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Susan Smalley, Ph.D. Headshot

Willful Ignorance: Penn State, Don't Ask - Don't Tell, and Others

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According to James Carse, Professor Emeritus at NYU, there are three kinds of ignorance: ordinary ignorance, willful ignorance, and higher ignorance. The first is the very essence of learning -- you move from unknowing to knowing -- like learning history, science, facts and trivia. The second type, willful ignorance, is when you know something but choose to pretend you do not. The third type of ignorance is lofty in scope and hard to achieve -- it is a reverence for the unknown -- for mystery -- or what may be unknowable. It is infinite, as Carse notes, 'the intellect ... never comprehends truth so precisely that truth cannot be comprehended infinitely more precisely' (p. 15, The Religious Case against Belief). A higher ignorance allows us to be open and curious in the face of knowing that we do not know.

The most disconcerting form of ignorance is when it is willful. We seem to be living in a culture that condones it more and more. The Penn State sex abuse tragedy is a perfect example of willful ignorance where individual values were ignored in the face of a culture of secrecy. As discussions emerged around 'how can this happen?' I started to see that willful ignorance can be accepted as part and parcel of a cultural mindset.

Our government adopted a stance of willful ignorance with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The military was told to pretend that gay men and women were not present in the military by acting ignorant to its occurrence. It was an official government policy validating willful ignorance.

I've been working with a human rights organization lately on a book about survivors of the sex trade. As we talked about the book, it became clear that we hoped to get people to become aware of the presence of harmful actions of human against human when sex is for sale. The question we kept asking was,

"Should girls and women be sold for sex?"

We heard story after story of westerners (often college students) buying sex from prostitutes while on vacation in Brazil or Cambodia or other travel destination. It's very unlikely these men and boys are fully aware of the abuses and bondage of females in prostitution that is connected to buying sex. I doubt many men would do so if they fully understood the extent of violence toward women and girls that underlies or is connected to their purchase. The average prostitute starts at 12-13 years of age and begins that life because of being sold or forced into servitude because of poverty, lack of education, or dire family conditions. Few people would think that at 12 years of age, a decision to sell oneself for sex would be truly of 'free choice.'

There is both an element of ordinary and willful ignorance when it comes to buying sex. Naivety arises because we aren't that well informed about the insidious nature of the sex trade, the abuses that are connected to pornography, strip clubs, and other mainstream sex for sale media. Yet willful ignorance arises when we are somewhat informed and yet ignore it for the pursuit of individual pleasure. Willful ignorance arises when we pretend it happens 'over there' -- somewhere foreign to our backyard, affecting girls and women who we wish to think are different from our own mothers, sisters, and daughters.

While the driving force behind the sex trade is money, it is willful ignorance that keeps it alive. It is unlikely we can change the financial incentives overnight; but we can change our minds. If we -- as a nation -- reject willful ignorance and pledge to act in awareness, the sex trade and its abuses will likely fall by the wayside.

Sometimes I think it comes down to defining or reminding ourselves of a personal code of conduct -and asking if willful ignorance is okay in light of that ethic. What is your personal ethic? It is a question I rarely asked myself to recite specifically. When I did so, however, I realized my ethic is 'to be kind', defined as acting in ways that are 'helpful, not harmful.' That ethic seems to underlie most of the rules of conduct prescribed by religions or secular laws (do not kill, do not lie, do not steal, etc.) and it certainly simplifies the list. Although we can never be sure that a course of action will have the effect we intend (e.g. a surgeons scapel might lead to death even though the intent was to help). if we offer an action with an intent of helping, not harming, we have done our best.

It can also lead to a change in behavior if we remember to act in ways that help and not harm. My guess is that people purchasing women or girls for sex would not do so if they were guided by the ethic of 'help, not harm.' Removing blinders of willful ignorance and following a personal ethic of kindness would do much to stop the sex trade of girls and woman around the world.

Willful ignorance happens all the time and it is up to each of us to battle it individually and then around us when it arises. A battle is an appropriate metaphor because countering willful ignorance requires action, often contrary to self-serving interests. It requires learning about the effects of ones actions on others and may involve sacrificing personal pleasure for the benefit of others.

When we choose to act in ways that we know are detrimental to others or the planet and pretend to ourselves that it is not so, we acknowledge and accept willful ignorance. There are numerous examples from my daily life that reveal my own willful ignorance -- overuse of electricity when others have none, not recycling all the time, throwing away food, wearing animal products without knowledge of whether they were derived from factory-farms, buying products that may have human slavery in the supply-chain without knowing so, and the list goes on and on. Even under the best of circumstances, willful ignorance will be present. But everyday, I attempt to minimize its occurrence and act in ways that are consistent with my personal ethic -- help, not harm.

The Sandusky affair brought to light the need to recognize our individual roles in shaping the kind of ignorance we wish to live by. Rather than criticize the errors in judgment evident in the Penn State case, we would be wise to acknowledge our own examples of willful ignorance and work to eliminate them as much as possible. In a culture where each person holds a personal ethic to the highest standard, willful ignorance will have a hard time taking hold.

Ignorance is part and parcel of being human, we always know less than we think we know, but it is our job as human beings to reduce ordinary ignorance, eliminate willful ignorance, and aspire to higher ignorance as much as possible.