Jacques Dufresne – Becoming Visible 2011 – Totalitarian Ignorance

Jacques Dufresne's response to my question, What would you like to become more visible in 2011? was immediate. Ignorance!  He would like us to see the danger in an ignorance that is proud of itself and which, in the hands of self-satisfied pundits, cuts through complexity, undermining facts and scientific wisdom. 

Jacques is a philosopher, alas, better known and more influential in Quebec and the French speaking world than in English speaking Canada.  He hosts L’Encyclopédie de l'Agora one of the most popular French speaking websites in the world.  He and his wife, Hélène Laberge, live a rich, slow life in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offering hospitality and friendship composed of natural wonder, good food, nutritious conversation and actions blessed by wisdom.  It is a joy to collaborate with him on our 'slow thinking' website:  Appartenance-Belonging where he is editor in chief.  Jacques' text is not a quick read but one worth the extra five minutes.  So pour a tincture of your favorite beverage and ponder Jacques' response to Becoming Visible.

Totalitarian Ignorance

These thoughts on the dangers of a certain kind of ignorance, the type of ignorance on which totalitarianism feeds, occurred to me recently while listening to a Tea Party pundit.

There is ignorance of many sorts.  Not knowing the correct facts and figures is one – is Montreal in BC or in Quebec ? Having a lopsided sense of relative values is another – should one rate Celine Dion above JS Bach? But the worst sort of ignorance is the one that comes from not knowing and not wanting to know one's self. This is the ignorance of the self-satisfied, blind and indifferent to the very causes of their ignorance. It turns the two previous kinds of ignorance into a permanent condition.

Aesop's fox, unable to get at the succulent, ripe grapes because they are too high, declares them unripe. This is resentment, a mechanism described by both Nietzsche and Freud.  It builds a moral case to shield the ego from sources of frustration, and from its sense of inadequacy. I lack talent, and so debunk the talented around me, perhaps even deny that there is such a thing as talent.  Protect your self-esteem at all costs, lie to everyone and yourself, deny your age or weight if you must!

Enter Socrates: real knowledge of things and of others starts with knowing oneself. But knowing oneself is a long, difficult process, involving catharsis or purification, a process that can take a life-time.  Therefore Socrates advises, trust only the wise, those who have undergone this process, even if their knowledge is limited to knowing that they don't know. This is the basis of all elitist theories of truth and knowledge, the ones that say our politics and our social life should be guided by the upstanding, the wise or the saintly among us, the philosopher-king of Plato.

Our modern ideas of democracy and science are built on the rejection of this ideal of Socrates.  Democracy and science have much in common. 

Classical science is predicated on the existence of objective, formal processes independent of the moral and psychological qualities of the scientists or observers, who are deemed to be interchangeable.  Regardless of your private morals or wisdom, you can make an accurate reading of a thermometer.  Science is a matter of methodology not of personal wisdom.

The same is true of democracy: my vote, whoever I am, equals your vote.

The link between democracy and science is so strong that any important change in one of the two has an impact on the other.

However, modern science is increasingly questioning the very idea of an objective observer: to observe is to interact, to interpret.  The objective observer has become an interpreter. Theories, models and the social complexities of financing and publishing research stand between the scientist and reality. On complex topics, those that matter most and those where stakeholder interests are the highest, such as climate change, the effectiveness of certain drugs, or the causes of the current financial crisis, scientists are increasingly unable to come to a consensus.

The upshot is that we can no longer trust science blindly. We must give our trust to this or that particular scientist as a moral person.  But who is the good scientist?  Who should we trust?  Surely, our trust should go to the one who sees clearly in himself, whose motives are pure, the one who has undergone the catharsis, and meets Socrates' test of knowing one's self. But how are we to know who meets that test? 

Our faith in objective formal processes, whether in science or in politics, is such that we have lost the very capacity to differentiate. Who are the wise: those who really know and say what they know, those who know what it is that they don't know ? And who are the ignorant, those who think they know, and those who pretend to know, the ignorant of the third type? 

If the popularity of the new brand of Tea Party type politician is any indication of what is to come, we are in serious risk of being led by those who don’t know what they don’t know yet are the most able to play on our collective ignorance, denials, and ressentiment in service of unseen ends and interests. This situation is fertile ground for unchecked totalitarian ideologies.  This what the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater was warning us about when he coined the term totalitarian ignorance.  This is how Hitler got the approval of his countrymen.


You can download the complete collection of responses to Becoming Visible here Download Becoming Visible.  Or by clicking the Becoming Visible Category on the right hand side of your screen. Please share and distribute to your friends and through your various networks, websites etc.

Special thanks to Dominique Collin for helping to translate Jacques text.

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