Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Selective stupidity

Ignorance is bliss. “Once you know things you start seeing problems everywhere, and once you see problems you feel like you ought to try to fix them, and fixing problems always seems to require change, and change means doing things that aren't fun. But if you're willfully stupid, you don't know any better, so you can keep doing whatever you like. The secret to happiness is short-term, stupid self-interest.” - Calvin & Hobbes

It’s not likely that many people deliberately say to themselves, “ I think I’ll stay ignorant about _________.” More likely, they find themselves too busy to be bothered with some subject or other. Or, knowing little about a subject, they don’t see how it can either help or hurt them. They don’t take the time to find out any more about it.

It's frightening how much this could rationally explain why people seem to limit their knowledge and/or awareness of things that don't directly effect them in the here and now frame of reference. Not that it isn’t a very sensible approach to take. There are literally millions of things a person could be interested in. Tens of thousands of which might reasonably impact on a person’s life. And, many hundreds of which will directly affect each of us.

There would be no time to eat, sleep or work if we tried to learn as much as we could about everything that might remotely affect us. So, without even knowing we’re doing it, we use a very sophisticated method to determine what is really important. We rely on other people to determine what is important. Except in singularly personal matters, this works well.

The importance of a subject or issue depends on the combination of two factors, how many people seem to care and how much they care. It’s the combination of the quantity (how many) and the quality (how much) that determines how important we decide the subject will be to us. Depending on the subject, other factors such as our age, sex, occupation, economic status, tax bracket, geographical location, etc. will be part of our decision on whether or not we will personally get involved.

As we have seen in many cases, a few people who are passionate about an issue can prevail over a multitude who don’t seem to care. While this might not fit the definition of democracy that is the law of the land (one man, one vote), it is probably a more reasonable practical application that takes into account both numbers and intensity of interest in a topic. After all, if most of us aren’t interested in say, field hockey, why should that keep the few who are from having a place to play their sport?

Which brings us back to the subject, selective stupidity. It is a very good way to minimize the stresses in our lives. It does however have unintended consequences. Those who are most interested in more things tend, in the long run, to get more things their way. The price they pay is more temporary stress and personal time commitment.

On the other hand, those who minimize their stress and involvement, are often upset or angry when it seems that things in general aren’t going the way they would wish. This is the price they pay for letting others be the involved people.

There is no right or wrong answer to this natural tendency of human nature. Some people will always see a cause in the smallest happening and take steps to insure that something does or doesn’t happen. Others will go through life either blissfully ignorant of near disasters or the surprised victims of the random acts of others.

Perhaps this explains why so many can be governed by so few.

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