Ignorance, Instruction and Rhetoric


I am partway through Daniel DeNicola’s Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, and while it has been interesting (if, at times, stumbling over seemingly simple questions as philosophy often does), there are a few lines that have really stood out for me. Lines that instantly made me draw connections with other works and ideas, prompting some questions I thought worth exploring.

DeNicola borrows Plato’s Cave, from Republic, as one depiction of “ignorance as a place” (he later uses the Garden of Eden in a similar, incredibly fascinating way). The inhabitants of this Cave are said to be have been born there, living their life bound and in the dark, unable to even move their heads. They know of nothing else but the shadows on the wall of the Cave, the source of which they are unaware of.

The reader is given information about the state of these apparent prisoners, a horrifying perspective that we, with the gift of knowledge, have that those inside could never even conceive. We see them as ignorant, oblivious to their plight, even as they pay no heed to it because it is all they have ever known. How could they know, when the unknown is unknown to them? (One of the 4 categories of “known-ness”, for lack of a better word).

An interesting point made is we are all like the prisoners in the Cave, for while we may look at them with a sense of knowing and understanding, we too “have no valid method of assessing the extent of our ignorance” [original emphasis]. We might not be prisoners, Plato’s “troglodytes”, in the physical sense – or are we? – but we are limited by the fact we are unable to comprehend things beyond our knowledge or comprehension.

But, that intriguing concept aside, let’s stick to areas we are aware of, including the fact we do know the position of those in the Cave. Therefore, we are in a position to instruct them.

“Even the holding of a false belief implies a level of knowledge sufficient for a possible correction.”

In this scenario, the people in the Cave have false beliefs and knowledge about the world they exist in, that all they see is all there is, the purpose and origins of the shadows, etc.

“Where the unknown unknowns are so life-pervasive, and where false knowledge is deeply embedded, a threshold of self-ignorance is crossed, and disillusionment [original emphasis] becomes impossible without assistance.”

This assistance comes from beyond the Cave. DeNicola briefly describes Plato’s telling of a prisoner’s release and realisation, the immense shift in how they view everything, the shattering of an ignorance they were unaware of, the terror of how they used to be. There was also the initial resistance to this intervention, which I will talk more about below.

This is obviously an extreme case, where the “enlightened” open the world to one who was entirely ignorant of it beforehand, but can be simmered down to more daily occurrences, to “innocent” ignorance or wilful ignorance and false beliefs. The latter should be extremely obvious, particularly with the rise of questionable or downright incorrect information pervading discourse.

Climate change is a major issue that this kind of ignorance thrives in, and I have previously written about this before, referring to what little I had read at the time of Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric. As DeNicola claims we can correct those with false beliefs, Aristotle admits that “there are people whom one cannot instruct.” Even with the “exactest knowledge”, there are those like Plato’s Cave dwellers who will resist the information being conveyed, no matter how truthful.

Aristotle believed that truth and justice would prevail in all circumstances, and where they failed to do so it was the “speakers”, whoever they may be, who were to be condemned. He was referring to judges whose decisions were not based on what was true or just, but as I wrote last May, this could apply to climate change deniers and sceptics, those who reject the reality in front of them.

On top of instruction must therefore be the rhetoric to back it, whether to produce conviction or to combat the rhetoric in opposition to truth. The wealth of scientific knowledge we have at our disposal does not reach or convince all of those who are misled by the dearth of bankrolled outlets and special interests that flourish from this global deception. Are those people simply ignorant? To an extent this could be argued, depending on what kind of ignorance you are alluding to.

Some, like those in the fossil fuel industries and the politicians, media puppets, and “scientists” that are bought out by them, are not ignorant. Perhaps there are some who are just bafflingly blind, but the vast majority are well aware of the damage they are causing. These are, in Aristotle’s terms, the speakers who shape the decisions of the “judges” (the public) with rhetoric.

Those pulled in by that rhetoric aren’t necessarily ignorant, however. Ignorance might be one of the first words we think of when someone denies science or promotes falsehoods, but as quoted above, false beliefs do imply a level of knowledge. To deny climate change requires at least some, even minor, form of understanding and knowledge of what climate change entails. Those on the frontlines of such debates know exactly what it “supposedly” is, and they build arguments or even careers around “exposing” it and the agenda that encircles it.

Some of these people could have quite an extensive knowledge of climate change (although this would be a minority), but view it through a framework of denial. Is this ignorance, or something else entirely? It isn’t unknown to them, and for some it isn’t even a case of not knowing enough. Here, simply put, they must be victims of rhetoric – and that is where the real ignorance lies.

