In Praise of Selective Ignorance


I think I used to know where Timbuktu was. I seem to recall looking it up once, many years ago. It was somewhere in Africa, I think. But now I am glad to say that I am no longer sure where it is, or even whether it exists in the real world, rather than just as a metaphor for an obscure, faraway place.

That may sound strange. Why don’t I just google it, you may wonder. It would be the work of a handful of seconds to obtain all the information one could wish on the subject. The answer is that I prefer not knowing! As long as I don’t know, it remains a mystical, semi-magical idea – perhaps the sort of place that dragons live, or a land that can only be reached by climbing to the top of the Faraway Tree. Not knowing is so much more intriguing and exciting than knowing.

Don’t get me wrong, I think knowledge is a wonderful thing. Continuing one’s education as long as one lives is one of the things that makes life truly worthwhile. But accumulating bare, dry facts is not what I consider worthwhile education. There is magic in understanding the theory of relativity, or quantum mechanics, there is fascination in analysing the structure of language and meaning, and there is enduring value in studying ethics so that one can develop a consistent system for making important decisions that affect others. But names, locations and principal exports are facts that are fit primarily for laundry lists. They hold no poetry for me.

The internet is a marvellous tool. It has enabled me to further my education in a number of fascinating directions. For a while there, I also revelled in the ability to instantly look up a name I hadn’t heard before, to dispel my ignorance of some obscure fact at the click of a mouse. But now, as often as not, I choose not to search. There are many things I want to know, things I need to know, and things that others will benefit from my knowing. But there are also rivers of useless information that merely clutters the brain.

When I was three or four, we used to go and stay in my grandparents’ hotel in Lisdoonvarna in Ireland. It was a rambling place that seemed enormous to us little kids, even though it probably wasn’t that large. We used to wander into the kitchens and talk to the cooks and wander about the hotel. My older brother and I found what we regarded as a ‘secret passage’ from the kitchens up to the upstairs guest rooms. I expect that really it was just a rear stairway topped by a short corridor that gave onto the guest corridor through a ‘Staff only’ door. But because it was not apparent from outside the building, and was hidden behind small doors, we imagined that it was secret, perhaps even that it was in another dimension – hyperspace perhaps. We delighted in going from the kitchens to the guest corridor via this route, feeling as if our sudden appearance on the upper storey would seem like magic to any casual observer.

Had a floor plan of the hotel been available we could no doubt have seen instantly how the corridor fitted in, with geometric precision, and every square metre of floor space was accounted for. There would have been nothing secret or magic about the passage any more – just another dingy service thoroughfare. But we never saw one, and the excitement remained undisturbed, free to be recalled with pleasure forty years later.

I rail against those who loudly proclaim political views founded in a combination of tribal ideology and ignorance. I castigate who are not prepared to take time to understand the threat of global warming. I mourn the poor literacy and knowledge of hygiene, sustainable agricultural practices and contraception in the poorest countries, that causes them so much misery. In so many ways, and in so many contexts, ignorance must be fought and dispelled, if we humans, and the other animals on this planet, are to flourish.

But there are times and places where ignorance can be enjoyable. I delight in not knowing where Timbuktu is. I leap to switch the radio off when the news comes on to tell me unnecessary grisly details of some horrible murder. I get a kick out of muddling up the names of the world’s favourite teen pop idols. And I’m even starting to enjoy not being able to name an actor in a television drama whose face looks familiar (which uncertainty a couple of minutes on the internet could easily clear up).

So, while I still earnestly adjure my fellow humans to join me in trying to learn the important things that will help us get along and prosper, I hope that we will all have some space left in our life to whimsically wallow in selective ignorance of those things that don’t matter.