I believe that ignorance is not bliss, and it is definitely not a virtue.

When a CEO or other leader claims ignorance of his subordinates’ wrongdoing, that is grounds for incompetence, not innocence. When parents keep secrets from their children, they are leaving them not in bliss but in wariness and uncertainty, or at best in obliviousness. We call ignorance bliss when we learn something unpleasant and wish viscerally we did not know it, when our assumptions about ourselves, our world, or people we love or respect are challenged or disproved, and we question our judgment. We call ignorance bliss in comparison to shock and self-questioning. We call ignorance bliss when we wish to turn back time.

A lack of ignorance on a subject is not the same as knowing all the details. A parent can keep her child informed about where babies come from or other ‘adult’ topics or issues without rubbing his face in all the gritty details, or forcing him to assimilate complex concepts too fast. By treating even children with respect, by not hiding the ambiguity of the world or lying about uncomfortable subjects, one allows people around oneself to learn and grow at their own pace. If someone is mature enough to ask, it is wrong to put obstacles in their way. You don’t have an obligation to answer, especially to a stranger or to someone asking in a rude or disrespectful manner, but those who don’t speak aren’t heard. I’d rather speak than stay silent, most times; I ask questions, I offer theories, I seek to define myself and the world around me through respectful conversation with others and knowledge-seeking in my own right.

Ignorance is a state where the knowledge is out there, and one doesn’t know it because one hasn’t looked or tried to learn it, or someone is keeping that knowledge secret from you. This definition doesn’t imply that other people owe you an education, unless they voluntarily take on the role of teacher. Nor do you owe anyone anything but basic courtesy, respect, and the self-awareness not to abuse your privileges, as a general rule of thumb. But I believe that both willful ignorance and keeping secrets are generally corrosive to the human soul and to one’s relations with others.

Emotional closeness comes from trust and shared vulnerability. Even when one keeps secrets to protect people, it takes a strong emotional toll. It implicitly betrays the trust received by hiding that one has closed up part of oneself, which cheapens any vulnerability one offers in return. If one keeps secrets from oneself or to protect oneself, one loses the chance to incorporate knowledge from those secrets into one’s identity and one’s world.

As for willful ignorance—why keep the world narrow? I think the political and social landscape of America during the Bush years is an excellent example of how willful ignorance, secrets, and abuse of public trust corrode not just individuals but communities, countries, and our shared future.

I believe that everyone ought to be able to learn at their own pace, but that ideal requires that society encourage curiosity and not mire itself in excessive self-deception. It requires society to ensure that everyone can find the time and resources for self-education, and to avoid privileging a formal classroom education over other routes to expanding one’s capacities. It requires a culture that values knowledge, a society secure enough to question and to answer, to look and to find, again and again.

The story of the Garden of Eden is a classic case for the so-called bliss of ignorance. Life in the Garden is free from worry or physical needs; God has created an environment where food, shelter, and companionship are freely available, but information is not. Adam and Eve are free to create their own knowledge, free to name the animals and categorize the world around them, but God does not share the knowledge of Good and Evil. God reveals its existence, but only in the context of forbidding them access to it. It is left to God’s creation, the snake, to encourage them not just to go confirm its existence, but to ingest it, absorb it into themselves and their knowledge of the world. And it is only when Eve and Adam make the choice of knowledge that God judges them ready for the outside world, and ready to be parents.

We are not born of our fathers’ ribs but of our mothers’ wombs. Knowledge is not painless; seeding knowledge may be fun and exciting, but releasing it into the world in a form that is ready to be independent of you is anything but. And perhaps it is no mistake that the act of acquiring moral knowledge is often know as the Original Sin. The word we translate as ‘sin’ comes from a Greek word for missing the mark, as in an arrow that does not quite hit the target. The knowledge we value most is the sort not easy to hit, the kind that requires many arrows sent towards the target, and the willingness to miss, to deal with the consequences responsibly, and to try again.

I believe that knowledge has worth, and that ignorance is a vacuum; I believe that everyone has a right to seek knowledge and the right to learn at the their own pace, and the obligation not to let exercising those rights retard the growth of others.


I didn’t go out to work in a homeless shelter today, or paint a house, or do any physical action that could be contributed to me. My act of public service today consisted of wading back into a very heated discussion occurring near my other corner of the blogosphere about cultural appropriation and racism that grew out of certain published authors blogging about their thoughts on ‘writing the other.’

Some of the commentators on both sides have gotten very nasty. Some people I really respect have said some pretty blatantly outrageous things, and are too busy defending themselves and jumping unasked to the defense of others who were willing to say, ‘you’re right, I’m sorry, you’re right and I was wrong,’ to wake up and hear themselves.

I believe these conversations are important to have. I believe that participating them in a patient, polite, open way without compromising one’s essential values is vitally important, and that too many people refuse to talk at all, or agree to disagree too fast, on controversial issues. I believe that part of what went so wrong in the past eight years is that people put their heads down rather than stir the pot among their families, their friends, and their communities, local and national. Argument for the sake of argument, and controversy for the sake of controversy is generally obnoxious, but change won’t come without a little civic engagement.

I think I’ve done my part today with words.* In the future, I’ll try to make sure all my words are matched with actions, but I think the words are important too. As ‘coffeeandink’ wisely said in one of the innumerable threads I’ve been reading, the stories we tell ourselves in our fiction are the stories we tell in our blogs, our newspapers, our public conversations. Words have power. They have the power to change how we see the world, or to reinforce our perspectives, and we in turn have the power to shape the world with which we interact. Not being sensitized to the implications of how certain words and actions might fit into broader social trends is a privilege. Unless society changes, that privilege won’t go away no matter what you personally do. But the privilege that comes with being a thoughtful human being who cares about whether her words might hurt other people is that you can learn how not to exercise the privileges that automatically come with being white or high caste or whatever other characteristics to which your privileges are tied.

*And no, I don’t get a cookie for doing so, because that’s not what an act of public service is about. In a very real sense, these conversations were not about me, shouldn’t be about me, and I didn’t do what I did because I was trying to prove that I am an ally. I want to be and to act as an ally, but one doesn’t wade into such emotionally sensitive conversations where other people are being hurt in order to re-frame the conversations around oneself, which is what trying to prove (and thus implicitly asking if one has earned the right to so call) oneself an ally is. However, since this journal is my space where I share how I see and interact with the world around me, and today is a day when my President-elect, who tomorrow will be my new president, asked all of us American citizens to go forth and do public service, I am drawing attention to what I have done. I do so because I consider it my act of public service and I want to encourage my readers to expand their definition of what public service is beyond the physical and the blatantly visible. When we make public service a message in a broader conversation about what citizenship means, an act of public service is both a public statement and a gift freely given. It says: it’s not all about me; it’s only about me in the sense that I/’me’ is a member of a broader community, and that you are too.