The “culture of willful ignorance” in all its popular manifestations is a current and present danger to social morality. The “dumbing down” of America via media entertainment is harmless enough on its own, but it is linked to a more serious mindset of moral implications. Willful ignorance attacks the moral underpinning of civil society because it legitimates unreasonable behavior. Catholics have a special imperative to oppose willful ignorance because we have been told that “The Truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:32 ). I am convinced there should be zero tolerance in Catholic America for the culture of lies.
Willful ignorance is not bound to political ideology. Liberals often claim the fetus “is part of woman’s body” despite indisputable evidence that the chromosomal makeup for a woman is different from the baby’s in her womb. The left also seems fascinated by conspiracy theories about the CIA and big business. On the right, willful ignorance claims there is no man-made climate change or that human evolution is “only a theory.”
This ignorant culture disparages facts, education and reason. Mrs. Palin’s current act of writing talking points on the palm of her hand is definitely not a major issue. Almost since the invention of school, somebody has cheated this way. But her behavior is symbolic. To her opponents it means she only knows what she can fit into the palm of her hand; for her supporters, it proves that logic based on factual evidence is not required to arrive at populist conclusions.
Populism is OK: it tries to explain complex truth in the language of the people. Its opposite is willful ignorance that tries to avoid the truth with popular slogans. Sadly, this dumbing-down culture dominates today’s political media. An internet posting of an outrageous lie, or a doctored You-Tube tape gains new life and wide audience when repeated without fact-checking. Willful ignorance transforms a half-truth or outright lie into the “balanced other side.” Beware of reasons to hate your neighbor when the opinions are unsupported by facts.
We saw this cycle enacted in the case of Shirley Sherrod, an African-American government worker in rural Georgia. She was manufactured into a “black racist” when the full tape instead showed her promoting racial understanding. She deserves praise for transcending justifiable feeling of revenge for the murder of her father by a white supremacist who was never punished after cowardly shooting a black man in the back. This Sherrod case brought blame to both left and right in America, showing just how pervasive is the culture of willful ignorance.
Although liberals are not immune from such things, it appears that today willful ignorance prefers Republican red. Forty-one percent of registered GOP voters are not sure President Obama was born in the United States. Right-wing pundits and polls rail against non-existent “death panels” in the reform of health care: they denounce “amnesty for illegals” when the proposed legislation actually imposes penalties. The governor of Arizona cites Muslim-like “beheadings in the desert” as cause to expel Mexicans, even though there is no record of such horrors ever taking place. But for the willfully ignorant, Mexicans and Muslims can be tarred with the same brush.
By now, the Tea Party has been stigmatized by the stupidity of signs like “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” (But Medicare is run by the government!). This might explain the erosion of Tea Party support during this summer. But its lock-step march with willful ignorance continues.
Glenn Beck, the right-wing media celebrity, promotes the Tea Party as a vehicle for his brand of politics. Beck identified the liberal targets for Byron Williams, who armed himself with automatic weapons and shot policemen while on his Beck-inspired mission of violence. As Dana Milbank has noted, Beck himself thinks violence is the inevitable consequence of the conspiracies he identifies on air with benumbing regularity: Commenting on the murder of ten people, Beck asked how conservatives could not “turn into that guy?” But he keeps on feeding willful ignorance.
The antidote, of course, is to think critically and seek the truth rather than relying on easy sloganeering. It would be disastrous for the American public to become “dittoheads:” for Catholics, it would be sinful.