I’m currently writing my first book under the working title, Thinking the Unknown, which exposes how an epistemology of ignorance shapes what we think we know about sex, gender, and sexuality. The concept of an epistemology of ignorance is obviously very important to my philosophy (I mean, I did one of my most popular videos on it a couple of years ago), so it makes sense that I would be going for the gold by writing a whole book on it. I hope it positively alters your thinking as much as it has profoundly informed mine.
While you eagerly await the publication of my book (oh, don’t worry, it won’t be long. I’m forcing myself to write it all before I go hungry and have to get a job…which gives me about a month), here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
…You don’t have to be a young woman from Idaho with a confused sense of her own biracial identity in order to get that Mills’ book is a powerfully provocative piece of work. In a little over one hundred pages he persuasively delivers a complete overhaul of what most people have been taught to know about politics, and the politics of race in particular. It’s not a superficial reminder that racism is still a fact of life, an unpleasant reality to which most people will at least give a begrudgingly half-hearted nod when a tragedy that makes national headlines calls for it. Instead, Mills clarifies how the modern world as we know it—from how the history of mainstream political theory has been shaped, to how global economic relations have been set up, to the values that influence our aesthetic judgments, in other words, things that we don’t tend to think about as racist systems—is the product of White supremacy, which he identifies as itself a political system. This is certainly a radical claim, and one that thrusts many people, White people in particular, on the defensive. I, on the other hand, was utterly captivated by the feeling that something fundamental was starting to shake within me, and I absolutely loved how he developed this argument.
Mills argues that most aspects of contemporary life as we know it are not only products of White supremacy but they also work to maintain it, even including what supposedly progressive folks tend to think about when they give their mostly-empty nods to racism. And all of it “works” because we don’t know about it: We don’t really know about racism. We don’t really know about race. And we certainly don’t know how racist oppression actually operates. In this respect, ignorance is a fundamental aspect and requirement of oppression but in a way that is slightly different from how people tend to think of ignorance as an uninformed, lack of knowledge. The type of ignorance at stake here is a produced ignorance, one that is created and maintained through effort, will, and sometimes overt actions that aim to preserve the status quo. Very educated people are often ignorant in this way. In fact, they might even be among the most influential actors who (perhaps inadvertently) perpetuate oppression by functioning under this sort of ignorance without knowing it. And here we have the heart and soul of Mills’ concept that shook me out of my cognitive stupor, which he refers to as an epistemology of ignorance. Not a simple lack of knowledge, but a produced inability to know that is a central aspect of how oppression operates.
The term ‘epistemology’ refers to the study of knowledge and belief, and an epistemology is a system of knowledge and belief that provides structure to what we know. While the study of ignorance could be referred to as an epistemology of ignorance, Mills uses the term to refer to a system of knowledge and belief that is itself based in and grows out of ignorance. In other words, an epistemology of ignorance refers to a system of knowledge, or the entire construct of what we take as knowledge, that actually fails to properly know. It’s not just that we lack knowledge. More importantly, the point is that the “knowledge” we have and rely on is inappropriate, false, misinformed, and skewed. Put most simply, our so-called “knowledge” is wrong. What we know is actually structured by ignorance. Furthermore, and most importantly, this ignorance is built up for the particular purpose of perpetuating oppressive systems, which will become clearer in a bit.
With respect to race, Mills describe the epistemology of ignorance as “an inverted epistemology,” a “particular pattern of localized and cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional)” that produces “the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”[i] This way of viewing and conceptualizing the world is thus “a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities,”[ii] such that White people might think that their relative power and privilege over non-white others is a product of their own individual hard work rather than historically sanctioned institutions and practices that continue to put non-white people at a unjust disadvantage.
In this respect, despite the meaning that is assumed behind the phrase, “knowledge is power,” participating in an epistemology of ignorance is not necessarily a detriment to one’s position in the world. To the contrary, Mills claims that the produced inability to know about unjust realities is psychologically and socially functional precisely because it shelters one from having to question one’s position in an oppressive system. As a nearly ubiquitous example of historical and cultural “group think,” an epistemology of ignorance provides a common, shared view among the people who benefit from it precisely because it is based in misrecognitions of social reality. A more appropriate way to understand that common phrase about knowledge and power, then, would be something more like the following: Accepting and living according to the “knowledge” that secures and validates one’s social dominance also safeguards, and is itself already a demonstration of, one’s political power over others.
