How is knowledge spread and made compelling?

Our friend over at the Open Society blog republished one of our pieces. He “edited out some of the bit about right-left brains.” And we were fine with that, as we understood his reasons. He said that, “I think this sort of dichotomy causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.” And, “in order to keep this piece accessible to everyone, it’s better not to get into ongoing technical neuroanatomy debates here.”

We have no dispute with his choice of editing. It was just information and we like to share information, but it wasn’t even a part of the central text of what had been written. Still, it was important in a general sense, as background knowledge and explanatory context. In another comment, he brought up scientific illiteracy and the sorry state of (un-)education in this country. And we couldn’t disagree with any of that. But we responded back with some lengthy comments clarifying our position.

It’s not my first instinct to edit myself, as might be apparent to anyone reading my blog. I’m not always known for my concision. The idea of changing what I write based on the presumed level of knowledge of prospective readers isn’t exactly my style, not that I don’t understand the purpose of doing so. It’s not as if I never consider how others might read what I write, something I always try to keep in mind. I do want to communicate well. I’m not here to merely talk to myself. But thinking about it made me more self-aware of what motivates me in wanting to communicate.

We’re talking about not only knowledge but, more importantly, understanding and meaning, what forms our sense of shared reality and informs our sense of shared purpose. It’s an interesting and worthy topic to discuss. By the way, we felt like speaking in the plural for the introduction here, but the comments below are in first-person singular. These are taken from the Open Society blog with some revision. So, we’re republishing our comments to the republishing of our post. It’s almost like a conversation.

Before we get to our comments below, let us share some personal experience. When we were young, we had regular conversations with our father. He would always listen, question, elicit further thoughts, and respond. But what he never did was talk down to us or simplify anything. He treated us as if we were intellectual equals, even though obviously that wasn’t the case. He was a professor who, when younger, had found learning easy and rarely studied. He had obvious proof his intellectual abilities. We, on the other hand, always struggled with a learning disability. Still, our father instilled in us a respect for knowledge and a love of learning.

That is how we strive to treat all others. We don’t know if that is a good policy for a blog. Maybe that explains why our readership is so small. One could interpret that as a failure to our approach. If so, we fail on our own terms. But we hope that, in our good intentions, we do manage to reach some people. No doubt we could reach a larger audience by following the example of the Open Society blog. That blog is a much more finished product than the bare-bones text on offer here. So, maybe all my idealism is moot. That is an amusing thought. Then again, Open Society has republished other posts by us. So that is some minor accomplishment. Maybe those edited versions are an improvement. I’ll leave that for others to decide

* * *

Sadly, you’re probably right that science education is so pathetically deficient in this country that discussion of even something so basic as the research on brain hemispheres likely “causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.” I wish that weren’t true.

Still, I’d encourage others to look into the science on brain hemispheres. I’d note that the views of Iain McGilchrist (and Julian Jaynes, etc) have nothing to do with the layman’s interpretation. To be honest, there is no way to fully understand what’s going on here without some working knowledge in this area. But the basic idea comes across without any of the brain science. Maybe that is good enough for present purposes.

I’m not entirely opposed to making material more accessible in meeting people where they are at. But hopefully, this kind of knowledge will become more common over time. It is so fundamental that it should be taught in high school science classes. My aspiration for my blog is to inspire people to stretch their minds and learn what might at first seem difficult or strange, not that I always accomplish that feat. Instead, I’m likely to talk over people’s heads or simply bore them.

It can be hard to express to others why something seems so fascinating to me, why it’s important to go to the effort of making sense of it. I realize my mind doesn’t operate normally, to put it mildly. But even with my endless intellectual curiosity, I have to admit to struggling with the science at times (to be honest, a lot of the times). So, I sympathize with those who lose interest or get confused by all the differing and sometimes wrongheaded opinions about brain hemispheres or whatever.

* * *

Scientific illiteracy is a problem in the US. And it’s an open secret. I’ve seen plenty of discussion of it over the years. It would help if there was a better education system and not limited to college. Remember that three quarter of Americans don’t have any college education at all. That is why educational reform would need to start with grade school.

Still, I don’t know what is the main problem. I doubt the average American is quite as ignorant as they get treated, even if they aren’t well educated. For example, most Americans seem to have a basic grasp of the climate crisis and support a stronger government response. It’s not as if we had more science classes that we’d finally get politicians on board. The basic science is already understood, even by those politicians who deny it.

Saying the public is scientifically illiterate doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the problem. I was reading a book about the issue of climate change in one of the Scandinavian countries. They have a much better education system and more scientific literacy. But even there, the author said that it’s hard to have an honest public debate because thinking about it makes most people feel uncomfortable, depressed, and hopeless. So people mostly just don’t talk about it.

Part of it goes back to cognitive dissonance. Even when people have immense knowledge on a topic, there remains the dissociation and splintering. People can know all kinds of things and yet not know. The collective and often self-enforced silencing is powerful, as Derrick Jensen shows. The human mind operates largely on automatic. By the way, the science of brain hemispheres can explain some of why that is the case, a major focus of Jaynes’ work.

What we lack is not so much knowledge about the world as insight and understanding about our own nature. We have enough basic working knowledge already to solve or lessen all of the major problems, if we could only get out of our own way. That said, we can never have too much knowledge and improving education certainly couldn’t hurt. We’re going to need the full human potential of humanity to meet these challenges.

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Here is a thought. What if underestimating the public is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Paralyzing cynicism can come in many forms. And I know I’m often guilty of this. It’s hard to feel hopeful. If anything, hope can even seem naive and wrongheaded. Some argue that we’re long past that point and now it’s time for grieving lost opportunities that are forever gone. But even if we resign ourselves to mere triage, that still requires some basic sense of faith in the future.

I’m not sure what I think or feel about all of this. But what does seem clear to me is that we Americans have never fallen into the problem of overestimating the public. Instead, we have a disempowered and disenfranchised population. What motivation is there for the public to seek further knowledge when the entire system powerfully fucks them and their loved ones over and over again? What would inspire people to seek out becoming better informed through formal education or otherwise?

