Why We Live in a Time When Ignorance Proudly Parades Itself as Enlightenment
Anti-maskers violently yelling at school board meetings to stop their kids…from wearing masks…during a pandemic. Anti-vaxxers refusing to get vaccinated and dying from COVID. People pretending the pandemic is over while Covid goes permanent.
When I look around the world today, I see shattering ignorance at work, like never before in our lifetimes. Shall I name a few kinds? Bigotry, racism, hate, xenophobia, nationalism, greed, spite, cruelty, fascism. Ignorance upon ignorance, of all the devil’s many kinds.
But the really strange, bizarre, and weird thing isn’t all that — ignorance has always been around, hasn’t it? It’s that today, ignorance is willful. Deliberate. Proud. Boastful, cocky, and exultant. Pompous, high-sounding, and aggrandizing. It waves banners and sings chants and discusses philosophies. Ignorance today thinks of itself as Aristotle by way of Descartes and Kant. The really strange thing about now is that ignorance parades itself as enlightenment.
Ignorance — of every kind, day after day. That’s bad enough. But ignorance proudly presenting itself as wisdom, truth, and enlightenment? In bestsellers, through YouTube “personalities”, by college professors? Now that’s tragedy and comedy both. And yet people buy it. Why? I think this weird phenomenon — of flaunting ignorance as grand-sounding enlightenment — is made of a fatal cocktail of cognitive dissonance, infantile regression, and malignant narcissism.
Let’s start with the first one. I tell someone a fact. “Hey, do you know that Americans live five years less than Europeans?” Bang! Along comes a string of justifications, denials, misinformation, Fox News talking points, followed by mistrust, personal attacks, and finally, rage. Here’s another example. “Hey, did you know Brexit is now going to cost you thousands every year, and make you poorer to begin with?” Snap! The very same string, in response. Don’t you think that’s odd? I do.
What happened, really? Instantly, massive cognitive dissonance was triggered. New information, which conflicts sharply with preexisting beliefs. Old myths. In this case, that America’s exceptional, special, the best, a Promised Land. Or British triumphalism, the idea that by carrying on, it will win, it doesn’t need anyone else, and never has. Whatever the myths may be, the point is the same. New information confronts old myths. The old myths triumph — in a frenzy of defensiveness, people end up lashing out, instead of “processing,” that is to say, accepting, understanding, tolerating, the new information.
Now, people can only ever really decide in favour of new information is the cost discarding old myths is reasonably low. If it doesn’t hurt, them, in other words. But it seems to hurt them immensely, almost absurdly, to discard these old myths. It seems to damage their self-coherence at an existential level, and thus, result in activating a traumatized person’s fight-or-flightresponse. Hence, the price of discarding the old myths is impossibly high to meet, which is why you can’t reason with a Trumpist or fascist of any kind, ever with facts, logic, or evidence.
But why would the price of discarding old myths be so impossibly high? After all, we do it every day, in littler ways, perhaps. Well, people must already feel fragile. Uncertain. Unstable, even. These myths must be all that is shoring up their identities, their egos, and their sense of morality, too. And so what people are really protecting, by clinging to these old myths — whether of exceptionalism, specialness, triumphalism, or racism — is themselves. At an existential level. “I still exist!! This is the only way I can belong! This is all that defines me! There’s nothing else in me!” (We’ll come back to that.) So this trend of ignorance masquerading itself as enlightenment, where people lash out the moment they’re presented with truths, is a kind of desperate, last-ditch self-preservation. But which self are they trying to preserve?
Well, what kind of people do we call those who need grandiose fairy tales of their omnipotence to feel secure? Children. And what the phenomenon of ignorance parading itself as enlightenment reveals about those who do it is that they have regressed to a childlike state. The fairy tale allows the child to exist, to belong, to feel safe, to feel unique, the only one, the chosen one — the knight or the damsel, take your pick — and in that way, to feel loved in the way that they need to be loved. When people cannot handle the cognitive dissonance of mundane everyday truths, and cling to grandiose myths instead of being able to process, integrate, and accept new truths, it’s stark evidence that they are regressing into a simpler, safer world — because functioning adults don’t need to feel omnipotent, singular, grandiose.
But why would adults, who’ve regressed to childlike states, need to feel grandiose, all-powerful, the only ones in all the world? Because the world is indeed a hostile, frightening place these days. One can hardly survive these days, by meekly following the rules. One must conform, keep one’s head low, try not to stick out. Survival is an act of obedience in the collapsed world that predatory capitalism has created. What is that world really like, though, to experience? It’s a world which constantly tells you have no intrinsic worth. That you are without inherent value. You are only as good as what you can be used for. If you cannot be used for anything, then your just fate is essentially to be left to die. You’re powerless, aren’t you? Ah, you see? Who else needs absolute power, but those who feel powerless inside?
In other words, predatory capitalism creates a world that constantly tears away at people’s sense of self — which is precisely why people are always seeking to shore those absent selves up with grandiose myths of how special, unique, and wonderful they are. There is nothing left inside a person under predatory capitalism — even their sense of self has been taken away from them. They are constantly trying to earn it back, with consumption, with status, with luxuries, with signals, by being the richest, hungriest, strongest, the perfect one with the perfect life. People under predatory capitalism are always trying to earn their missing selfhood back by preying on others, so that they’re the only ones who are loved, needed, desired, in all the world. (Only then can they feel, for just a fleeting moment, no just like they’re safe, whole, or true — but like they exist at all.)
But what is a person with nothing inside called? A narcissist. The narcissist isn’t what we often think — the one who thinks too much of himself. He is the one who thinks too little. So little, in fact, that he has no inherent sense of worth, meaning, belonging, purpose, or value. He is nothing, to himself. And so he constantly needs reassurance, praise, flattery, admiration. Even in destructive, abusive, and ruinous ways. He calls that “love,” and though it isn’t love, only power — it’s the only kind of relationship he is capable of.
Remember the phenomenon of flouting ignorance as enlightenment? Isn’t that what it’s really about? Power? It’s power over you. Power over the world. Power over society. The power to if not earn your praise, then at least demand your submission, your pain, your helplessness — which is what gives the malignant narcissist the validation they need to fill up that hole where a self should be. The pain of your powerlessness is the only thing that can validate the malignant narcissist’s self-existence.
Yet the malignant narcissist has come to exist because predatory capitalism has made him a mirror image of itself — it has left nothing in him at all, not even a self. There’s just an absence, an emptiness, where a self should be — which is insatiable. And so it must be fed with aggrandizing myths, that the narcissist is the only one who matters, counts, exists. But that means that his existence must come at the price of you, me, facts, reality, and, ultimately, even the whole world burning down. The more you suffer — the more I exist. The only thing that makes you feel powerful is my powerlessness — because capitalism has burned a hole through the place where a self should be.
Hence, ignorance parading itself as enlightenment. It’s the defining mood, phenomenon, way of the times we live in. Perhaps you and I, though, should be wiser than those who proudly, boastfully devote themselves to it.