Suffering the effects of mass ignorance
JERRY LEVITAN CONTRIBUTOR JERRY LEVITAN IS A TORONTO LAWYER, FILMMAKER, ACTOR, WRITER AND MUSICIAN.
“When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts.” — Bertrand Russell, Message to future generations in 1959 No one said it better than Bertrand Russell. Thousands of years before and according to Plato, Socrates, in his typically provocative way, attributed his wisdom to the fact that he “knows that he knows nothing.” Carl Sagan, the esteemed astronomer and cosmologist, had this to say on the subject of opinion formation: “I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble.” What a sorry state of affairs we are all in here at home and around the world. My late history teacher Tom once told me that truth was an elitist term. He was talking about those in power who professed to know the answer to all things. “Perspective and context are important,” he would always say. In this TikTokian dystopia that has engulfed us all, facts, context and perspective have been discarded for prejudice, hate, sloganeering and impetuous self-righteousness. When facts, research and study give way to impulsive opinions based on virulent social media pronouncements, democracy withers and dies in a sea of reckless communal hysteria. As Martin Luthor King Jr. said, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Look at the turmoil in our colleges and universities, places that should be preparing young people for the challenges ahead of them with tools for learning and reason. Our streets and public spaces have become petri dishes for mob outbreaks. Can we really describe what is going on as fact-based protest? Intelligent dialogue, study, understanding, tolerance and empathy are so lacking in today’s world and it is metastasizing exponentially. The consequences of mass ignorance are real and existential to us, our families and communities around the world. Self-serving and power-hungry politicians and governments exploit and feed on insecurities, fears and ignorance. So do interest groups and well-meaning advocates for what they perceive as injustice. In this spiralling world most of us are just trying to fend for our everyday lives. It is so easy to get caught up in simple phrases and explanations to try and make sense of a world gone mad. Look at the slithering slide to authoritarianism and chaos in the United States. We are not immune to these tendencies. I was witness to it as a candidate in the last provincial election and heard people say things that were echoes of what we hear every day from so many angry Americans. Here in Ontario our government spews platitudes of positivity while we witness in real time unaffordable housing, reckless disregard for our environment, health and educational systems over wrought and decisions purportedly as a function of public policy now under investigation. People need help, direction and thoughtful leadership. If we are to preserve and advance democracy and have some control on the quality of our lives and those of our children, we need to do better than shout at each other, adopt slogans without knowing their meanings or impact, and post ignorant and non-factual messages and videos. When we do that, we are pawns and are being manipulated with dangerous consequences. It would be a good thing before making brazen posts or shouting in the streets to actually study the issue and understand what you are angry about. As Bertrand Russell said, “look only and solely at what are the facts.” There is comfort in ignorance but it is a recipe for chaos and disaster.