Knowledge matters. But the larger context to that knowledge matters even more. I don’t know what that means in practical terms. I’m just thinking the public should be given more credit, not so easily let off the hook. Even when public ignorance appears justified based on a failed education system or a successful non-education system, maybe that is all the more reason to hold up a high standard of knowledge, a high ideal of intellectual curiosity, rather than talking down to people and dumbing down discussion.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to communicate well in knowing our audience. On many topics, it’s true that general knowledge, even among the elite, is limited at best and misinformed at worst. But the worst part is how ignorance has been embraced in so many ways, as if one’s truth is simply a matter of belief. What if we stopped tolerating this willful ignorance and all the rationalizations that accompany it. We should look to the potential in people that remains there no matter how little has been expected of them. We should treat people as intellectually capable.

Education is always a work in progress. Still, the American public is more educated today than a century ago. The average IQ measured in the early 1900s would be, by today’s standards of IQ testing, functionally retarded and I mean that literally (increases in IQ largely measure abstract and critical thinking skills). Few Americans even had high school degrees until the Silent Generation. Society has advanced to a great degree in this area, if not as much as it should. I worry that we’ve become so jaded that we see failure as inevitable and so we keep lowering our standards, instead of raising them higher as something to aspire toward.

My grandfather dropped out of high school. You know what was one of his proudest accomplishments? Sending two of his kids to college. Now kids are being told that education doesn’t matter, that college is a waste of money. We stopped valuing education and that symbolizes a dark change to the public mood. To not value education is to denigrate knowledge itself. This isn’t limited to formal education, scientific literacy and otherwise. I failed to get much scientific knowledge in high school and I didn’t get a college degree. Even so, I was taught by my parents to value learning, especially self-directed learning, and to value curiosity. I’ve struggled to educate myself (and to undo my miseducation), but I was inspired to do so because the value of it had been internalized.

The deficiency in education doesn’t by itself explain the cause. It doesn’t explain why we accept it, why we treat mass ignorance as if it were an inevitability. Instead of seeing ignorance as a challenge, as a motivation toward seeking greater knowledge, American society has treated ignorance as the natural state of humanity or at least the natural state of the dirty masses, the permanent underclass within the Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy. In this worldview, most people don’t merely lack knowledge but lack any potential or worth, some combination of grunt workers and useless eaters. What could shift this toward another way of seeing humanity?

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I was wondering where knowledge is truly lacking, where curiosity about a topic is lacking, and where it matters most. Climate change is one topic where I do think there is basic necessary level of knowledge, most people have a fair amount of interest in it, and it obviously is important. What’s going on with the climate change ‘debate’ has to do with powerful interests controlling the reigns of power. If politicians did what most Americans want, we’d already be investing money and doing research to a far greater degree.

Ignorance is not the problem in that case. But it’s different with other topics. I’ve noticed how lead toxicity and high inequality maybe do more fall victim to ignorance, in that for some reason they don’t get the same kind of attention, as they aren’t looming threats in the way is climate change. In one post, I called lead toxicity a hyperobject to describe its pervasive invisibility. Temperature can be felt and a storm can be watched, but lead in your air, water, and soil comes across as an abstraction since we have no way to concretely perceive it. Even the lead in your child’s brain shows no outward signs, other than the kid being slightly lower IQ and having some behavioral issues.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure that is a problem of knowledge. Would teaching about lead toxicity actually make it more viscerally real? Maybe not. That’s a tough one. If you asked most people, they probably already know about the dangers of lead toxicity in a general sense and they already know about specific places where there are high rates, but they probably don’t grasp how widespread this is in so many communities, especially toxicity in general such as with toxic dumps. I don’t know what would make it seem more real.

Lead, as tiny particles, doesn’t only hide in the environment but hides in the body where it wreaks havoc but slowly and in many small ways. Your kid gets into a fight and has trouble at school. The first thought most parents have is simple concern for treating the behavior and the hurt the child is expressing. It doesn’t usually occur that there might be something damaging their child’s brain, nervous system, etc. All the parent sees is the result of changes in their child’s behavior. Knowledge, on the personal level, may or may not help that parent. Lead toxicity is often a larger environmental problem. What is really needed is a change of public policy. That would require not only knowledge, as politicians probably already know of this problem, but some other force of political will in the larger society. But since it’s mostly poor people harmed, nothing is done.

It’s hard to know how knowledge by itself makes a difference. It’s not as if there haven’t been major pieces on lead toxicity published in the mainstream media, some of them quite in depth. But the reporting on this comes and goes. It’s quickly forgotten again, as if it were just some minor, isolated problem of no greater concern. There definitely is no moral panic about it. Other than a few parents in poor communities that live with most severe consequences, it isn’t even seen as a moral issue at all.

That is what seems lacking, a sense of moral outrage and moral responsibility. I guess that is where, in my own thinking, self-understanding comes in. Morality is a deeper issue. Some of these thinkers on the mind and brain (McGilchrist, Jaynes, etc) are directly touching upon what makes the heart of morality beat. It’s not about something like brain hemispheres understood in isolation but how that relates to consciousness and identity, relates to the voices we listen to and the authority they hold. And, yes, this requires understanding a bit of science. So, how do we make this knowledge accessible and compelling, how do we translate it into common experience?

Take the other example. What about high inequality? In a way, it’s a hot topic and has grabbed public attention with Thomas Picketty, Kate Pickett, and Richard Wilkinson. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Even those on the political right are increasingly acknowledging it, such as the recent book Alienated America by the conservative Timothy Carney who works for a right-wing think tank. The knowledge is sort of there and yet not really. Americans, in theory, have little tolerance for high inequality. The problem is that, as the data shows, most Americans simply don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. Our present inequality is magnitudes beyond what the majority thinks should be allowable. Yet we go on allowing it. More knowledge, in that case, definitely would matter. But without the moral imperative, the sense of value of that knowledge remains elusive.

