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A World in Denial of What it Knows

Posted by tinako on January 2, 2012

If you are interested in social issues, I bet that title is nothing new to you.  It’s the title of an opinion article in yesterday’s N.Y. Times (link).  The author expands on Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns, known unknowns,… and unknown unknowns” to suggest that there are also unknown knowns.

This happens when people ignore something that everybody should really know.  For instance, “What kind of willful obtusity ever suggested that subprime mortgages were a good idea?  An intelligent child would have known that there is no good time to lend money to people who obviously can never repay it.”  The author also mentions Bernie Madoff, whose figures were demonstrated to the S.E.C. nine years before the scandal to be “not merely incredible but mathematically impossible.”

I have been struggling to understand this phenomenon for years, only I have called it the line between ignorance and indifference.  If you have been paying any attention at all to environmental, social, or animal welfare issues, you have probably wondered about this yourself.  I have seen people accept facts and then refute the obvious conclusions.  I have pinned people down in debates to saying the most ridiculous things you can imagine, for instance that a subsistence farming family in South America is to blame for having their only water source, a nearby pond, polluted by foreign farming conglomerates clearing the rainforest for soybean production.  When I asked how this could possibly be their fault, the only thing I could get out of him was, “I can’t let them off so easy as you can.”  Huh?

I think people have worldviews, influenced by their culture (here’s my discussion of American values), prejudices, stereotypes, and habits.  They defend these close to their hearts even in the face of contradictory evidence, because to let them go is frightening.  For instance, the discussion about the South American family was really about bad things happening to good people; the person I was talking to refused to believe in that, I would say because it means ultimately we do not have the final say about what happens to us.  We can wear seat belts and go to church and stay inside when it snows and not use natural gas and still our house can burn to the ground.  This same person once told me that the family of the girl in California who was kidnapped from her bedroom several years ago deserved what happened because her window was not locked, only screened.  When I asked, “What about fresh air?” he said “That’s what air conditioning is for.”  Ridiculous statements to defend a belief based on fear.

Maybe when people refuse to believe that the earth is warming, that we are causing animal extinctions, that starving children and a continent ravaged by AIDS matters, or that suffering is suffering whether it’s a dog or a pig, they are afraid of what it would mean in their lives to accept these ideas.  It would mean changing their habits, for instance driving and eating, and opening up to compassion, even feeling a responsibility to do something.

These issues are a bummer, and sometimes they don’t have easy solutions, or easy solutions are outside what we are willing to consider.  So the defense is to deny them, at the expense of truth.

I don’t have all the answers.  I don’t have a Truth Hotline.  But I know a silly statement when I hear it, such as “It’s logical for me to eat factory farmed pork but get angry about puppy mills, because carrots have feelings, too.”  This is the point at which I suspect we have moved beyond ignorance, beyond indifference, and into the middle of denial, the known we willfully unknow.

One Response to “A World in Denial of What it Knows”

  1. Rhonda said

    I agree. Well said.

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