.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}
Visit Freedom's Zone Donate To Project Valour

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

You can tell a lot about a person if you can catch the person in an unguarded moment and get an honest answer to this hypothetical:
Imagine you were in the early stages of an unusually fatal form of brain cancer, which kills those afflicted symptomlessly and painlessly. If caught early, ten percent of those afflicted, on average, will be cured with a rigorous, painful and disabling course of treatment. If your cancer is detected early, all that medicine can offer you is that choice of pain with a relatively slim hope.

If not detected, 90% of the sufferers die within three days of first feeling ill, and never suffer any pain.

Would you want to know about your cancer?
Because I'm a fair person, I'll tell you that I would want to know, even though because of other medical problems, I would almost certainly not seek treatment. But would you want to know? Would you prefer the easy exit without fear to the difficult choice with little certainty?

I think many persons, especially young ones, would prefer not to have to make the choice. It seems to me either that society is making the choice not to know with regard to world affairs today, or that a great struggle is going on between those who choose to see and those who don't want to see and are irremediably furious with those who keep insisting that they should see a doctor.

With that in mind, I'd like to link to a post of Pedro The Quietist's regarding some musings of Andrew Sullivan's on the similarities between Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists. It is a short post, and so we punished Pedro with long comments. Dingo made an appearance.

Then there's Kobayashi Maru's post on rats, which is a must-read.

But what happens to a person, psychologically, when they *know* at some level, but insist on keeping the knowledge below the level of full consciousness? Here's a chilling analogy by Arthur Koestler--from his 1950 novel, The Age of Longing, which takes place is a France which will soon be invaded by the Soviet Union--a reality that the intellectuals and the elites refused to recognize. The speaker is a Resistance hero who is now a senior French security officer, talking to an American woman:

No, Mademoiselle, don't be misled by appearances. France and what else is left of Europe may look like a huge dormitory to you, but I assure you nobody in it is really asleep. Have you ever spent a night in a mental ward? During the Occupation, a doctor who belonged to our group got me into one when the police were after me. It was a ward of more or less hopeless cases, most of whom were marked down for drastic neurosurgical operations. When the male nurse made his round, I thought everybody was asleep. Later I found out that they were only pretending, and that everybody was busy, behind closed eyes, trying to cope after his own fashion with what was coming to him. Some were pursuing their delusions with a happy smile, like our famous Pontieux (a philosopher modelled on Sartre--ed). Others were working on their pathetic plans of escape, naively hoping that with a little dissimulation, or bribery, or self-abasement, they could get around the tough male nurses, the locked doors, the operating table. Others were busy explaining to themselves that it wouldn't hurt, and that to have holes drilled into one's skull and parts of one's brain taken out was the nicest thing that could happen to one. And still, others, the quiet schizos who were the majority, almost succeede in making themselves believe that nothing would happen, that it was all a matter of exaggerated rumours, and that tomorrow would be like yesterday. These looked as if they were really asleep. Only an occasional nervous twitch of their lips or eyes betrayed the strain of disbelieving what they knew to be inevitable...No, Mademoiselle nobody was really asleep.
My tentative hypothesis is that that the unconscious knowledge accounts for some of the anger.

It's an appropriate quote from an appropriate author. Which of Koestler's characters is furthest from dealing with reality, do you think?

At first one would say that those attempting to convince themselves that the operation will be a good thing are, but on second thought I think it might be those dreaming of escape.

However, we are not in a locked ward. For people to be acting as if they are is very strange to me.
Consider someone who perceives, however vaguely, that some certain thing needs to be done - and who also perceives that he couldn't support such a thing without negating some crucial part of his self-image. He might as well be in a locked ward, for all the real ability he has to do something about his situation.

The choice is between the unbearable thing you might suffer and the unbearable thing you might do to yourself in denying your principles. (Think of an animal who can't bear to gnaw off the leg caught in a trap, and instead sits there and thinks that surely the trapper won't come, and anyway what the humans will do to you has surely been exaggerated.)

It's easy to lampoon this mindset, and in some ways it richly deserves to be mocked, particularly in its more trivial manifestations. ("I'd die before I voted for a Republican!") But I think it's a real phenomenon, and runs much deeper into the psyche than you'd notice from listening to the typical ranters.

What if peace isn't always the answer?

What if tolerance and openness to new ideas doesn't fix every conflict?

What if mutual understanding sometimes just makes matters worse?

People have built their lives around these principles. If they face the loss of them,., well, it's a little easier to see why they might prefer to squinch their eyes shut at our current unenviable situation and try to go about their lives in that position.

(I've been thinking something like this for a while, but the image of the locked ward in David's story brought the real terror of the situation into sharp focus for me.)
Jaed, I can see what you are saying, and you may well be correct. But peace isn't always the answer, we can't always avoid conflict, and tolerance and openness won't solve every problem.

So if someone has built their life on these principles, they have built their life on a lie. A brave, hopeful and optimistic lie is still a lie.

Almost all of the time, those principles do hold true and they do minimize conflict and unnecessary violence. But there are sociopaths in the world, and when they control a society they cannot be reached by reason any more than the police of New York could have used sweet reason to deal with Son of Sam.
Now all that is true. And I'm not saying it's hopeless - people can be shocked out of their frozen-fear posture by experience, even sometimes by argument.

I think we're expressing two sides of one coin here... You're speaking of the objective reality, and I agree with your analysis of it. I'm speaking more of the internal, subjective, emotional reality of the people that we're talking about. They're in an internal trap.
Yes - I agree. Good point.

Worse yet, their internal trap is likely to lead to being stuck in an external trap.
Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?