As for brain hemispheres, I suppose that seems esoteric to the average person. Even most well-educated people don’t likely take it seriously. Should they? I don’t know. It seems important to me, but I’m biased as this is an area of personal interest. I can make an argument that this kind of thing might be among the most important knowledge, since it cuts to the core of every other problem. Understanding how our brain-mind works underlies understanding anything and everything else, and it would help to explain what is going so wrong with the world in general. Knowledge of the brain-mind is knowledge about what makes knowledge possible at all, in any area. I suspect that, as long as our self-knowledge is lacking, to that degree any attempt at solving problems will be impotent or at least severely crippled.

Would discussing more about brain hemispheres and related info in the public sphere help with the situation? Maybe or maybe not. But it seems like the type of thing we should be doing, in raising the level of discussion in general. Brain research might not be a good place to start with our priorities. If so, then we need to find how to promote greater psychological and neurocognitive understanding in some other way. This is why I’m always going on about Jaynes, even though he seems like an obscure thinker. In my opinion, he may be one of the most important thinkers in the 20th century and his theories might hold the key to the revolution of the mind that we so sorely need. Then again, I could be giving him too much praise. It’s just that I doubt the world would be worse off for having more knowledge of this variety, not just knowledge but profound insight.

All in all, it’s a tough situation. Even if Jaynes’ book was made required reading in every school, I don’t know that would translate to anything beneficial. It would have to be part of a larger public debate going on in society. Before that can happen, we will probably need to hit a crisis that reaches the level of catastrophe. Then moral panic will follow and, assuming we avoid the disaster of authoritarianism, we might finally be able to have some serious discussion across society about what matters most. I guess that goes back to the context of knowledge, that which transmutes mere info into meaning.

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Here is an interesting question. How does knowledge become common knowledge? That relates to what I mentioned in another comment. How does knowledge become meaning? Or to put it another way: How does the abstract become concretely, viscerally, and personally real? A lot of knowledge has made this shift. So much of the kind of elite education that once would have been limited to aristocracy and monks has now become increasingly common. Not that long ago, most Americans were illiterate and had next to no education. Or consider, as I pointed out, how the skills of abstract and critical thinking (fluid intelligence) has increased drastically.

We can see this in practical ways. People in general have more basic knowledge about the world around them. When Japan attacked, most Americans had little concept of where Japan was. We like to think American’s grasp of geography is bad and it may be, but it used to be far worse. Now most people have enough knowledge to, with some comprehension, follow a talk or read an article on genetics, solar flares, ocean currents, etc. We’ve become a scientific-minded society where there is a basic familiarity. It comes naturally to think about the world in scientific terms, to such extent that we now worry about scientific reductionism. No one worried about society being overtaken by scientific reductionism centuries ago.

Along with this, modern people have become more psychologically-minded. We think in terms of consciousness and unconsciousness, motives and behavior, cognitive biases and mental illnesses, personality traits and functions, and on and on. We have so internalized psychological knowledge that we simply take it for reality now. It’s similar with sociology. The idea of race as a social construction was limited to the rarified work of a few anthropologists, but now this is a common understanding that is publicly debated. Even something as simple as socioeconomic classes was largely unknown in the past, as it wasn’t how most people thought. My mother didn’t realize she was part of a socioeconomic class until she went to college and was taught about it in a sociology class.

That is what I’m hoping for, in terms of brain research and consciousness studies. This kind of knowledge needs to get over the hurdle of academia and spread out into the public mind. This is already happening. Jaynes’ ideas influenced Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which has been made into an HBO show. His ideas were directly discussed in another HBO show, Westworld, and caused a flurry of articles in the popular media. He also influenced Neal Stephenson in writing Snow Crash, also being made into a show, originally planned by Netflix but now picked up by HBO. I might take the superficial view of brain hemispheres as a positive sign. It means the knowledge is slowly spreading out into the general public. It’s an imperfect process and initially involves some misinformation, but that is how all knowledge spreads. It’s nothing new. For all the misinformation, the general public is far less ignorant about brain hemispheres than they were 50 years ago or a hundred years ago.

Along with the misinformation, genuine information is also becoming more common. This will eventually contribute to changing understandings and attitudes. Give it a generation or two and I’m willing to bet much of what McGilchrist is talking about will have made that transition into common knowledge in being incorporated into the average person’s general worldview. But it’s a process. And we can only promote that process by talking about it. That means confronting misinformation as it shows up, not avoiding the topic for fear of misinformation. Does that make sense?

There Is No Useless Knowledge

We moderns like to think that knowledge seeking, as a widespread attitude and activity, is a modern invention. It’s typically considered that prior to recent history societies didn’t put much priority on gaining and passing on information. After all, formal education was rare until these past centuries.

In ancient Greece, the Sophists were the first professional teachers and they were teaching useful knowledge, not knowledge for knowledge’s sake. That was one of Socrate’s complaints about them — as a wealthy slaveholding aristocrat with a lot of time on his hands, Socrates found himself drawn toward what others deemed as the useless activities of questioning and doubting, just because he could. It wouldn’t be until the Enlightenment Age (and to a greater extent after industrialization) that larger numbers of people would have the luxury to become preoccupied with the seemingly useless.

Of course, what is useful and useless is in the eyes of the beholder. The very idea of useless knowledge is rather modern. And it is an interesting topic, such as what is useful in the short term vs the long term (see: Abraham Flexner, Nuccio Ordine, and Robert Dikgraaf). But maybe the conceptual frame of useless knowledge is misleading. It is easy to assume that supposedly ‘primitive’ people had little use for knowledge as such, beyond what was immediately applicable such as practical skills. Yet many tribal societies maintained and categorized enormous amounts of info about the world around them, even though it served no obvious and immediate purpose.

It appears the love of knowledge is an ancient human trait. Humans are naturally curious and enjoy learning. As modern Westerners, our failure to recognize this in other societies may not indicate any genuine lack in those societies. Any society able to maintain some basic level of stability over centuries will accrue vast knowledge and will find ways to organize it for purposes of transmitting it from one generation to the next, be it oral mnemonics or writing systems. Humans keep knowledge because it has been advantageous to do so, in that it has helped the species survive and societies to prosper.

