Thursday, February 18, 2016

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

As a retired person with no financial pressures, I realize that I am probably part of a comfortable minority. Many across a wide demographic range struggle with daily life, leaving little time for what some might call the luxury of reflection and critical thinking. However, there are also many others who simply don't care about the wider society and world around them, preferring to make a virtue of their ignorance. It is the latter segment for whom I reserve both my concern and my scorn.

The other day I wrote a post about the steady declines in readership and revenues confronting newspapers today; as I suggested in that post, this has very serious implications for the health of democracy. An ignorant populace is easy prey for the unscrupulous manipulations too frequently practised by those in power and those seeking power. In response to that post, Montreal Simon sent me a link, which I included in an update, to a Press Progress piece with these disturbing statistics:
According to Statscan, the number of Canadians who follow the news on a daily basis dropped from 68% in 2003 to 60% in 2013.

Meanwhile, over the last decade, the number of Canadians who "rarely or never" follow the news nearly doubled from 7% in 2003 to 13% in 2013.
Curious, I wondered how American statistics compare:

As you can see, over a period of 15 years, American newspaper readership has fallen drastically in each demographic, from young to old. This got me thinking, and from that thinking I offer a thesis I realize is hardly a profound insight: There is a relationship between declines in consumption of traditional media (newspapers, network news, etc.) and the rise of the politics of division and demagoguery that has plagued both Canada and the United States in recent years.

Consider the evidence. In the world we once inhabited, pre-Internet and pre-Fox News, people got their information from what used to be termed 'trusted sources': network news and long-established newspapers. Today, with those sources in decline, people are cherry-picking their information sources, sources that all too frequently merely reinforce prejudices and ignorance. Indeed, in this view online materials do not function as part of the great equalizing function many ascribe to the Internet, but allow for even more isolation from the larger world we are all part of. Climate denialism is one illustration that comes readily to mind, and no amount of reason will derail the skeptics thanks to their selective consultation of sources. For a further and more nuanced discussion of this notion, I recommend an excellent and thought-provoking essay that Kirby Cairo wrote the other day.

As we in Canada well know, the longer the Harper cabal remained in office, the more divisive, contemptuous and racist it became. The last election campaign, with its race-baiting and profound denigration of all those who remained outside the narrow tent of their exclusionary practices, reached an historical nadir in our country. Achieving social consensus under that regime was regarded as a weakness, and so it doubled down in appealing to its base.

The same, of course, is happening right now in the United States in the Republican race for the presidential nomination:

Ted Cruz is no better. Watch his thoughts on climate change:

Especially rich in the above is Cruz's suggestion that people question the professors who spout climate change and think for themselves, the last thing he really wants. If you would like to read a refutation of Cruz's posturing, click here.

One must always be wary of oversimplifications, and I realize that what I have discussed here is only one part of the explanation for the deterioration of contemporary politics. Another big factor, of course, is the increasingly large proportion of people who are becoming the modern-day dispossessed. Justifiably angry and estranged, they want answers to the causes of their discontent that today's demagogues are only too eager to 'provide' on their road to power. Ignorance is their coin of the realm, and antidotes are desperately needed.

Increased news consumption can be part of the solution, but only if we have the will not to revel in our ignorance.


  1. What's really disturbing about Cruz, Lorne, is that he graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law with high marks. It would seem that a so called "first class" education no longer yields wisdom.

    1. Blind ambition seems to 'trump' all other considerations, Owen.

  2. The deterioration of contemporary politics and the inability of contemporary media to identify the cause of that deterioration, I think Lorne is the effect of fundamental or lack of fundamental ideas that drive the degree of intellectualism in a culture. If we ask what were the ideas Harper and his cabal stood for, the answer is they had no ideas, political or otherwise. A philosophical system of ideas has been replaced with an economic theory, Neoliberalism and a dogmatic fundamental religion, Evangelical Christianity.This is more prevalent in the States. At least Harper tried to hide his dogmatic beliefs. The fact that candidates make explicit their fundamental religious beliefs and no one sees this as cause for concern, you know reason and thought is no longer an option in American culture. Trump is cut from the same cloth. He proves that you don't have to believe in a fundamental religion to be a dogmatist.An Intelligent discussion of political ideas does not exist in American and to some degree Canadian culture. It is not just democracy that is in crisis, but more profoundly it is the thinking and ideas that give rise to democracy, that is in crisis and for the most part is being destroyed. Thinking itself, on the conceptual level, the level on which we acquire knowledge is rarely experienced particularly in political discourse. Faith and force dominates American culture and they are imposing that force on the world. If reason, the very faculty that we exercise to understand the world around us is abdicated, then how are we to know? Are we to accept on faith, that our political leaders will govern in accordance with our rights and freedoms? Look at any culture ruled by faith and what you will see is a tyranny and now with Neoliberalism, that tyranny is global. When faith replaces thinking, then ignorance reigns. To a tyrant the thinker becomes the enemy. To a society of conformists the thinker becomes an outsider. The ignorant have always been with us. We give them power at our own demise.

    1. Well said, Pamela. Perhaps the biggest irony in American politics is that while leaders decry theocracies that exist in places like Iran, they themselves are victims of the same fundamentalist forces. Without self-awareness, the prognosis for civilization is grim indeed.