Violence and Ignorance

I have seen quite a few entries around the social justice blogosphere recently that deal with the concept of ignorance. As people have very rightly pointed out from a number of perspectives, it is dangerous to label groups of people (for their ideas or position in life) ‘ignorant’ or ‘misguided’, which creates an us vs. them mentality and perpetuates systems of inequality in our world that value some people’s ideas more than others.

This concept is something I’ve been struggling with personally for a long time. I’ve never been a fan of dismissing large groups of people, or even any individual person (often leading to great personal distress, so perhaps I should rethink that position…). I think it is crucial to the feminist project to learn to value others, even when it is difficult.

But of course, this becomes quite problematic when people have ideas that are violent.*

I honestly have trouble thinking of any reason for a person to have incredibly violent ideas unless they are either a) ignorant, or b) mean. In my way of using these words, if you are ignorant, you have the best of intentions but haven’t been taught or been encouraged to think about your privilege and the way oppression operates in this world. If you are mean, you know all this stuff, but still choose to hate a specific group anyway. I find the ignorant idea usually more useful, because I tend to believe that most people have the best of intentions – they just haven’t had an opportunity to learn about a specific marginalized group, or have been taught so intensely from one perspective that they find no reason to look at the issue from a different angle.

Of course, the use of the word ‘ignorant’ to apply only to specific groups (such as ‘rednecks’) is clearly problematic. A Harvard-educated white man can obviously be totally ignorant about violence and oppression. But simply not applying the word to specific groups isn’t enough – everything I just said in the paragraph above about not being taught the ‘right’ things or refusing to learn the ‘right’ things just screams of a condescending, black-and-white worldview.

So my question is, how do we understand, confront, and/or address violent ideologies seriously, without relying on the rhetoric of ‘ignorance’ or ‘misguidedness’? What language can we use to make sense of the very real violence that some ideologies perpetuate? What mental frameworks will help us overcome the idea that some people are just ‘ignorant’, while still recognizing that they are doing harm in this world (and are not simply mean, which is clearly an unsatisfactory answer).

Recognizing the way that we all act violently and perpetuate violent ideologies everyday, however liberal we might be, is an important step in the right direction – but it doesn’t fully answer the question. If education is to be thought at all relevant to social justice, then it follows that people with less education in these issues would be more ignorant about them. Does the concept of education have to be completely reworked? Do we essentially have to keep some notion that people are ignorant? Or is there a way to think about violent ideologies that doesn’t have anything to do with ignorance?

*I use the term ‘violent’ in its broadest sense, to include perpetuating all forms of social inequality.

Join the Conversation

  • Nazza

    I start from the fact that even violence comes from a place of pain, and try not to forget that no matter in what form it arrives.

  • The Flash

    Perpetuating social inequality isn’t always violent. Sometimes it’s good– like when you reward someone for working hard and fire someone for being lazy. That’s not violent. That increases social good by creating incentives to work hard and produce more.
    In any event, ignorance IS someone’s own fault, in a way. In the United States, the superculture is the heir of the socratic concept that one only knows that one knows nothing– that wisdom is necessarily humble. If you don’t know that you’re ignorant, it is your own damn fault for not being more humble about your knowledge and experience. You don’t need to have studied Socrates to see that there are social clases and customs and modes and experiences which you don’t know about. The ‘sin’ of ignorance is one of pride, and it isn’t an issue of education, but of the desire for education.