Speaker: “Erm, sorry, but I don’t think I ‘called you’ anything. I was just pointing out that, in this particular case, I believe that you are ignorant of what is actually happening….”
Receiver: “How VERY dare you!!!”
Speaker: “No, no, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s not an accusation…”
When a rather useful word goes bad
If I look up the meaning of the word ‘ignorant’ in, say, the Oxford dictionary, I get a couple of meanings:
1. “Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing”; and
2. “Discourteous or rude”
The example sentence given is “he was told constantly that he was ignorant and stupid”.
Unfortunately, this example sentence ensures that definition’s 1 and 2 are tangled together, and this ‘insult’ meaning has become the normal usage of the word – just as implied by the receiver in the introductory conversation.
…but I think the purely factual definition in meaning 1. is REALLY important and shouldn’t be taken negatively.
Pointing out the facts:
We are ALL ignorant, and whilst the nature of our ignorance will change, we will always be so.
This is where the following well-known quote2 fits in:
“The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.”3
This is a good thing, because if we accept this, then it gives us an incredibly valuable platform to embark on a never-ending but ever-interesting journey of discovery and learning.
Trying to reclaim a word:
So, how about embracing the word ‘ignorant’.
I want to know if something I say or do shows that I am ignorant in respect of something important. In fact, I’d hate you to know this and NOT let me in on it!
But of course, in the same spirit, hopefully you might be uncertain as to whether it’s the other way around i.e. that I might know something that you don’t…
…and we have the perfect environment for a collaborative, non-judgemental conversation about our current worldviews.
Who knows what we might learn – we’ll probably find out that we are both ignorant 🙂 ….but we’ll both be the better for it.
(hopefully obvious) Clarification: I’m NOT suggesting that you rush out and start telling people that they are ignorant! Rather, I’m asking you to rethink the word, and what good it could do us all.
To close: You are very welcome to point out my ignorance in the comments section of any post that I publish…and I will (try to) read and consider in the manner that I describe above.
1. This short post comes from my weekly coffee conversation with my good mate Paul. We always talk over stuff and find out new ways of thinking about things.
2. Quote source: attributed to just about anyone and everyone over time!! (From Aristotle through to Einstein)
3. There is an addition to this quote: “The less you know, the more you think you know” …and this takes us directly to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
I often find myself smiling whenever I think about the Dunning-Kruger graph. Here’s how the conversation goes in my head:
“Mmm, I lack confidence as to whether I know….so my doubt must put me towards the ‘expert’ right-hand side of the graph…
…but me thinking this (i.e. being confident) then throws me to the ‘novice’ left-hand side of the graph…
…but then this doubt about whether I actually know anything puts me back over on the….
…oh, never mind where the hell I sit on that bloody graph! Just accept your ignorance, and enjoy continually learning.” 🙂