Our cults of ignorance

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Hardly something to be proud of

It is becoming harder not to encounter, on a daily basis, these thriving cults in Pakistan.

Of course by ignorance I do not mean being unaware of something. According to the definition of the word, we are all ignorant regarding numerous matters outside our own experience and expertise. What’s more, ignorance is a relative concept: in two-hundred years, we are likely to be considered very ignorant by the 2216 standards. Here I mean men and women who are proud of their ignorance – not that they would admit it in so many words. The idea of somebody being proud of this sort of thing takes some getting used to.

So where are these cults to be found? Well, you won’t have to look very far. And they are easy to spot too. Going one step farther than Isaac Asimov’s American who nurtured the false notion that democracy meant that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge,’ our cultists apparently believe that their ignorance is better than other people’s knowledge. But how can ignorance be something to be proud of? Since there are many cults of ignorance, there are a number of explanations.

Consider the matter of languages. ‘My children don’t know any Urdu’ is a common boast among expat Pakistanis. What’s more, this sort of thing is quite common here in Pakistan too: many parents, schools, and organisations make no bones about their contempt for local languages. This appears to defy logic, because proficiency in an extra language obviously makes one much more practically suited to the world, not to mention the fact that an extra language enriches one’s life experiences like nothing else can. Of course snobbery is the explanation here. (In reaction, some people reject English as an elitist language – an equally unfortunate position).

Coming to more important matters, many religious people are averse to accepting results of new scientific researches because they fear that that is likely to shake their whole world-view, which is based heavily on religious texts. This is because such researches invariably are carried out in the West (which used to be predominantly Christian; now atheist). The other major group – the flag-bearers of the Sufi interpretation – behaves similarly, for their spiritual training hardly extends to material matters. The advent of ‘Islamic’ schools for children in the West as well as ‘Islamic’ education in Pakistan was a manifestation of the same fear of contact with anything unfamiliar.

Our next cult vehemently opposes anything that challenges or contradicts ‘conventional wisdom’ – which is, of course, euphemism for wisdom coming from one’s ancestors. Justified as ‘respect’ for the old (a fundamental ‘Eastern’ value), this blind following of one’s nostalgic parents is the chief reason why each new generation is not the improvement on the older one like it should be.

Some people, in response to an argument in a debate, are fond of making statements such as: ‘It’s obvious you have read a few books; but kindly refrain from lecturing us,’ ‘Not everything is found in books,’ ‘Making it to grad school doesn’t make you a sage,’ or some other variant. While there is merit in all such statements taken independently; in these situations, a valid response to the original argument is often conspicuous by its absence. It is definitely not pleasant being reminded of one’s prejudices.

There’s a common factor in all cults of ignorance, whatever one’s particular hang-up may be. If one makes it a point to know what one is talking about, it reduces very drastically the number of subjects one can discuss. Knowledge makes one circumspect, not to mention the fact that reading and thinking require hard-work. Ignorance makes life simple. Why try to understand the nuances of issues when one can think in terms of black or white?

So how’s the future looking like? Not too bright, I am afraid. As far as a general aversion to the scientific outlook is concerned, with so many unscientific things happening all around, it was not very easy for people of this region to throw in their lot with science. The resulting long tradition of intellectual laziness has invested a large part of the population with an amazing capacity to indulge in double-think.  This will take some undoing. So don’t expect any breakthroughs any time soon – although this is one instance where I would love to eat humble pie.

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