Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ignorance is Education

I have been handed a question from the studio audience.

[T]his situation which I saw on the Pharyngula blog might pose an interesting practical question for you to address sometime in your blog. Apparently there is a bookstore that is banning books from their shelves based on input from their customers.

This falls into a category where I argue that certain actions can be wrong, but it is only legitimate to respond to the wrong through condemnation and private action – not through violence, including the violence that is inherent in the law.

The patrons of this store and the store are not doing anything that is worthy of a violent response, including legal penalty. However, this does not mean that what they are doing may not be legitimately condemned. There are those who argue, “What I am doing is entirely within my rights; so no person may legitimately criticize my actions.” However, it is also within one’s rights to criticize the actions of another – particularly when one has good reason to do so.

A paradigm example of this would be a case where the KKK or American Nazi Party organizes a march. What they are doing is certainly within their rights in the sense that others should not be permitted to respond with violence (including the violence inherent in the law). However, this does not imply that it would be wrong for others to meet their actions with condemnation and private sanctions. In fact, this is exactly what any good person would do – while those who would show no signs of resistance to this message may also be condemned.

This book store’s policies have much in common with a KKK rally. It is not something that we have any right to respond to with acts of physical violence (including government laws). However, those who participate in this type of venture show a narrow-mindedness that good people would find repulsive and deserving of condemnation.

These are people who think that ‘education’ means promoting ignorance. The best way to teach somebody to understand a concept is to compare and contrast it to other views and explain why the received view is better. A brain that is not exposed to alternative views cannot really be said to understand the view that it holds. However, these people are afraid that their children might actually adopt these alternative views. In order to prevent this from happening, they promote ignorance, raising children who are . . . bluntly . . . stupider than they would otherwise have grown up to be.

And let’s be honest, much of what these people are ‘protecting’ their children from is a more accurate understanding of the world. They want their children to be as ignorant as they are of how the world really works, by denying their children access to information on how the world really works. They are helping to ensure that future generations will continue to suffer the ill effects of ignorance. There is certainly good reason to condemn this type of behavior.

The whole Christian culture in this society is empowered by the doctrine of “ignorance is education”. We saw it in the campaign to boycott The Golden Compass and to remove the books from libraries. We see it in the Texas attempts to censor textbooks. All of this represents the same mentality – that the need to indoctrinate children into fiction requires adults to prevent their children from learning facts. And we are all made worse off when we force people to act out of ignorance and error.

But there is not good reason to respond to violence – even violence through criminal sanctions. We must we willing to invest our time and effort to bring social pressure to bear against those who promote ignorance, accepting the hard work that this requires over the ‘simple’ solution of state-owned violence.

The way to fight ignorance is not through laws and sanctions or any sort of private or public violence, but by being willing to put the time and energy and money that it takes to actually educate people - not only on the facts that the hucksters of ignorance wish to keep hidden, but also the moral fact that the hucksters simply are not good people - the type of people who end up promoting harm and suffering whether they are willing to admit it or not.

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