Good & Bad Ignorance

Zen Buddhists and the Dao de Ching speak of a good kind of ignorance–the kind that is comfortable having a beginner”s mind, approaching each situation as one in which we have something new to learn, and being comfortable with this fact. In biblical terms, good ignorance is part of the virtue of humility.

Last night my brother and I were talking about the “bad” kind of ignorance. My brother works in gold mining as an environmental manager in charge of permitting and risk assessment. He lives in Winnemucca, Nevada, where I am visiting his large family for ten days. Last night my brother and I talked late, and at one point I noticed that we are both bothered a lot by a kind of willful ignorance that we both encounter, though in very different ways.

In my university classrooms, I am used to dealing with ignorance about Islam, about the history and diversity of Christianity, about the ways that science can be compatible with religious faith, about what the Bible actually does and does not say. I am used to dealing also with a profound ignorance of world history and of the reality of other parts of the globe.

My brother deals with ignorance about what actually is and is not environmentally damaging about mining, and with a failure to be aware of the consequences of public policies that intend well but can be more about gaining political support than being scientifically informed. Few people who oppose mining, he says, really know what it”s about; many urban environmentalists oppose all mining, instead of supporting mining practices which are more environmentally responsible. As a result, more mining goes overseas where there are few environmental regulations.

Whether we”re talking about mining, peace and justice activism, or how to approach the realities of terrorism and militia violence, we both find that many people fail to listen to multiple points of view; ideological rigidity and asserting repeatedly the one truth we see by limit our ability to engage in real conversation instead of polarized speechmaking.

My brother and I disagree on many issues, but my brother points out (and I”ve noticed) that he changes his mind in the face of new information. I sense I do the same, but we both know that our anger at ignorance and resistance to listening can lead us also to find ourselves speaking or acting in ways that further enflame polarized tensions.

It is hard work to be a globally informed citizen, even where that awareness affects the work we do. I think about my sister-in-law, and how she and many women I have known grow annoyed with the political conversations carried out more often by the men (and by well-educated intellectual women who show up once a year at family gatherings!). And I think of my mother, who focuses most on the care of the young children–potty training my two year old nephew right now. And I wonder at how our most cherished daily patterns can carry both wisdom and a closing of our eyes to the public sphere difficulties for which we are all responsible.

I”m feeling most right now the awareness of the many habits and forces that key to building the fuller, more responsible lives we are capable collectively of living, at home and in the larger world.

How much do you suppose the path to real change lies in creating intentional, separate communities with focus and vision (be they monastic or otherwise)? How much does the path to change involve forming a counter-cultural alternative, and how much does it involve staying with mainstream culture? Is this a false dichotomy?

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