For the first time in a while, and since I’ve graduated for that matter, I finally had the opportunity to get back into one of my favorite pastimes at FIU: attending a public conference. This one was centered around the esteemed James Zogby, a pretty influential individual within the IR field who heads the Arab American Institute, as well as a major polling organization – Zogby International – that polls Arabs across the Mideast on a number of topics.
The lecture was largely centered around his recently published book, Arab Voices, which is predicated around the considerable amount of data he has drawn from his polling of the Arab world. The premise of the book, and for that matter his life’s work, is to present the ideas, concerns, and sentiments of the Arab world, and broaden Americans’ limited knowledge of a region that has nonetheless been of unparalleled strategic importance.
Most importantly, Mr. Zogby’s book touched on one of the things I’ve long been passionate about: the universality of the human condition. He couldn’t emphasize enough about how much American and Arab societies ultimately share in common: concerns about employment, political corruption, healthcare, job prospects for the youth, and education.
Furthermore, his data found that, contrary to popular belief, Arabs are hardly the visceral and bloodthirsty anti-Americans they are often perceived to be by the West (or that their louder and extreme voices may make it seem). Indeed, most Arabs are quite regularly exposed to American values and culture, and tend to admire both. For most of them the issue is, and has always been, American involvement in the affairs of their country and region. Most specifically, the problem concerns American policies that are detrimental to the region, such as support for autocratic regimes and our lopsided backing of Israel.
Most pressing is the lack of American soft power when compared to our strategic investments; we put far more money into military hardware and aid to dictators than we do to poverty alleviation, educational programs, and humanitarian aid. This could be said about the status of American foreign policy in general, reduced the investment and utilization of institutions like the State Department, USAID, and the Peace Corp in favor of strengthening military and strategic interests (and while the military can and does serve a humanitarian role rather effectively, that is not it’s central purpose). Granted, there is far more to share on the matter of American foreign policy than I care to discuss in this note, but I do plan to devote an entire post to it.
Anyway, as the title makes clear, it was the other pillar of Zogby’s message what struck a much more sensitive cord with me: the pervasiveness of willful ignorance in our society. Given the topic of the book and the conference, this was of course focused mostly with respect to the Arab world and the Middle-East: the fact that barely a third of Americans could find Iraq on a map, even though we’ve been involved in the region for nearly a decade (and lost over 4,000 soldiers there); the fact that until just a decade ago, Arabs were almost exclusively portrayed in media as either terrorists or oil sheiks; that Pakistan and Iran are considered Arab countries; and that a study of history in almost any public school invariably leaves out or marginalizes the world outside of Europe.
Indeed, it is the last point that I most sympathized with, not only because I am international relations major but because I’ve noticed it first hand. I’ve only ever been to public schools. I barely recall learning much of anything about the world outside of Europe. I was introduced to South American and African civilizations in the context of European discovery and colonization, as if they had no history before then; China didn’t really exist into Marco Polo made his famous journey there. The Mideast was referenced as merely the silk road, and viewed largely in that context.
Basically, world history was either European history or Europeanized history (Western and Westernized can be used as well). Every other civilization revolved around us and only came to significance upon our interactions with them. Their introduction tended to be token or superficial; what is perhaps worse than not knowing about other cultures and regions is knowing about them only by stereotypes.
Granted, this problem isn’t unique to the United States, to be certain. But as a globalized country with much involvement and influence in the rest of the world (and with a multicultural heritage), one would think our society would have at least a slightly-above average understanding of the world around us. How is it that after decade of war in the Middle-East, we still know only marginally more about it? How is it that we can export so much of our culture across the world, yet take in so little of others? How can a nation built by so many peoples from across the world (though mostly Europe), still fail to appreciate its origins?
And that is where the willful aspect of the ignorance comes in. As Zogby himself said, the only think worse than ignorance is ignorance coupled with certitude. That sentiment reflected a very similar comment I made not long ago on my status: that arrogance was the greatest detriment to education and knowledge. The people that are most ignorant tend to be those that are most sure of themselves and their scope of knowledge – they don’t need to learn more because they’ve learned enough. Not only people devoid of curiosity, but they’re devoid of humility. Apathy and hubris reinforce our ignorance and make it far more damaging.
Just witness the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, led and supported by people who knew little to nothing about the culture, politics, and history of the region, and who consciously ignored or dismissed the warnings of those snobbish academics. Witness the growing anxiety (often manifested as blatant xenophobia) about Islam, the growth of Hispanic America, and a rising China. Granted, all these things pose legitimate challenges and are potentially threatening, but our lack of any substantive knowledge about any of them only makes things worse.
It’s one thing if someone doesn’t know something. It’s a completely different thing if they don’t care to know. And that is the most pressing problem facing this country, not only in the Middle-East and the rest of the world, but in general. Our in ability to form an opinion of something based on actual facts, or at least a sincere attempt at research, is setting us back on almost every front. No one wants to doubt or reflect or analyze. We would rather hold on to our convictions based on noting more than a cognitive bias, because of ego, insecurity, and basic familiarity. But how will face the many challenges that await us if we don’t know much about any of them? How will we be responsible stewards of this nation, and our entire planet for that matter, if we don’t even care to know about the issues?
And before anyone jumps to the conclusion that I am conflating ignorance with any views I disagree with, keep this in mind: if people disagree with each other because they interpret a different set of facts – or the same facts differently – that is fine and well. I’ve had many an opponent debate with me based on their own sources and their own application of sincere critical thinking; while I may find them wrong (and not always mind you; I do change my mind), I acknowledge that they didn’t make their case lightly or in ignorance. Part of the reason I take a rather centrist approach to most topics, or at least try to, is because of my exposure to honest and integritous individuals like this.
It is when we confront deliberate ignorance that problems arise. How can one argue with someone who doesn’t know the topic in question? How can one make a case to someone who doesn’t even want to sincerely know that topic either? Wise, inquisitive, and sincere knowledge-seekers of differing opinions can eventually come together, at least about some pressing issues, or can borrow or implement one another’s ideas. In other words, disagreements and differences can be superseded by a sincere pursuit of what is right and true. But if we have a large element of society that is neither educated or inquisitive, than we have stagnation or, worse still, misguided policies.
In short, as with all things that afflict, the problem falls back down to education. But it is not merely the institutional form of education that is the issue – after all, people don’t need school to learn, especially nowadays. It is something much more disturbingly deep-seated: a lack of appreciation for knowledge and the absence of educational values. We don’t know, don’t want to know, and don’t need to know. That’s a problem that has ramifications for more than just the Middle-East.