Imagine for a moment a world where clueless people remain silent; where those without working knowledge shut up and listen. A society whose people, instead of making wild, uneducated stabs, feels compelled to investigate, question and probe. Consider a culture that actually cares about the damage caused by ignorance and prejudice, to friends and strangers alike.
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Once upon a time there was authority. I don’t mean in the policing or juridical sense — Rome didn’t have police, you know? — I’m talking of intellectual authority. If you had a question about childbirth you went to see the wizened midwife that delivered both you and your mother into the world. If you were ill, your only hope was if the sawbones had seen a similar case, or had a beaten, weather-worn hand-me-down almanac that described how to use leeches effectively. Slowly though, over thousands of years, authority shifted to the written and printed word; the professionals remained masters, but they could not travel the world as quickly or as effusively as books. Information became available, accessible, free — and both culture and science surged forward as a result.
Society began to revere the written word. For some reason, ink impressed on paper in the shape of words and sentences have immense weight and meaning. What you read about giving birth is suddenly more true than the wizened midwife’s decades of experience. A book says the world is flat and, in your mind, in an instant, the world becomes flat. It’s magical just how much credence the written word is given — people will believe the craziest things if they’re written down.
Poof! The Internet!
Authority still exists — somewhere — but its voice is muffled, drowned out by a sea of disinformation; information that gets propagated as wisdom because we simply don’t know any better. That’s what old wives’ tales are incidentally: something your great, great grandmother once read, assimilated as truth and then forwarded it along through the generations. Does masturbation really give you hairy palms? Is thirteen actually unlucky? No.
And therein lies the problem: knowledge is power whether it is proven true or not. Fallacy, slander and gossip — it is all, from the (unfortunate) recipient’s point of view, working knowledge. You read some juicy little factoid about a famous celebrity and… it makes you feel good. Chances are it’s not true, or only partially so, but knowing that little nugget of knowledge somehow makes you feel enlightened, powerful. “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on” Winston Churchill famously said. There is a reason people peddle in lies and half-truths. There is a reason why newspaper editors ‘add one’ to death tallies or run with unnamed sources. And that’s the other, far more tricky problem: lies, if repeated enough by any kind of authority — a priest, a mother, a teacher — become truth. Cold hard truth that, within a generation, becomes wisdom.
We’re all walking around with a lot of data that we think is true. It’s a survival trait: our nurture is like gospel. And that’s bad when it overrides our nature, our experiences. We feel qualified to dispense these false truths to others.
‘You must have something wrong with your head’ we tell our friends and loved ones.
‘You shouldn’t do that, it’s wrong, it’s bad’ we say to our girlfriends and boyfriends.
‘How can you believe in that?’ we say to our friends with a differing faiths.
Anyone that’s mastered a field or subject will know that it feels a lot like peeling back layers of untruth — Oh, so that’s how it works! — that’s all real education is. It fills in gaps and rewrites what we’ve known and worked with for years. But it’s not easy. It’s no simple task to alter your entire vision of the world just because an encyclopaedia or wise man tells you to. How long did people hold onto the fact that the world was flat? That’s why false knowledge and data will continue to propagate through generations. We’re stubborn bastards.
Next time, before you pass along a piece of information, think about whether it’s actually true or not. If you’re not sure, go to the library and find out what the truth really is. At the very least you’ll be doing the next generation and tomorrow’s civilisation a huge favour.
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Please excuse my use of the African American vernacular — dis, to disrespect – but it was necessary. It’s altogether more punchy than ‘Don’t go insulting what you don’t know nothing about.’
This isn’t finished. Next I want to tie this into religion, prejudice and ignorance.