What may appear useless in the present may prove to be useful in the future. Ultimately, there is no useless knowledge. Even knowledge for knowledge’s sake has its uses.

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Ancient Memory

“First came the temple, then the city.”

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 2947-2953

It would be naïve to limit the consideration of animal and plant knowledge to that which is essential for survival, or even that which is merely useful. All humans store knowledge for its own sake. In fact, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘The thirst for objective knowledge is one of the most neglected aspects of the thought of people we call “primitive”’ (1966, p. 3). He goes on to give a range of examples of biological knowledge from non-literate cultures and concludes that ‘animals and plants are not known as a result of their usefulness; they are deemed to be useful or interesting because they are first of all known’. This aspect of ‘native’ science, Lévi-Strauss argues, ‘meet intellectual requirements rather than or instead of satisfying needs’ (1966, p. 9).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

Kindle Locations 215-231

At the most obvious level, there is a need to know all the plants and animals in a tribal territory, often encompassing many different environments. If I mention hunter-gatherers, I conjure up the image of a hunter chasing a crocodile, kangaroo, mammoth or buffalo, but the vast majority of the creatures with which indigenous people interact are fish, small reptiles and, critically, invertebrates; there are thousands of insects, spiders, scorpions, worms, crustaceans and other little creatures in every landscape. It is necessary to know which ones can be eaten, which can be used for other products and which must be avoided. Every environment houses animals that bite, sting or maul, and some are deadly.

As Indigenous Australian Eileen McDinny of the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s Northern Territory explained: ‘Everything got a song, no matter how little, it’s in the song—name of plant, birds, animal, country, people, everything got a song.’2

The North American Navajo, for example, named and classified over 700 species of insect for zoologists a few decades ago, recording names, sounds, behaviour and habitats in myths, songs and dry sand paintings.3 Only one is eaten (the cicada) while some are bothersome (lice, gnats, mosquitoes, sheep ticks, flies). The vast majority of the 700 insects, the Navajo elders told the scientists, are classified because the Navajo love to categorise. And that study only included insects. All people, literate and non-literate, possess curiosity, intellect and a love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. But beyond simply identifying the species, a knowledge of animals and plants is often important because of what they indicate about seasonal cycles, and they often feature in stories that contain lessons about human ethics and behaviour.

Despite being active in natural history groups, I know no one today who could identify all the insects they may encounter even with a guide book, let alone all animal species. Yet, that is common practice among indigenous people.

Kindle Locations 1011-1018

It is not just their domestic products that are critical to the Pueblo way of life. The Pueblo retain a detailed understanding of numerous mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, spiders and insects in mythology, which is relayed through ritual. The stories help elders recall accurately how to use migratory birds as calendrical indicators, the optimum timing of hunting and fishing expeditions, how to ensure that sufficient breeding stock of non-domesticated species are left in the wild, how snake venom is stored in the snake and the impact when it is injected into humans. One Tewa ethnozoological study from the beginning of the twentieth century included details of molluscs and corals that were not found in Tewa territory. Seventeen long-extinct bird species were described while the insect list included many unknown to science at that time. Curiosity and the desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a human trait, not a Western one.

Ancient Memory

Forgetting something is a common human experience. We forget where we left our keys or parked our car, the name that goes with a familiar face or the birthday of a family member, a friend’s phone number or what we ate last night. Et cetera.

This can seem like the fate of humanity with our feeble brains. Yet some people have great memories. That is even more true for some societies. The next time you forget something think about the indigenous people who can remember things for centuries and millennia, in some cases all the way back to the Ice Age.

In our society, a large part of the population can’t even keep straight the details of recent history. We are bad enough about recall of info from within our lifetime. Anything before our birth is usually a vague blur. Maybe we need to work on that.

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Ancient Ruins Older Than The Pyramids Discovered In Canada
By Gabe Paoletti, ATI

Using carbon dating on the charcoal flakes, the researchers were able to determine that the settlement dates back 14,000 years ago, making it significantly older than the pyramids of Ancient Egypt, which were built about 4,700 years ago.

To understand how old that truly is, one has to consider that the ancient ruler of Egypt, Cleopatra lived closer in time to you than she did to the creation of the pyramids. Even to what we consider ancient people, the Egyptian pyramids were quite old.

This newly discovered settlement dates back more than three times older than the pyramids.

Alisha Gauvreau, a Ph.D student who helped discover this site said, “I remember when we got the dates back, and we just sat back and said, ‘Holy moly, this is old.’”
She and her team began investigating the area for ancient settlements after hearing the oral history of the indigenous Heiltsuk people, which told of a sliver of land that never froze during the last ice age.

William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk First Nation, said, “To think about how these stories survived only to be supported by this archeological evidence is just amazing.”

“This find is very important because it reaffirms a lot of the history that our people have been talking about for thousands of years.”

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 560-584

I believe that it would be only certain genres of information that would survive reasonably intact. The landscape is the basic structuring system for many indigenous cultures, so it is to be expected that records of landscape features would be the most enduring of all traditional knowledge. Consequently, I am very comfortable accepting the long-term records quoted in the following pages that relate to changes in the landscape. Although the content of stories may vary, what will survive longest is the base structure, a description of Country.

Many researchers argue that oral tradition is not a reliable source for information on historical events. I have no reason to doubt their research. Historical events are less critical to survival than the practical knowledge of plants, animals, the environment and the laws and expectations which bind the community. The natural sciences cannot be so readily adapted. Reality acts as an audit on the knowledge stored. As with all cultures, literate and oral, history is adapted to the political will of the powerbrokers who tell the stories.

