A video went viral on social media channels showing a polar bear supposedly being friendly to a dog. (“Awwww, how sweet!”) However, anyone with any knowledge of predatory behavior could tell you that this is a predator toying with its prey. People see and hear what they want to see and hear.
When I discovered the World Wide Web in the early 90’s, I was thrilled. Unlimited, uncensored information at my fingertips! The idealist in me rejoiced at the idea of the democratization of information. Looking back, I’m afraid I was very naive. In the present-day overkill of (conflicting) information, people filter the information by only reading and viewing that which they want to see or hear. And so ignorance and misinformation are just as (if not more) rampant than in pre-Internet days.
Most of the regular readers of my blog will agree with me that ignorance and misinformation played a very strong part in the recent US elections. So let me move on to a more delicate example: the movement against vaccination. Many people who are against vaccinations of any kind think of themselves as progressive. I must confess to having been very ambivalent on this subject for a long time, until I was forced to decide if I would get an influenza vaccine. The amount of information on the subject on the internet is overwhelming, and seems to be mostly made up of diatribes against the integrity of medical science. But when I seriously studied the information and talked to a wide selection of people, the evidence of its advisability was convincing.
Prejudice is nothing more than an unfounded opinon about a subject or group of people. Prejudice is based on ignorance. We tend to blame the Internet for spreading false information. But how many people give any subject serious thought? Don’t most people believe and pass on what they read on the Internet or hear on the news? What has happened to critical thinking?
A blog I enjoy reading, Forsetti’s Justice, has used the metaphor of Plato’s Cave to explain what happens. This animated video does a great job of describing the metaphor. Imagine a race of people, chained inside a cave, so that the only information they perceive is from shadows projected onto a wall. There are people, usually also chained, who explain to them how to interpret the shadows. If one person escapes the chains and finds his way outside the cave, he perceives an entirely different reality. But, if he returns and tries to explain what the world really looks like, he won’t be heard or understood.
You can compare it to the Four Stages of Competence, a model I’ve used in my counseling practice: In stage one, one is blissfully unconscious of one’s incompetence. At a certain point, something happens that makes you painfully aware of your incompetence (conscious incompetence, stage two). This is an extremely uncomfortable state to be in and can cause a great deal of stress. You can do two things about it: You can embrace it, learning and growing into stage three (conscious competence) and, ultimately four (unconscious competence). Or it can make you so uncomfortable that you escape back into your blissful ignorance.
Why are some people triggered by conscious incompetence to ask questions, explore, and learn, while others retreat into ignorance? Obviously, if your entire world exists of shadowy projections on the wall and people telling you what they mean, you may never become aware of your lack of knowledge. I grew up in an intellectual milieu. Questioning the world around me was encouraged, not suppressed. Not everyone is that lucky. But it seems to me that upbringing and proper education are the most critical factors. So how do you go about influencing this? I’m not entirely sure of the answer and I welcome your input in the comments section below.