Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Act Your Age, Not Your Shoe Size

A friend passed along this meme yesterday.  At first glance I liked it, but then another part of me reared up and said No.

Right off the bat: In the words of the American humorist Josh Billings, "It ain't ignorance causes so much trouble; it's folks knowing so much that ain't so."  In my words, everyone is born naked, incontinent, and ignorant, but these conditions can be changed.  Ignorance may be the least changeable, however, because no matter how much we learn, there will be more we still don't know.

Further, ignorance is meaningless except in relation to some piece of knowledge: No one is globally ignorant, just as everybody is ignorant about a great deal.  I am ignorant, for example, of the number of hairs on my head, ignorant of ancient Akkadian, ignorant of your birthday.  One commenter on the post declared that "ignorant" means "ignoring information" not "just not knowing"; another correctly explained that that is not what what the word means, so the first commenter was showing his own ignorance.)  It's similar in this respect to "agnostic": no one is or should be agnostic (not-knowing) about everything, but we should be agnostic about what we don't know.

I'm aware that many people use the word "ignorant" to mean other things, as I believe Angelou was doing in this quotation.  One of Merriam-Webster's examples of usage is "He is an ignorant old racist," which I think reflects the other connotations of the word, which carry a strong sense of moral disapproval.  (Chances are that old racist knows a lot that ain't so.)  Among Webster's related words are lowbrow, philistine, uncultivated; but these all refer to someone who is not a blank slate but socialized along the (supposedly) wrong lines.  A bumpkin is not necessarily uncultivated, but is well socialized in (supposedly) less sophisticated folkways than he or she ought.  Other related words include idiotic, imbecile, moronic, stupid, and witless, which fit with the confused attitudes many (most?) people have toward the mentally deficient: they are not just incapable of learning, they perversely refuse to learn, just to drive me crazy.  This shows up in the popular use of the word retarded, which is used as a moral accusation, although the truly mentally retarded are usually congenitally incapable of further growth.  Don't forget that the other words in that list -- idiot, imbecile, moron -- entered English as clinical, hopefully neutral words for mental incapacity, but quickly became insults.  Ignorant has the same trajectory: its strict denotation is morally neutral, but it rarely is used strictly.

Numerous commenters on the original Facebook post fell back on another trope, that of the eddicated pointy-head who has a lot of book-learning but no common sense.  Angelou clearly had this idea in mind herself.  Aside from the obvious limitations of relying on common sense, let me unpack her second sentence for a while.  "Educated" is a troublesome word there.  Yes, many highly intelligent people lacked or were denied access to schooling, and many educated themselves.  I wonder if Angelou was thinking of such self-taught people, or if she meant that they had wisdom based on experience, etc.  I don't mean to downgrade the wisdom an unschooled and/or illiterate person can accumulate, which can be considerable and deserves respect, but since most people conflate education with formal schooling, it's hard to sort the different possibilities here.  I think everyone should be treated with consideration and a degree of respect, though past a certain point respect for one's opinions and beliefs must be earned -- not by acquiring or developing them in school, but by giving reasons why they are valid.

Angelou's remarks are interesting because of her reported insistence on being called "Doctor," based on the honorary degrees she had received.  There's a bit of a contradiction going on there, I think.  I don't doubt Angelou's dedicated hard work at writing and speaking -- mastering the English language, in brief -- and thinking, and I respect her writings without regard to her lack of advanced formal schooling.  (I could point out that numerous distinguished white male writers have not attended college either, and chose to educate themselves.)   But since I wouldn't give unquestioning assent to the pronouncements of someone with an earned doctorate -- Henry Kissinger, to name an easy example -- I wouldn't give unquestioning assent to the pronouncements of someone with an honorary doctorate.

Granted, as some of her defenders pointed out, she demanded respect for her achievements in the face of widespread disrespect for the work of women and especially women of color.  But it's all the more meaningful to call for respect of people without degrees on their own merit, rather than appealing to honorary degrees or titles.  I certainly wouldn't fail to call a black female M.D. "Doctor" or a black female Ph.D. "Professor" if that was her title in a university.  But I wouldn't call a white male computer programmer "Doctor" based on a doctorate in computer science, let alone an honorary degree in something else.

It's perhaps easy for me to say this, given that I am not a black woman who grew up in Jim Crow America, and haven't faced the normative disrespect someone like Angelou fought against.  But if I take the quotation above seriously, she doesn't need to have a doctorate for me to respect her.  Insisting on being called "Doctor" undercuts her own declaration that people without degrees or titles also deserve respect and consideration.  (Indeed, the very title "Doctor" gets its prestige by virtue of its academic associations.)  And throwing around the word "ignorance" in this way earns the thrower a certain judicious disrespect.

It was probably easy too for the dead white male Isaac Newton to say, as he's reported to have said:
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
In my experience, smart people are acutely aware of the limits of their knowledge and the corresponding extent of their ignorance.  It appears to me that it's others, those who want to put them on a pedestal, who are uncomfortable about the idea that even the smartest, wisest people are ignorant and know it.  (That's apart from the tactical anti-intellectualism associated with some forms of religion, which mocks worldly knowledge in favor of submission to authority.)  Maybe this has something to do with the painful discovery most of us make, that our parents don't know everything and aren't infallible, which may lead to a search for someone who does know everything and is infallible.  Either someone knows everything and is perfect, or knows nothing and is a loser.  I take, not a middle path but a third one: we have some knowledge, but it's always incomplete, imperfect, and subject to correction.  The illiterate are not necessarily stupid; the literate are not necessarily smart.  But the illiterate are ignorant (of reading and writing).  Using ignorant as an insult does the ignorant no good, and doesn't indicate a lot of wisdom in the person who does the insulting.