The other night, someone I had recently met confided in me her distaste for ignorant people. She continued with the usual diatribe that people who believe x, or people who perform y are ignorant, and thus follows the natural implication that such people are unworthy of the same amount of serious respect or attention as the rest of us. Of course, this latter implication is my own intuition of her underlying meaning, so I remarked that perhaps it is our solemn duty to educate the ignorant, for they are not less valuable than us. I believe she was thrown off kilter for a moment before ponderingly agreeing with me. I mention this quaint anecdote only because I have politely stomached many such onslaughts of this most recent class war between the morally enlightened, educated class and the persistently uneducated (and therefore) immoral class. Sadly, she could not have known that I would have fallen into the latter category by her own standards. I ultimately resisted confiding in her my severe distaste for those who deride other people as ignorant. Even on a sheer grammatical level, the label of “ignorant” leaves open the question of what precisely is one ignorant? At least the forgotten label of “ignoramus” alludes to a wittier and more stylistic form of insult.
Honestly, my heart goes out to these mysterious ignorant fellows who continually endure such demonization by their own generation. However, who is this ignorant person, the ignoramus, if you will? I believe if one is to inquire, the ignorant person is merely someone who disagrees with or does not hold another’s moral standards or worldview. I do not deny that there are different levels of intelligence or that there are better and worse belief systems, but to label another as ignorant simply dismisses the individual as opposed to confronting him with sincerity. Intuitively, I think our generation has grown weary of calling actions wrong and beliefs misled or incoherent because both of these claims would require the accuser to present a case and lower themselves to the level of conversation with the brute. Instead, “ignorant” is a convenient term because the accuser can place himself at a higher level of moral and intellectual worth, almost assuming an ontological superiority to the accused. I do not claim that this is a conscious thought, and I do admit to psychological conjecture on these points. However, what has been clear to me in all such conversations (I’ve endured many), is that there is a derision and almost a palpable disgust for the ignorant. Following a recent introduction to the work of Rene Girard, I can’t help but wonder if our society is in search of some scapegoat on which to blame the incoherencies and moral failings of the time and culture we inhabit and for which we bear responsibility. However, we have purportedly transcended moral categories, and thus, we are left with education as the new expression by which to divide the good from the evil. We are called to metaphorically crucify this ignorant populace who continually makes quite a mess of everything (or so the narrative goes), as they prove irreconcilable with the education and truth hurled at them through half-baked arguments and fiery social media posts.
In contrast, I actually do not care for the open-minded, at least, if the people who declare themselves as such are any indication towards the meaning of the term. If “ignorant” is the common curse of the day, then “open-minded” might be the self-acclaimed mark of the enlightened. I think in the most charitable view of the term, “open-minded” indicates the ability to comprehend and assess differing arguments, propositions, and lifestyles; in other words, to engage with difference in thought, foreign practices, and the elusive yet immanent “other.” The problem arises when open-mindedness itself becomes a cultic identity. Few things intrigue me more than two people who vehemently disagree with each other whilst claiming the other is not open-minded. If I had to suggest a diagnosis, it would be that the concept of open-mindedness subtly conveys a metaphysical falsehood, that is, that our mind never closes back up.
Open-mindedness is hardly a holistic philosophical position, but rather a methodological posture which honestly has been a virtue among the educated and the inquisitive for many millennia prior to our current historical moment. However, there is a common thread that believes open-mindedness requires one to forego the assessment phase of my definition and thus not to render any intellectual judgment upon a position. This may be a popular and quasi-postmodern stance, but I will challenge the belief that those who do not fall into it fail to be open-minded or, even worse, should be labeled ignorant. If we wish to use ignorance as a foil to the open-mind, I would opine that there are two primary methods of remaining ignorant. The first is not to engage seriously the thoughts, opinions, and lifestyles of another because of a perceived or unconscious superiority over or fear of something that would challenge the comfort and stability of one’s own worldview. Actual bigotry and forms of dehumanization can fall into this category, as well as people who prematurely label others as ignorant. The second is to believe that all thoughts, opinions, and lifestyles are equally valuable and correct, thus failing to take seriously any contention that one’s hyper-subjective position itself be challenged. Indeed, this averts the other from meaningfully engaging in conversation by denying them the possibility of transcending the subjective and making any dually meaningful objective claim. This posturing effectively has the same results as straightforward bigotry by invariably shielding one’s beliefs from engaging with another; it simply happens to be a popular position, wielding the banner of tolerance and the safety of a moral high ground. It is the moral equivalent of throwing someone in a madhouse of padded walls and telling him he is free to do as he will.