There are some cultures that recall hundreds of years of historical data. In many Pacific villages, hereditary lines of the chiefs were used as a basic organising structure for the knowledge system. Some Māori can recite an 800-year genealogy dating from when their ancestors first reached New Zealand. In Africa, the king lists for Rwanda were structured by their reign and the quality of their kingship, which in turn acted as a set of subheadings for the many different anecdotes associated with their reign. The Fang of Gabon and Cameroon were able to recite genealogies of up to 30 generations in depth, recalling associated events from centuries ago. However, it is the landscape that offers the best examples of robust, long-term oral tradition.

The Dyirbal language group has lived in northeast Queensland for at least 10,000 years. One myth describes a volcanic eruption and the consequent origin of the three volcanic crater lakes which were formed at least 10,000 years ago: Yidyam (Lake Eacham), Barany (Lake Barrine) and Ngimun (Lake Euramoo). It describes the very different terrain in that time. Only recently, scientists were surprised to discover that the rainforest in that area is only about 7600 years old. Another Dyirbal storyteller told of how in the past it was possible to walk across the islands, including Palm and Hinchinbrook islands. Geographers have since concluded that the sea level was low enough for this to be the case at the end of the last ice age.19

Similarly, the Boon Wurrung and Kurnai people from Victoria, Australia, gave evidence to a select committee of the Legislative Council in 1858 detailing the landforms in Port Phillip Bay, including the path of the Yarra River. These details have since been verified by scientific mapping of the bay floor. It is debated whether the bay was last dry at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago, or had possibly dried out again, about 1000 years ago. At the very least, the geographical knowledge has been passed down accurately within oral tradition for a thousand years.20 Examples like these are being published regularly as geographers explore indigenous stories as scientific records.

Beyond Our Present Knowledge

When talking about revolutions of the mind, the most well known examples come from the past. The names that get mentioned are those like Galileo and Copernicus or, more recently, Darwin and Einstein. Most often, radical new theories and paradigms aren’t immediately recognized for what they are. It can take generations or even centuries for their contributions to be fully appreciated and for the full impact to be felt.

John Higgs argues that the entire twentieth century has been a period of rupture, when multiple lines of change merged. I agree with him. On a regular basis, I find myself wondering about how little we know and to what extent we are wrong about we think we know. There has never before been an era during which our understanding about the world and about ourselves has changed so dramatically and so quickly. And there is no sign in this trend abating, if anything quickening.

Some futurists see this leading toward a singularity, a tipping point beyond which everything will be transformed. It could happen. I wouldn’t bet against it. Still, I’m more neutral than optimistic about the end results. The future will be known in the future. The present is interesting enough, as it is, no matter where it will lead.

My focus has always been on a particular kind of thinker. I’m interested not just in those minds with a penchant for the alternative but more importantly those with probing insight. I like those who ask hard questions and considered challenging possibilities, throwing open the windows in the attic to let out the musty smell of old ideas.

That is why I spend so much time contemplating the likes of Julian Jaynes. Some consider him an oddball while others look to him as an inspiration or even a visionary. However you describe him, he was first and foremost a scholar of the highest order. Even as he crossed fields of knowledge, he presented his thoughts with firm logic and solid evidence. You can disagree with the case he made, but you have to give him credit for proposing the kind of theory few would even be capable of attempting. Besides that, he inspired and provoked other serious scholars and writers to take up his ideas or to consider other unconventional lines of thought.

For the same reason, I’ve had an even longer interest in Carl Jung. He was a similar wide-ranging thinker who came out of the psychological field, one of the greatest investigators of the human mind. He was likewise highly influential, an inspiration to generations of thinkers both within and outside of psychology. As I’ve mentioned previously, an unusual line of influence was that of his personality theory as it was developed by anthropologists in their own theorizing about and comparison of cultures. By way of Ruth Benedict and E.R. Dodds, that set the stage for Jayne’s focus on ancient cultures.

Let me share two other examples, limited to a single field of study. Corey Robin and Domenico Losurdo political theorists. The former made a powerful argument, in The Reactionary Mind, that conservatism isn’t what it seems. And the latter made a powerful argument, in Liberalism: A Counter-History, that liberalism isn’t what it seems. If either or both of them turn out to be even partly right about their theories, then much of the mainstream American discussion about ideology might be skewed at best and useless at worst. It could mean we have based nearly our entire political system on false ideas and confused beliefs.

While I’m at it, here are two more examples. More in line with Jaynes, there is Daniel Everett. And of an entirely different variety, there is Jacques Vallée. One is a linguist who was trained to become a missionary to the natives, specifically the Pirahã. The other was a respected astronomer who wandered into the territory of UFO research (an interest of Jung’s as well, as he saw it as symbolic of a new consciousness emerging). Both became influential thinkers because they came across anomalous information and chose not to ignore it. Everett more than met his match when he tried to convert the Pirahã, instead having found himself losing his religion and learning from them, and in the process he ended up challenging the entire field of linguistics. Vallée, a hard-nosed scientist, was surprised to see his fellow scientists throwing out inconvenient observational data because they feared the public attention it would draw. The particular theories of either Everett or Vallée is not as important as the info they pointed to, info that doesn’t fit accepted theories and yet had to be explained somehow.

That last example, Jacques Vallée, was particularly an out-of-the-box thinker. But all of them were outside mainstream thought, at least when they first proffered forth their views. These are the thinkers who have challenged me and expanded my own thinking. Because of them, I have immense knowledge and multiple perspectives crammed into my tiny brain. I’m reminded of them every time I read a more conventional writer, when all the exceptions and counter-evidence comes pouring out. It goes way beyond mere knowledge, as many conventional writers (including many academic scholars) also possess immense knowledge, but it’s conventional knowledge interpreted with conventional ideas, leading to conventional conclusions, serving conventional purposes, and in defense of a conventional worldview. Reading these conventional writers, you’d have no idea the revolution of the mind that has been occurring this past century or so and the even greater revolution of the mind yet to come.

