The Difference Between Ignorance and Willful Ignorance

Ignorance just means you don’t know something. For example, I’m ignorant about the names and accomplishments of many famous athletes and the rules of the sports they play.

At any point, if I want to learn more about these athletes and sports, I can. Ignorance doesn’t have to be permanent. It can change if I want it to, and if I have access to the relevant information.

Willful ignorance is different and worse than regular ignorance. With willful ignorance, I don’t know something, but I act as if I’m knowledgeable. I act as if I know what there is to know. I resist learning anything more, even if that’s what I need to do to share my opinion, teach a topic, or make a decision.

Let’s return to the sports example. If I were willfully ignorant, I would launch into a confident-sounding commentary about a game. I would share some strong opinions about the athletes’ techniques and strategies. If anyone were to tell me, “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I would argue that what I’m saying is reasonable, valid, relevant, and sufficiently well-informed. Just by watching a sport for five minutes, I can learn what there is to know about it.

Willful ignorance isn’t just the state of not knowing something. It’s an attitude that blocks learning. It undermines intellectual humility and careful thought. If you’re just ignorant, you can become less ignorant. But if you’re willfully ignorant, how will you learn more?

Your socially awkward Edgar suit

If you’ve watched Men in Black you might remember the scene where the vicious alien kills a farmer and starts wearing his body like a suit (and if you haven’t watched Men in Black then I just spoiled part of the movie for you, sorry).

Anyway, the farmer’s name is (was) Edgar, and when Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) figures out what the alien’s done he says, “Imagine a giant cockroach, with unlimited strength, a massive inferiority complex, and a real short temper, is tear-assing around Manhattan Island in a brand-new Edgar suit.

Photo by Sarah Gordon of one of the Bloomington, Indiana brains

When you’re socially awkward and having a really bad time of it you can feel like your body is an Edgar suit. Your skin doesn’t fit right over your bones. Your smile is a grimace. Maybe your stomach’s coming out of your mouth. People might ask you if you’re ok, and you know they’re quietly wondering if you’re an alien. And you are an alien; that’s how you feel. You don’t have to be a vicious alien – you could be E.T. or Alf – but you’re still an alien, and you’ve landed among people you don’t get and who don’t get you. You try to speak to them but your voice comes out garbled.

That’s what you feel, anyway – that the Edgar suit is coming apart at the seams and sooner or later everyone’s going to see the giant sticky insect within.

You think that everyone else is like Agent J or K, down to the Rayban sunglasses and the fact that if they mess up at something people forget two minutes later. But when you mess up – say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing – stop the presses! The whole world watches and remembers for eternity.

But the reality is, many other people, more people than you think, are staggering around in their own Edgar suits.

Have some sympathy for their Edgar-suited predicaments. People are skin and bone and mortal flesh. Most of them don’t know what the heck is going on most of the time. If they’re loud and seem confident they could be making noise to mask a small panicked voice in their head. You never know. And even if they’re not, remember, they’re skin and bones. Like everyone else they’ll die some day, as will you. I don’t mean to be morbid, but it’s true – there are no gods among us. There are brilliant people, talented people, bright kind people who shine a light wherever they go, and we can admire them and love them, but let’s not worship them. Many of them wrestle daily with insecurity and doubt. (Those who don’t are suspect.)

Seriously, indifference towards what other people may think of you combined with sympathy for their alien humanness, so different from yours in some ways and so similar in others, is the way to go. Unless they’re a vicious sort of bug, to be avoided lest they eat you up like a plate of pierogi, don’t worry so much about them.

Easier said than done, I know. That’s where you have to start living the words. Show up, be one with your awkwardness, and do what you love. Slowly you’ll get the hang of it and not worry so much about the insect mandibles protruding from your mouth.

(The Edgar suit image links back to its source, Men in Black Wikia.)