A friend once told me a story from her years with the United Nations in a rural area in southern Africa. One day a neighbour asked her for old batteries; he said he was going to put them into the liquor he was brewing to (supposedly) help fermentation. She told him about the dangerous chemicals that might seep out. He listened patiently and then said, “So, do you have any batteries?”
His was ignorance bred of a lack of education: he simply didn’t have the building blocks to take seriously what she was saying.
South of where I live, that is, in the United States, the country of my birth, there is a rising tide of ignorance and stupidity that, at times, is hard to believe.
I understand (but detest) when right wing and racist ideologues do every nasty thing they can to raise doubts about Barack Obama, but it’s stunning to see that a full one-quarter of the population (and half of Republicans) actually believe the hallucinatory stories that he wasn’t born in the US.
It’s amazing to see that only 14 percent of adults believe that evolution is “definitely true” and 33 percent believe it is “absolutely false.” (Compared, for example, to 7 percent in Great Britain.)
And as an unprecedented series of tornados sweep through the US south and as we face another summer of the northern icecap melting away, it’s horrifying to see that 48 percent of Americans think that the threat of climate change is exaggerated and only 31 percent think it is “definitely happening.” (And among the latter, a sizeable number believe it is solely a natural phenomenon.)
This and much more is not simple ignorance.
It is sheer stupefaction.
And here’s the thing that makes ignorance and stupefaction different: Ignorance is a lack of knowledge. Stupefaction is a “numbness of the faculties” and the result of a process.
Something is doing the stupefying. Perhaps we should use the slang and call it stupification.
Who, or what, might that be?
Fundamentalist religions are high on the list. After all, when the message is hammered in that the book of Genesis explains human origins, there isn’t much room for messy processes such as evolution. (And, to be clear about the language here: that species have come and gone, and that species evolve, is fact; the theory developed by Darwin was to explain the mechanism of evolution, and that is the theory of natural selection.)
A right-wing political agenda that has focused on mobilizing fear and distrust, rather than reason and political discourse, also must take its place. Fear stupefies because it literally shuts down our higher brain functions and pushes us towards atavistic fight or flight responses.
Sheer mis-education and misdirection to distort reality is important if you want a stupefied population, which is why the oil, coal, and natural gas companies have pumped hundreds of millions into sowing doubt and confusion about climate change.
Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and all forms of bigotry stupefy not only because they stoke fear but also because they substitute ignorant stereotypes in place of real-life humans, thus leaving the stupefied incapable of grasping complex realities.
Add a large dose of a media where informed discussion is increasingly marginalized, where even in the more respected mass media, in-depth exploration or investigation is all but gone. Add the numbing impact of non-stop electronic consumption: where we are bombarded all day by advertising images and by television shows that induce a dream-like state, by endless bits of information where the complex tissue of life and relationships is reduced to 140 characters, by “facts” that don’t even need to be facts to make it to the headlines. Where everyone’s opinion is as valuable as the next person’s. (What’s that wonderful rejoinder? “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.”)
Stir it all together and you get stupefied people.
And lest it seems I’m picking on others, up here in Canada we’re in the midst of an election where the ruling Conservative Party has run a 100 percent negative campaign grounded in total fabrications. They won’t come close to winning a majority [of the popular vote], although with five parties on the ballot, they’ll likely have the most seats and remain in power.
That said, it’s exciting to see the huge jump of support for the New Democratic Party led by my friend and one of my White Ribbon Campaign co-founders Jack Layton. They’ve run on issues and are being heard.
It is hard, once people are stupefied, to help them get unstuck and think critically again.
But perhaps that’s what progressive social and political activism is all about. Helping people get beyond ignorance and fear.
So they don’t keep tossing used batteries into their drinks.
Or happily drive their cars all the way to extinction.
Update: As my Canadian readers know, the election brought both good and bad news. Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party, although not coming close to winning a majority of the popular vote, captured a majority of parliamentary seats, which raises alarms for our next four years (and once again shows the need for a system of proportional representation.) On the other hand, Jack’s New Democratic Party tripled its seats and virtually swept the Francophone province of Quebec to became the Official Opposition.