The effects of this paradigm change will eventually be seen in the world around us, but it might take a while. If you live long enough, it will probably happen in your lifetime. Or if you exit stage left before the closing curtain, the changes will come for the generations following your own. Just don’t doubt a new world is coming. We are like the lords and serfs at the end of feudalism, not having a clue of the Enlightenment and revolutions that would quickly wash away the entire reality they knew. We aren’t just facing catastrophes in the world around us, possibilities of: world war, nuclear apocalypse, bio-terrorism, climate change, refugee crises, mass starvation, global plagues, robotic takeover, or whatever other form of darkness you wish to imagine. More transformative might be the catastrophes of the mind, maybe even at the level Julian Jaynes theorized with the collapse of the bicameral mind.

One way or another, something else will take the place of what exists now. Whatever that might be, it is beyond our present knowledge.

* * *

As a bonus, below is a nice personal view about Julian Jaynes as a man and a scholar. Even revolutionaries of the mind, after all, are humans like the rest of us. About the assessment of consciousness in the latter part of the essay, I have no strong opinion.

What It Feels Like To Hear Voices: Fond Memories of Julian Jaynes
by Stevan Harnad

No One Knows

Here is a thought experiment. What if almost everything you think you know is wrong? It isn’t just a thought experiment. In all likelihood, it is true.

Almost everything people thought they knew in the past has turned out to be wrong, partly or entirely. There is no reason to think the same isn’t still the case. We are constantly learning new things that add to or alter prior fields of knowledge.

We live in a scientific age. Even so, there are more things we don’t know than we do know. Our scientific knowledge remains narrow and shallow. The universe is vast. Even the earth is vast. Heck, human nature is vast, in its myriad expressions and potentials.

In some ways, science gives a false sense of how much we know. We end up taking many things as scientific that aren’t actually so. Take the examples of consciousness and free will, both areas about which we have little scientific knowledge.

We have no more reason to believe consciousness is limited to the brain than to believe that consciousness is inherent to matter. We have no more reason to believe that free will exists than to believe it doesn’t. These are non-falsifiable hypotheses, which is to say we don’t know how to test them in order to prove them one way or another.

Yet we go about our lives as if these are decided facts, that we are conscious free agents in a mostly non-conscious world. This is what we believe based on our cultural biases. Past societies had different beliefs about consciousness and agency. Future societies likely will have different beliefs than our own and they will look at us as oddly as we look at ancient people. Our present hyper-individualism may one day seem as bizarre as the ancient bicameral mind.

We forget how primitive our society still is. In many ways, not much has changed over the past centuries or even across the recent millennia. Humans still live their lives basically the same. For as long as civilization has existed, people live in houses and ride on wheeled vehicles. When we have health conditions, invasively cutting into people is still often standard procedure, just as people have been doing for a long long time. Political and military power hasn’t really changed either, except in scale. The most fundamental aspects of our lives are remarkably unchanged.

At the same time, we are on the edge of vast changes. Just in my life, technology has leapt ahead far beyond the imaginings of most people in the generations before mine. Our knowledge of genetics, climate change, and even biblical studies has been irrevocably altered—throwing on its head, much of the earlier consensus.

We can’t comprehend what any of it means or where it is heading. All that we can be certain is that paradigms are going to be shattered over this next century. What will replace them no one knows.

The Shamelessness of Shaming

There’s a reason education sucks, it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners, now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. [..]

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.

You know what they want? Obedient workers,­ people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

~ George Carlin

I was watching one of those videos showing how stupid kids are these days. It was the 2014 video from Texas Tech University. I think I’ve seen it before or one of the videos like it.

But the video itself isn’t important. It was highly edited and far from being an honest polling or scientific survey. It’s easy to focus on a few people and try to paint an entire demographic in bad light. It’s the same way the American media, political elite, and middle-to-upper classes love to shame the poor. It is good to keep in mind some of the kids in the video might be the first generation in their family to have gone to college.

This shaming has been going on for the entirety of US history, which is a relevant fact. Do the makers of such videos know the history of shaming? If not, what excuse do they have for being ignorant? It is fair to dismiss this bullshit shaming out of hand, because it is bullshit. People who participate in it are the ones who should feel ashamed.

The motivation behind the video, that of shaming people, irritated me. I went to a mediocre high school. And I know many people have gone to even worse high schools. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it just gets worse in poor areas. Few students get a good education and aren’t prepared for college, if and when they get there. I dropped out of college because of how underprepared and overwhelmed I was, although depression and learning disability played a role.

Anyway, the following are some of my thoughts.

* * *

I try to stay humble and keep perspective.

I know that when I came out of high school I was extremely ignorant. If anyone had asked me any questions about history, I would have given some really clueless answers, assuming I responded at all. It has taken me a couple of decades of serious reading and research to lessen that vast ignorance and I still remain ignorant about most areas of knowledge.

Learning is hard, for most of us. On top of that, many people have bad or uninspiring experiences of school. I suspect it is a rare person who makes it out of school with curiosity intact and a love of learning instilled in them.

I do find it sad that Americans aren’t better educated. But shaming them for a failed education system isn’t likely to improve anything. I understand the humor of wrong answers. And yet I save my outrage for the social problems and political incompetence that keeps producing ignorant Americans, generation after generation.

* * *

Ignorance is the starting point we all have in life. And it takes immense effort to move very far from that starting point.

I doubt people are more ignorant than they ever were. The closest equivalent to the Civil War for earlier generations might have been the War of 1812. If you asked young Americans a few generations ago why the War of 1812 was fought, most probably couldn’t have told you. It simply wouldn’t have felt relevant to them. Even talking to the older generations alive right now, those of my parents age and above, I’m constantly surprised by how little they know about American history and world history. It certainly isn’t limited to a single generation.

In the not too distant past, most people didn’t have much if any education at all. Even in early 20th century before universal public education, few Americans graduated high school or even elementary school. A large part of the population wasn’t even literate generations ago. In the late 1800s, about 1 in 5 Americans couldn’t read. Even though our education system is far from perfect, the improvements in public education are vast. We should fully appreciate that, even as we seek to do better.

