Column by Bob Wallace.
Exclusive to STR
It was Aristotle who observed there are two kinds of ignorance: when you’re ignorant and know it, and when you’re ignorant and don’t know it. The second kind of ignorance is the dangerous kind, because people who are ignorant and don’t know it usually think they’re smarter and more knowledgeable than everyone else (as
Rousseau wrote: "One is misled not by what he does not know but by what he believes he knows").
This ignorant-and-don’t-know-it is what makes the afflicted so dangerous. It’s as if they’re using arrogance to cover up stupidity.
Someone not knowing they’re ignorant is a fugue state – the person is in a deluded, half-asleep state but unaware of it. Many people know they’re not totally awake, because to be totally “awake” you’d have to know everything, to know what theologians call the Mind of God. For humans that is of course impossible.
People who understand their limitations and ignorance can be considered humble in the true sense of the word: not debasing yourself, just understanding how limited you are and how easy it is to make mistakes, which is inherent in being human.
The Greeks defined humility as Sophrosyne: "Know thyself," and "Nothing in excess." The more one “knows thyself” the less susceptible to propaganda he’ll be, and believing in Pure Good and Pure Evil always leads to excesses, because it invariably leads to dehumanizing “the Evil” as subhuman or nonhuman monsters.
On the other hand, people who are ignorant and don’t know it, and instead think they know what they are talking about (and what they are doing) can be considered arrogant, or afflicted with what the Greeks called Hubris, and the Bible, Pride.
These days, the term for Hubris or Biblical Pride is “narcissistic grandiosity.” It’s only been noticed in the last century that people with this affliction split things into “all-good” and “all-bad,” into pure good and pure evil.
I have met some of these people and the havoc they wreak is astonishing. All have certain traits in common. The main one is, “It’s always someone else’s fault, never mine.” Another is that they never notice the trouble they cause.
When you get groups of people together they always, under stress (say, an attack such as 9-11), regress to narcissistic infants. They, or their tribe, or their nation, is all-good, and those they define as their opponents or enemies are all-bad. And there the problems start.
Since no one, or no tribe or nation, is all-good, or perfect, whatever flaws they have are projected onto their opponents. The word for this is “scapegoating,” which comes from a practice by the ancient Hebrews in which they projected their sins onto a goat and then drove it into the wilderness, believing their sins would disappear.
An example not so long ago is when the perpetually confused George Bush referred to the Evil Ones who attacked us “for our goodness.” Then the “Evil Ones” returned the favor by calling the United States “the Great Satan.”
In politics everything is either good or evil, with no shades of grey (just as in politics people are never murdered – they are collateral damage, obstacles to be removed). When the belief in either-good-or-evil is wedded to the force and fraud inherent in politics, along with the infantile narcissism and simplistic thinking inherent in the Mob, it is no wonder politics has slaughtered more people than everything else in the world put together.
As deluded as an individual can be, groups – tribes, Mass Man, the Mob, whatever name you call them – are truly the problem. As Jules Monnerot wrote, “There is no such thing as a collective critical facility.”
Jacques Ellul, Monnerot’s contemporary and author of “The Technological Society,” wrote, “Propaganda’s chief requirement is not so much to be rational, well-grounded and powerful as it is to produce individuals especially open to suggestion who can be easily set into motion.” This can only happen when people are not aware of what propagandists are trying to do to them.
The Masses are ruled by their feelings; they follow leaders, not principles; and they are susceptible to the most simplistic propaganda in which they see their in-group as Good and the out-group (always insane, homicidal maniacs) as Evil.
In the 20th Century, the two worst scapegoating philosophies were Nazism and Communism (and contrary to the accepted wisdom, Communism was ten times as bad as Nazism). The estimate of war deaths in the 20th Century range from 177 million to 200 million people, almost all of them due to those two ideologies.
In Nazism, there were the all-good Aryans and the all-bad non-Aryans. So genocide was committed against the non-Aryans. In Communism, there were the all-good Communists and the all-bad non-Communists. And again -- genocide.
This “all-good” and “all-bad” split applies to religion, at least to the more primitive, dangerous, fundamentalist monotheistic religions, the kind that thinks there really is a Devil. Of course, since one is convinced they have God on their side, their opponents must have the Devil on theirs (in fact, be the Devil), so it’s okay to rub out all of them.
Religion at least has a decided tendency to oppose Hubris; wisely, they consider it the worst of all sins, since it is the basis of all others. There is no such tendency in politics (which celebrates war, i.e., mass murder), which is why politics has caused so much trouble throughout history.
On the libertarian side, the only narcissistic ideology is Objectivism, which is a political/religious cult. It splits people into Rand’s perfect all-good heroes and projects all problems onto her sub-human “looters” and “parasites.”
I consider it a law of human nature that when people split things into an all-good and all-bad, pure good and pure evil, it’s automatic that the unacknowledged flaws of those who define themselves as good will be projected onto those they define as evil, with, at the worst, an attempt at genocide against them.
Unfortunately, it’s been the history of the world. It’s what comes from people being half-asleep and not knowing it.