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Calm • Anxiety

The Importance of Not Knowing

We know that it is – of course – a very good thing indeed to be informed, very well informed, about pretty much everything that is going on out there. To qualify as a serious and decent person, we need to know about the political situation in Ecuador, voter tendencies in Tennessee, the rise of the Bulgarian right, Ghanaian cocoa futures, shipping in the Singapore Straits, the state of nickel mines in the DRC. Legions have been deployed and satellites set into orbit to let us know – always – who is famous, who has just been murdered, who touched whose leg inappropriately and what might – if we’re not very careful – be happening to Alpine glaciers around 2082. An ordinary modern human scrolling idly in the bath or train has more knowledge at their command than the most powerful and well-connected monarch of antiquity. 

The prestige of this knowledge is such that it takes a very brave or foolhardy spirit to dare to ask some rather basic sounding-questions – upon which our peace of mind might nevertheless depend: why – after all – should I know this? Why, really, are you telling me such things? Can this truly be so urgent and so necessary?

Edouard Manet, Rochefort’s Escape, 1881

It is unfortunate that we generally have to wait for a nervous break down before we feel entitled to raise such bold-sounding, profoundly sane enquiries.

We buy our encyclopaedic awareness at a very high price indeed. We know so much and simultaneously so little – about what is making us sad, about our true responsibilities to others, about our genuine priorities, about inner peace and an end to paranoia. 

What if – to be truly heretical – there was rather a lot we didn’t, in the end, need to know about? What if well-led existence could be had with a fraction of the information vaingloriously sold to us as unmissable? What if we didn’t have to keep up with every step in our species’s fractious development? What if we missed out some paragraphs, even whole chapters in the wretched story of our species? What if we were to take pride in every famous person we had never heard of and every scandal we had managed to overlook? We manage well enough with knowing only one or two details of what befell our forebears between the mid 7th and early twelfth centuries. Why not extend the privilege to our own times? What if most of what passes for ‘news’ bears as much consequence for us as did a skirmish between two long-extinguished Burgundian kingdoms in the 1100s or a battle which made off with five thousand Aztec soldiers in the last days of Montezuma II’s reign? 

We aren’t merely trying to forget, we’re trying – ultimately – to focus. There are only so many opportunities to direct our attention; to know one thing is also always not to know another. We aren’t being selfish; we’re trying to stay afloat. We’re trying to discharge our responsibilities to those close to us – including ourselves – by willingly overlooking some of the complications and agonies that roiled our fellow humans somewhere on the planet today. 

What if selective ignorance were in reality to belong to one of the preconditions of a good life? What if we could pride ourselves – at points – on just how much we had managed not to know?

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