I’d make another point. People tend to only know about what is close to their lives. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still going on. When my parents were growing up, the last of the Civil War veterans and former slaves were still living. When my grandparents were growing up, the last of the Indian Wars were fought. When my great grandparents were growing up, Reconstruction was still happening or had ended not too long before. When my great great grandparents were growing up, the Civil War took place—some of them having been born born near the death of the last American founders and could have met John Quincy Adams.

For most of US history, the country was young. No event was further back than a few generations. Now that we are in the 21st century, the the major events that shaped the country are beginning to feel ever more distant. There is also simply more history to be learned. Learning about US history for a kid born in the past was easier for the simple reason there was less to learn, but even then most Americans didn’t learn much history.

We are only shocked by ignorance today because, unlike in the past, we have come to believe that people shouldn’t be ignorant. It used be that people didn’t care about history all that much, for it didn’t put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. It is interesting that the world has changed so much that we now consider ignorance, the normal state of humanity, to be a mark of shame.

If we actually care about knowledge so much, why don’t we improve education and fund it better for all students?

* * *

I was thinking about what kinds of knowledge is valued.

Kids these days are taught a ton of info, a wider spectrum of knowledge than in past generations. For example, I bet the youth today know more about the larger world than did the youth a century ago. WWI was the first generation of Americans who even saw much of the world beyond US borders. And now traveling the world is common.

What we are taught is based on what those in power deem important. But that is dependent on historical situations and events. At present, kids are probably learning a lot about the Middle East and their knowledge in this area would put most adult Americans to shame. The focus of education in the past, for those who got an education, would have been far different.

I’ve talked to my parents about their childhood and young adulthood. My mom didn’t even know about the Cold War until the Reagan presidency, despite her having been born in the early Cold War. My parents barely knew what was happening in the Civil Rights movement when they were in high school and college. My parents didn’t know about sundown towns, even though my dad grew up in one and both of my parents went to college in one.

My dad also had never heard of bombing and terrorism of Black Wall Street, which occurred a short distance away from his mother’s childhood home. She moved to a major Klan center in high school. Her and my maternal grandfather had to have known the town they moved their young family to was a sundown town, as there were signs that said so. Yet no one talked about any of this and my father was raised in ignorance.

My maternal grandparents didn’t get much education. It is understandable that they didn’t know much. But my paternal grandparents were college educated. When the last of the Indian Wars happened in their childhoods, did any of my grandparents know about it. If not, why not? Like the Tulsa Riots, some of those Indian Wars happened not all that far from where my maternal grandmother spent her early life.

What excuses this ignorance? Nothing. Yet this is the common fate of humanity. We remain ignorant, unless we individually and collectively put immense effort toward informing ourselves. There is all kinds of knowledge we don’t value as a society, even when we should.

* * *

The impulse to shame is easy to give into. I do it myself on occasion.

I think this impulse comes from a place of frustration and apathy, verging on cynicism. We all see the problems we collectively face and we don’t know what to do about them. So, we look for scapegoats. Sometimes that means the youth and at other times it means the poor, minorities, or immigrants.

It is easier to project onto others and pretend one isn’t a part of the problem. It is easier to ridicule others than to try to understand. It is easier to blame than to help. Our laughter has a nervous edge to it, as we all realize the problem points back to all of us. It’s the kind of humor people distract themselves with.

Instead, why don’t we simply deal with the problem?

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

Language and Knowledge, Parable and Gesture

“Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.”
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

“As William Edwards Deming famously demonstrated, no system can understand itself, and why it does what it does, including the American social system. Not knowing shit about why your society does what it [does] makes for a pretty nasty case of existential unease. So we create institutions whose function is to pretend to know, which makes everyone feel better.”
~ Joe Bageant, America: Y Ur Peeps B So Dum?

“One important characteristic of language, according to Agamben, is that it is based on the presupposition of a subject to which it refers. Aristotle argued that language, ‘saying something about something’, necessarily brings about a distinction between a first ‘something’ (a subject) and a second ‘something’ (a predicate). And this is meaningful only if the first ‘something’ is presupposed . This subject, the immediate, the non-linguistic, is a presupposition of language. At the same time, language seems to precede the subject it presupposes; the world can only be known through language. That there is language that gives meaning and facilitates the transmission of this meaning is a presupposition that precedes every communication because communication always begins with language. 2

“Agamben compares our relationship with language with Wittgenstein’s image of a fly in a bottle: ‘Man exists in language like a fly trapped in a bottle: that which it cannot see is precisely that through which it sees the world.’ 3 According to Agamben, contemporary thought has recognized that we are imprisoned within the limits of the presuppositional structure of language, within this glass. But contemporary thought has not seen that it is possible to leave the glass (PO, 46).

Our age does indeed stand in front of language just as the man from the country in the parable stands in front of the door of the Law. What threatens thinking here is the possibility that thinking might find itself condemned to infinite negotiations with the doorkeeper or, even worse, that it might end by itself assuming the role of the doorkeeper who, without really blocking the entry, shelters the Nothing onto which the door opens. (HS, 54)

[ . . . ]

“What is compared in the parable , as for example in the messianic parables in the gospel of Matthew, is not only the kingdom of God with the terms used in the parables (a field in which wheat and weeds are mixed), but the discourse about the kingdom and the kingdom itself. In that sense, the messianic parables in Matthew are parables about language, for what is meant is language itself. And this, according to Agamben, is also the meaning of Kafka’s parable ‘On Parables’. Kafka is looking for a way beyond language that is only possible by becoming language itself; beyond the distinction between sign and what is signified:

If you’d follow the parables, you’d become parables yourselves and with that, free of the everyday struggle.(TR, 43) 17

“What Kafka indicates here, according to Agamben, is an indistinguishability between being and language. What does this process of becoming language look like? Agamben sees a hint of this in one of Kafka’s journal entries. On 18 October 1921, Kafka wrote in his journal:

Life calls again. It is entirely conceivable that life’s splendor forever lies in wait about each one of us in all its fullness, but veiled from view, deep down, invisible, far off. It is there, though, not hostile, not reluctant, not deaf. If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons. 18

