I watched a video today. This one in fact. It’s a damning indictment of food marketing and battery farming delivered by an eager young presenter. She ends this wonderfully delivered speech with an accusation of willful ignorance. We, the consumer, are guilty of turning a blind eye to animal suffering, not out of horror or disgust but for the sake of convenience.
As I prepare to eat the massive bowl of fried chicken in front of me, I find myself agreeing with her. Willful ignorance is a powerful tool and it is one that we all employ daily. And its use is far wider than ignoring the plight of animals who wouldn’t exist if we didn’t find them so delicious.
Suffering is everywhere in the world. In fact, there is so much that the following issues have become cliché. There are people homeless and destitute in every major city, people constantly persecuted for reasons of race, gender and sexuality, and let’s not the starving children in Africa who remain hungry despite the efforts of Bono and Make Poverty History (still going, by the way, despite flagging wristband sales).
Why then do we as individuals not spend every minute of every day working tirelessly to solve these problems (as we no doubt would if we were ‘good’ people)? Why, of course, because we insulate ourselves with willful ignorance. Yes, occasionally we might find something that penetrates our protective layers of justification and distraction but all too often, our disgust and horror is momentary, or easily salved by sharing an article on Facebook or Tweeting (#BringBackOurGirls anyone?).
We so easily justify our inaction. In the best cases we simply absolve ourselves of responsibility telling ourselves ‘It’s not my problem, not my fault'; in darker times we might blame the victims or we might simply forget once the media has lost its taste for the tragedy.
I have my own rather convoluted justifications for my laissez-faire attitudes. I don’t give to charity (‘Not until I have a steady income’), I ignore every one of the twenty or so homeless people I pass every day (‘I can’t help all of them’) and I eat copious amounts of meat, eggs and milk (I’m rather proud of this one ‘Animals can’t be considered worthy of ethical consideration’).
Of course, I am doing many of you a disservice by comparing you to me. I am very and genuinely happy to know a large number of good people. People who volunteer abroad, who give to charity, who heal the sick, who fight tirelessly against the injustices of the world. However, willful ignorance is an insidious beast and if one searches for it, it can easily be found.
What do I mean by this? Well, how often when you buy a book, a film, a meal out, or even pay your rent, your internet, your phone bill, do you consider the impact that your spending has on those who have nothing? If it’s any less than 100% of the time then you are guilty of willful ignorance. The reason for this is that in order to prevent yourself from doing very measurable harm to others, you must remain ever vigilant.
Surely purchasing any form of entertainment is not just frivolity but harmful to those who could benefit from the money in your hand. In fact the more good you already do, the greater the evil. The less ignorant you are of the plight of others the more willful you must surely be to justify the purchases that condemn them. Did I mention that the point of this blog was to sell my book?
Now, I have no doubt that all the world’s ethicists, from the Kantians to the consequentialists have serious qualms about the above. The former will say that such self-sacrifice is irrational and the latter say it is unsustainable (do check out Effective Altruism by the way) and there is certainly weight to they say. However, there is a tacit admission behind these claims, and that is this: our ideals are too lofty for us to attain. Willful ignorance is more than just a tool to be used at our convenience, it is a part of our very nature.
We cannot blame ourselves for not giving all we should, because what we ‘should’ is very different to what we ‘can’. This reassures me greatly, however, the very fact that it does rings false. It reeks of convenience. Isn’t the purpose of an ideal to be something to strive towards? Shouldn’t we attempt to overcome our nature at all costs, raising ourselves from mere beasts, mere slaves to impulse to something greater, something transcendent? This is a question that I don’t want to consider right now.
I choose to stay purposefully and willfully ignorant.