Ignorance is dangerous, not bliss

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” said George Santayana. But what about those who ignore it, deny it, or never knew about it in the first place? In those cases, sometimes horrific events are repeated at even greater levels of atrocity – maybe even while those who could have prevented it were busy shaking their heads and proclaiming such events would never occur again.

There has been plenty of talk about the 1930s within intellectual circles since Russia began its moves against Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine (by the way, even those of you living in this world of all information, all the time, might need a reminder that this encroachment has been occurring slowly, and right under our noses, since 2008.) But no, they all say, nothing like the Soviet Union will ever rise again.

Well, fine, maybe that can be disregarded as mere political maneuvering. It’s not as though millions of people are being systematically killed while the world looks the other way. Except in Rwanda, Sudan, Syria and China.

OK, well, heavily armed paramilitary organizations with ideological political aspirations aren’t storming towns and villages committing atrocities. Except in Nigeria.

But believe it or not, this column is not about today’s horrors. It is about human nature.

What got me going was an article quoting a study that had been commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League. According to this international survey, 1 in 4 adults globally is anti-Semitic. A quick look at the numbers shows the only thing keeping that figure even that low is the response from places like Laos, where only 0.2 percent of the adult population was shown to hold anti-Semitic views; the Philippines; Sweden and the Netherlands. The figure in the U.S. was a shocking 9 percent.

In the study, respondents were asked to determine whether a set of 11 traditionally anti-Semitic statements were true or false. Those who believed at least six of the 11 were true were considered to be anti-Semitic. More than one billion people believed at least six of the stereotypes.

In my mind, however, the very worst figure detailed in the report was this: 75 percent of those surveyed said they had never met a Jewish person. Nearly all of those who believed the majority of the anti-Semitic stereotypes fell into that category.

Ignorance is not bliss, folks. It is extraordinarily dangerous. And, apparently, it is human nature to believe the worst of the things and people we do not know.

In Asia, home to 60 percent of the humans on the planet, fewer than 25 percent of those surveyed had ever heard of the Holocaust and/or believed historic accounts of those events were accurate.

So where are we headed? What, to borrow a phrase, is this world coming to? The generation that can tell us what happened to the world 70 or 80 years ago will be gone before we know it. Far too many in this generation cling to ignorance as a defense mechanism or a badge of pride – more willing to be manipulated than to take advantage of the information and education for which so many others are starved.

It is an attitude we would not tolerate from a child. “Try some Brussels sprouts,” we suggest. “No. I don’t like them,” comes the reply. “How do you know you don’t like them if you’ve never tried them?” is the perfectly rational response. The child is usually encouraged to at least try new foods, and then decide whether he or she likes them, but is admonished for claiming to have made a decision based on zero information.

Do me a favor this week. Here’s some homework: Think about what you believe and why you believe it. Faith, experience, knowledge are all perfectly acceptable reasons for forming opinions. Ignorance – and that includes incomplete understanding – is the worst reason of all.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com