While nothing quite so primitive and depraved as the troglodytes of Plato’s Cave, we who champion climate justice can see what those victims of false rhetoric cannot – the deception, the lies, the tricks that are used to sway peoples’ very worldview. Not only that, but we watch in sorrow as these people, so drawn into this world, accuse us of being the ones indoctrinated into an intricate trap.

This does offer us a chance to consolidate our views – what if we are wrong? What if it is all a hoax? What if there is some global agenda and they have been right all along? These are questions that do, to an extent, need to be asked purely on the basis of knowing what we know to be truthful. Sadly, many of the people who deny climate change fail to ask similar questions about their own views, instead relying on the voices of others who do not have their best interests in mind.

My stance has always been, to the best of my ability, not mock or belittle climate deniers, but instead attempt to provide evidence that their ideas and sources are flawed. Using instruction or persuasion to convince people of your ideas will work much better than instantly resorting to insults or disparaging comments. Success won’t always be the result, so vast and deep is the propaganda against us, but our standing as legitimate and worthwhile voices cannot be challenged.

But what about those who resist, those who do not wish to leave the Cave, regardless of their newfound knowledge of the unknown? Plato, in DeNicola’s telling, is rather blunt, dragging the freed prisoner above ground, a coercive but educational intervention that, gradually and eventually, they will look back on gratefully. As painful as the transition was, they are thankful for the veil being removed and pity what they used to be. Perhaps that would be true of climate deniers if we, figuratively or literally, dragged them away from their false beliefs and into the light.

Perhaps. I do not see that as a viable option, however, for it requires exerting power over people, some of whom already view “climate warriors” as authoritarian (however baseless that claim is). Do we have the right to instruct people should they resist instruction? Do we have the right to persuade people with rhetoric? We denounce the rhetoric and propaganda of the fossil fuel industry and their foot soldiers in government and media; what is different about us using similar tactics to sway people? Does our truth and the moral and environmental weight of our position justify what could be described as coercion?

I am not saying do not debate and argue, or that we should just pack up and let the world take its doomsday course. More than ever we need unity and the strength to tackle an existential crisis. This can, and must, be done with the goal of overthrowing authority and power structures in mind, not simply using existing systems for our own benefits. Part of that involves analysing and exposing these structures, including those that use rhetoric to control discourse and thought.

The caveat here, though, is that this does mean we cannot shut down or de-platform views that oppose ours, or that peddle false beliefs. Noam Chomsky argues that free speech is for everyone, even those we disagree with or despise, otherwise we are not for free speech. Who decides which views are acceptable? We see private companies and governments across the world crashing down on people across the political spectrum without much oversight or checks on power.

No, instead we need to work towards exposing and abolishing the corporate media structures that overshadow the news we consume. In Australia there is a phrase (that I cannot remember the origins of) regarding the concentration of media: “If you want to know what the news will be tomorrow, read The Australian today.” The Australian being one of the flagship Murdoch newspapers in the country.

We need to work towards tearing corporate power out of our political systems, a scourge that has seeped into most parties, especially the mainstream ones. Our elected representatives, if our democracy is to mean anything, should actually be representing us, not the interests of corporate conglomerates that can buy elections. Better yet, direct action and involvement in political and decision-making processes, either as individuals or through voluntary associations, like Unions, would ensure that moneyed interests do not shape public policy.

With these power structures weakened or removed, we move closer to Aristotle’s rather utopian world where what is true and just prevails. All views can be openly expressed and discussed, and without the insidious, relentless stranglehold of power over this sphere, people will realise how manipulated and warped the system is. There would still be those who resist for whatever reasons, but they should be approached with sympathy and a kind hand, not forced to engage or agree against their will.

The point I am trying to make is that the freer the society, the more likely truth and justice will take its rightful place in discourse. We are, it must be admittedly, a dauntingly long way from reaching anything close to that point, but I believe that learning and the seeking of truth is a natural trait of humanity. Given the conditions to freely and creatively express and explore the information at hand without the coercion of authority, such as the science behind climate change and action, I envision not a perfect world, but one where individuals and collectives can work together to further human progress and knowledge to new heights.

We are all, in many ways, ignorant, most importantly of things we are ignorant of. Instruction and rhetoric can be important tools to replace ignorance with understanding and realisation, but they should always be approached with rigorous self-awareness and in a way that does not express authority or superiority over others, alongside a willingness to dispel your own ignorance should your knowledge be incomplete or wrong.

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