system less like a machine with buttons and levers and more like the ecology of a national park. The job of a politician is to do stuff, is to intervene boldy and confidently in an inherently unpredictable, unknowable system that determines the fate of millions. Kids smashing blocks together. I don’t think that’s immoral. I think its necessary. I’ve done it myself on a smaller scale. But I did it conscious that it was all based on flimsy premises. Believing in change doesn’t make it any less audacious.
And that’s the riddle. Because not doing anything, this responsible, careful, outsider’s cultivated ignorance and equinimity is also based on flimsy premises. I’m not an outsider. My daily habits, however normal, perpetuate values that I don’t support. My opinions, and my lacks of opinions, influence how other people think and what they say and where society goes.
So what do I do? I’m not going to read three books about every newspaper article. I’m not going to start a foundation, or become a citizen journalist. A part of me wishes I wanted those things. In the long term maybe I’ll try to start caring more, or maybe try to get angrier about social problems. And in the mean time, I’ll just have to be honest that I’m unjustifiably hiding behind my justified ignorance.