“According to Agamben, this refers to an old tradition followed by the Kabbalists in which magic is, in essence , a science of secret names. Everything has its apparent name and a hidden name and those who know this hidden name have power over life and death and the death of those to whom this name belongs. But, Agamben proposes , there is also another tradition that holds that this secret name is not so much the key by which the magician can gain power over a subject as it is a monogram by which things can be liberated from language. The secret name is the name the being received in Eden. If it is spoken aloud, all its apparent names fall away; the whole Babel of names disappears. ‘To have a name is to be guilty. And justice, like magic, is nameless’ (P, 22). The secret name is the gesture that restores the creature to the unexpressed. Thus, Agamben argues, magic is not the secret knowledge of names and their transcendent meaning, but a breaking free from the name. ‘Happy and without a name, the creature knocks at the gates of the land of the magi, who speaks in gestures alone’ (P, 22).”
~ Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka (pp. 110118, Kindle Locations 2704-2883)

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

Looking the Other way: Willful Ignorance and Intentional Blindness

Ignorant. There is no word like it. Calling someone ‘uninformed’ or ‘misinformed’ doesn’t have the same force nor even the exact same meaning. No word can take the place of ‘ignorant’.

Yet it is politically incorrect to call someone ignorant. I’ve had comments deleted on Amazon reviews because I called someone ignorant when I meant it as a literal statement in that person was, as defined by the dictionary, “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.” It is considered mean-spirited to point out that someone is ignorant, even when or especially when it is true.

This just makes it all the more frustrating. Our society has a taboo about facing ignorance. We wouldn’t know how to function as a society without such ignorance. It can feel like it goes beyond even just ignorance. Along with an unwillingness to talk about ignorance, there is an ignorance of ignorance. It is the default position for nearly all social interactions and public discourses.

It can seem pointless even trying to blame anyone for being ignorant. The seeming unconscious obliviousness is immense. People are just ignorant. They don’t know any better, so the story goes.

My focus has been mostly on racism as of late. The ignorance in this area is more frustrating still. It is a systemic and institutional ignorance that makes possible the systemic and institutional racism.

Why are so many people ignorant about the continuing reality of racism?

“It can be tempting to think that today most white people are racist primarily because of an inadvertent lack of knowledge about the cultures and lives of people of color. Many white people in the United States and other white privileged countries do not often personally interact with people of color, and when they do, such interactions often are of the trivial sort found in consumer exchanges. Given the de facto but persistent racial segregation of many cities, neighborhoods, and schools and the paucity of non-stereotypical portrayals of people of color on television and in Hollywood movies, white solipsism is a real problem.”
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 219-223

But is ignorance reality a default state? How can an unintentional passivity toward racism cause it to be to remain so stubbornly in place?

There is a study that was about attentional focus. It measured this by eye gaze. As I recall, it had to do with differences between liberals and conservatives. There was something that either conservatives don’t appreciate or doesn’t fit into their worldview. They put an image of this thing or something like that in their visual field. What the researchers found was that the people who had a vested interest in not seeing something intentionally didn’t look in the direction of what they didn’t want to see. At some level, they had seen it, even though in questions they acknowledged no awareness of it being there.

These people went to great effort to maintain their experiential blindness. This is how willful ignorance operates. There is an intention behind the behavior, even if it isn’t fully conscious.

“A similar temptation is to think that white people are racist because they lack accurate knowledge about the (alleged) scientific, biological basis for racial categories. This view of racism holds that many people fail to understand that there are no necessary and sufficient biological or genetic conditions for dividing the human population into distinct races. Because of this failure, they mistakenly think that race and racial hierarchies are real. Demonstrate the lack of scientific basis for race, so says this eliminativist view, and racism will disappear because the categories on which it is based-white, black, and so on-will have disappeared. Racial categories and the racism they support are like the emperor who wears no clothes. All one need do is honestly point out the emperor’s nakedness, and the illusion of his clothing will disappear. Dismantling the biological theories of race upon which racism rests likewise requires merely the same straightforward good will to acknowledge the obvious: the lack of the scientific data to support racial categorization.’
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 227-232

I’m a lover of knowledge. I want to believe that knowledge matters. The issue isn’t really about knowledge, but about ignorance and the two aren’t necessarily oppositional. People know and don’t know things all the time. People are fully capable of dividing their minds and their lives, never making the connections that would cause them to see the full picture.

Knowledge isn’t just about facts, but more importantly about comprehension, about a visceral and emotional sense of really getting what something means and why it matters. Knowledge isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise. Truth is a moral force or it is nothing at all.

Pointing out data without a way of conveying meaning won’t undo ignorance. List the numbers of dead in the recent genocide against Palestinians won’t have an impact. But if you forced someone to spend a week having Israeli bombs falling all around them with dead bodies and destruction that couldn’t be ignored, all of a sudden that list of numbers would be viscerally real and would have an emotional impact. Mere knowledge that could be easily dismissed would become a truth with moral force.

Westerners can be told the data that objectively proves genocide. But data is just data. There is great power of the mind to not really see or comprehend the data, to dismiss it, ignore it and rationalize it away. It isn’t unintentional.

The oppression of dark-skinned people in Palestine follows the same basic pattern of the oppression of dark-skinned people in America. The mechanisms are the same. The details really don’t matter in defense of the social order and in upholding the status quo. Much has changed in the US over the centuries. Racism morphs to fit the times and yet basically continues on.

I sometimes try to make sense of this as mere inertia. But that doesn’t really explain anything at all. That is just an avoidance of responsibility and an avoidance of the despair that would accompany taking responsibility.

“Rather than an innocuous oversight, it was an active, deliberate achievement that was carefully (though not necessarily consciously) constructed, maintained, and protected. Du Bois eventually saw that to understand the white ignorance of non-white people, one has to hear the active verb “to ignore” at the root of the noun.”

We are ignorant because we ignore. This is willful ignorance. It isn’t just racial bias in institutions, residue of past racism. No, racism is alive and well, in the minds of all of us. We are afraid to call a spade a spade. It is politically incorrect to point out that our society is still racist.