In both forms of ignorance, the “other” is dismissed as irrelevant to the self. Moreover, this latter position rarely proves consistent in practice, but usually falls back on the moral significance of the will as the pinnacle of man’s value. This happens to be a philosophical position as open to critique as any other, which manifestly requires its own set of ethics. The prescribed ethics usually undermine the purported virtue of absolute “tolerance” as it cannot sustain any assertion that would challenge the unconditional dominance of the subjective will over the individual. Thus, since the classical moral spectrum cannot be utilized by the consistently “open-minded” individual, he labels those who break this ethic as ignorant. More often than not (to my experience), he is in fact ignorant of his own position.
In reality, this deflated version of the open-mind, in the sense of an all-encompassing acceptance, as many people believe themselves to possess, does not exist. Even a proper postmodernist admits that we can never truly transcend the subjective (as the discussed position probably subconsciously believes it does); we always view the world from some perspective, some tradition, some time and place, and never will the infinite variety of perspectives or singular holistic truth be available to us. Therefore, for a postmodern position to stand, the postmodern must admit to a position. However, merely because we are limited as subjective beings does not entail that we cannot have any grasp on what is objectively true at all; in fact, a coherent postmodern position relies on this point. It does not deny that there are better or worse arguments and beliefs, or that reason and experience can reveal objective truth. It only requires that we can never reach truth in its fullness, and I happily remind the reader that this is an altogether traditional and orthodox belief. In this sense, all men are ignorant because all thought is limited; this is the wisdom that can be gained from the postmodern critique. I have written before about the contingency of the will, and the same reality applies to the contingency of the mind. We pretend education is the cure, but so quickly we forget that eugenics was at the height of the educated world less than a century ago. Education is only the cure insofar as it is a continual conversation and journey seeking to understand reality in its fullness, but this is only possible through actual engagement and relationship, seeking meaningfully the perspective of others, which demands an honest assessment of the limits of the self. The current antipathy between the accused ignorant and the self-acclaimed open-minded in the popular discourse is itself a bulwark against that very conversation and relationship.
Therefore, I urge the reader not to pretend to an open-mind. Rather the reader must seek to know the mind. Understand its limitations, its strengths and weaknesses, and its incredible reliance on the overlapping traditions in which it is inescapably contained. If one claims that I myself only write from a white male Christian position, they would be quite right. It simply strikes me that academic subjects which have grounded themselves in perceived antagonism to the white male Christian tradition, such as modern Feminine and African American studies, have singularly been produced in a society that developed in the white male Christian tradition. The very principles which allowed for the growth of such divergent perspectival studies arguably overlap with and at some point depend on the same principles from which I write. Thus the point of contingency remains, which then allows for understanding and engagement if we will only allow for it. Of course, the great point of convergence across geography and time is that all people are human. As C.S. Lewis perceived, and Schopenhauer more pessimistically before him, humanity is the one existential experience we all have the privilege of knowing from the internal perspective. Thus, to all other humans we owe a special deference, for they are not so different than I. There is a great strength in seeing our dependency on one another and recalling that if I could dismiss someone as ignorant by my own standard, inevitably I can be dismissed as ignorant by the standard of another. In this light, we owe a great responsibility to each other in this brotherhood of imperfect humanity. In Christianity, that responsibility is commonly expressed as loving thy neighbor as thyself.
If postmodernity be true and reflective, for all its insight, it must realize that a post-axiomatic principle is indeed still an axiomatic principle. If we take the postmodern criticism seriously in our own self-understanding, our necessary limitation does not completely relativize thought, but rather humbles it. Therefore, we find the ultimate virtue is not education or even the open-mind, but rather that more ancient virtue of humility. To call another ignorant, one should first admit to himself his own ignorance. If one wishes to distinguish himself from the ignorant by simply claiming a greater humility than one’s peers, I suggest he search for the irony in his own position. And if we wish to lift ourselves to greater truth, then it is only possible by true humility and engagement, allowing the other to speak into us as we do into them, knowing when we are tempted to accuse one of ignorance, that we also accuse ourselves of the same. Socrates, the patriarch of all Western philosophy, reminds us that true knowledge begins in knowing that one knows nothing. The Bible, the greatest book of the Western tradition, attests that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. The Scriptures do not contradict Socrates, but rather complete his insight, for he understood the limits of man, and God simply provides the infinite point of comparison, probably nowhere else so poetically as in his response to the suffering of Job. Socrates understood that man is finite though he sought truth to the point of death, but Christ came as the incarnation of the infinite, providing man the fullest perspective of his dependent and existential position, and once more the Truth was put to death. In my thought, the open-mind of postmodernity only rediscovered in new ways a very old truth. A truly open-mind is only possible once the mind realizes it is ignorant. A slightly more optimistic claim might be to say the mind is contingent. Perhaps the most honest claim is to say the mind is human.