In aftermath of the Enlightenment, most of the world’s scholars chased after knowledge, hunting the sources of knowledge with the single-mindedness of Captain Ahab tracking Moby Dick. But today, we need to hunt a different problem: to understand how strategic ignorance can be a form of power. Take coronavirus. US president Donald Trump boasted in a press conference in March that US coronavirus cases are comparatively very low, and he then claimed this proves that the US government is handling the crisis well.
My book, The Unknowers: How Strategic Ignorance Rules the World, explores the political and economic value of ignorance over modern history. I argue that the more power any particular group accumulates, the more its members often rely on ‘strategic ignorance’ in order to meet various goals, pretending that their actions don’t cause harm to other groups even when they do. Examples include the Grenfell fire, where residents of the tower tried for years to warn council authorities about fire risks, only to be wilfully ignored by those in charge. In 2011, Rupert Murdoch’s claim of ignorance about illegal hacking and bribery helped him to avoid legal liability even while his staff faced jail sentences. A few years earlier, during the financial crisis of 2008, executives at the world’s largest investment banks pleaded ignorance of the toxic nature of financial assets exchanged by top traders. The banks were saved by government bailouts, while individual homeowners suffered foreclosures without any similar helping hand.
What legal and political mechanisms enable the powerful to avoid liability for their own ignorance? The Unknowers offers answers, demonstrating that ignorance, and not simply knowledge, is a type of power. For anyone facing an (unknown) period of self-isolation, here’s a non-exhaustive sample of other reads, both novel and non-fiction, that illuminate the power of ignorance.
In this classic defence of democracy, Paine considers the problem of ignorance, but, unlike many writers before him, he focuses on the ignorance of the rich, not the poor. He insists that government by a wealthy elite is the ‘most ignorant and unfit of any’, because unelected rulers born to a life of privilege know so little about how working people actually live. When the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez points out that bartending makes her a better governor because she can understand the lives of workers, she is making the same vital point that Paine made during the American Revolution.
Wollstonecraft wrote this important 1790 essay before her better-known pamphlet, The Rights of Woman (1792). Interestingly, Paine published his own essay with the same title as Wollstonecraft, The Rights of Man, a few months after Wollstonecraft’s earlier text (he doesn’t cite her). Wollstonecraft offers a prescient early description of what psychologists would later call ‘confirmation bias’: where people prefer to engage with facts that confirms an earlier position, rather than facts that disconfirm them. As she puts it: ‘When we read a book that supports our favourite opinions, how eagerly do we suck in the doctrines. But when, on the contrary, we peruse a skilful writer, with whom we do not coincide in opinion, how attentive is the mind to detect fallacy.’ In other words, strategic ignorance is often ideologically motivated, and all sides of the political spectrum engage in it.
As if channelling the legacy of Wollstonecraft, who did not get the recognition she deserved for her path-breaking Rights of Men essay, Wolitzer’s satire is a story about a woman who secretly writes her husband’s award-winning books for him. The novel shows that deliberate ignorance can pervade families at the most intimate level, with both comical and tragic outcomes.
A short, haunting novel about a marriage crushed by taboos around expressing sexual desire in Britain during the 1960s, McEwan explores the sadness of ignorance. All families – just like nations – craft together different types of ‘curated ignorance’ to share with the world, to use a compelling phrase from the social theorist Paul Gilroy. The will to ignore is, at the individual level, a universal, human tendency. It’s what we refuse or can’t face about ourselves that makes ignorance the shared problem that it is. McEwan captures this reality well, writing sympathetically of one of the main characters: ‘She never could quite get the full measure of her ignorance.’
By one of the greatest Black American authors, Ellison’s novel explores what it’s like to feel unwillingly invisible, to be systematically ignored except as a target of scorn, what it’s like to have people gaze at a person and refuse to see past the characteristics that some people insist defines a human being’s inner nature: like their skin colour, their gender, or their accent. Ignorance might be shared, but it is also unevenly distributed in society, with the powerful often gaining unfair advantages from their own ignorance even as they lament the ‘ignorance’ of groups systematically denied the same educational opportunities.
A pioneering account of a specific form of societal ignorance: systematic bias against women in science and policy-making. The book examines the tendency to ignore women in a wide range of social and policy interventions that are ostensibly aimed at improving ‘humankind,’ but in reality were designed with only the bodies of men in mind.
Recommended to me by one of my undergraduate students, this book is a brilliant and often heart-wrenching account of growing up in Britain in the 1980s as a mixed-race child whose academic gifts are often dismissed or denigrated by mostly white educators. It’s also an astute analysis of ongoing forms of neocolonial global violence today. Akala ends the book on a hopeful note, commending the UK government’s 2013 decision to apologize for the torture and killing of Mau Mau insurgents during British colonial rule. By admitting what for decades had been systematically concealed, Britain inched towards a more honest reckoning with its past. As The Unknowers concludes, the acknowledgment of ignorance can be a force for good. At the very least, knowing more about ignorance can help to prevent authorities from claiming that low ‘official’ coronavirus numbers are an accurate picture of reality.