Assumptions about the way of the world according to how one has been taught to see and understand it under the influence of an epistemology of ignorance are reinforced by others who also participate in this particular way of thinking, knowing, and understanding. Such reinforcement can manifest through cultural ideologies, scholarly theories, mythical lore, media representations, institutionalized practices, and personal interactions. For example, people may fail to recognize their own racism because they have been taught to “see people, not color” and believe that this is a testament to their unbiased, fair, and just “color-blindness.” Or, one may even acknowledge that social privileges and political disadvantages in America are very often distributed along racial lines (among other social identity markers) but then account for these differences by deferring to the rules of a meritocracy, which suggests that those who work hard enough will end up reaping the fruits of their labor. In other words, if one isn’t enjoying social and political privileges in America then they must not have tried hard enough to earn them. (It is easiest for those who are already beneficiaries of the so-called “American Dream” to continue believing in it, lest they be forced to recognize that the American Dream is not equally available to everyone.) In both cases—proudly touting one’s “color-blindness” and chalking up one’s successes to the “American Dream”—there is a grave misperception of how the social and political world actually operates. With respect to race, these ideological mythologies work to benefit some, but not all.
Such misperceptions about inequality and injustice are not often challenged because the one who misperceives is awarded with a self-satisfied reassurance that they are not morally or politically in the wrong and that they have not personally committed any wrongs in order to gain their own status, power, and privilege. (One might defensively say, “Don’t accuse me of being the bad guy just because you’re unwilling to put in the work that I had to in order to get here!”) In such cases, the old saying, “Ignorance is bliss” carries some weight—at least an epistemology of ignorance prevents one from having to face up to ugly realities about the world and one’s place in it. This is precisely why Mills notes that the epistemology of ignorance is socially and psychically functional—as long as one “knows” that what he or she does is not in the wrong, then oppressive institutions, practices, and beliefs can continue to persist with great ease and without much critique. As Mills explains, “One could say then, as a general rule, that white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion, and self-deception on matters related to race are among the most pervasive mental phenomena of the past few hundred years, a cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement.”[iii] Furthermore, another old saying seems pertinent: “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” With respect to the epistemology of ignorance, if one is so privileged to not know about the realities of oppression first-hand, that is, to not have to know them out of necessity in order to navigate life as one who is oppressed, then what one doesn’t know might not hurt them (in fact, it probably benefits them). However, it is extremely likely that one’s ignorance continues to produce serious harms for others, even if one would genuinely like to think otherwise about one’s own beliefs and actions.
In short, an epistemology of ignorance is the oft-overlooked cornerstone of systems of domination and oppression, and it is over-looked by design. When packaged so succinctly, Mills’ ultimate message about racial domination and the fact that what we “know” about race and racism actually consists in ignorance can be a hard pill for many people to swallow. (“I think he’s implying that I don’t know that I’m actually very racist!”) Before all of this starts to sound too conspiracy theory-esque, then, let me clarify what Mills is getting at by considering less controversial things that don’t involve talk about racism. After all, the task at hand is to better understand what an epistemology of ignorance is, how it affects what (we think) we know, and why I found this concept to be so life-changing.
The central characteristics of an epistemology of ignorance are not hard to accept. For instance, most people would agree that a problem cannot be solved if it is misidentified, misperceived, or misunderstood. In fact, attempting to solve a problem without fully understanding it can actually make the problem that much worse. Imagine that someone goes to the doctor because they feel sick and the doctor prescribes them antibiotics. That prescription for antibiotics won’t directly help resolve any of their symptoms if what they are actually suffering from is a viral infection. Furthermore, as a contributing factor in antibiotic resistance, the inappropriate over-prescription of antibiotics can exacerbate the presence of other illnesses and threaten public health. In a similar vein, as an inverted way of perceiving the world, an epistemology of ignorance effectively prevents one from being able to accurately understand the problem at hand such that a proper solution will be very hard to conceive and put into practice.
In addition to noting that a misunderstood problem is more likely to be ineffectively addressed, it also seems obvious that a problem won’t be solved if it is never recognized as a problem in the first place. Keeping with the example, if having a persistent viral infection was included in our notion of what it meant to live a healthy life, as if viral infections are unavoidable or having flu-like symptoms is “normal” rather than a compromised state of health, then we wouldn’t even think of trying to develop strain-specific seasonal flu-shots or encourage frequent hand-washing. The inappropriate prescription of antibiotics wouldn’t be an issue either since there would be no need to attempt an intervention through prescription medications. We would just shrug it off as part of life rather than a problem to be fixed.
At this point the medical analogy might be a bit misleading, for one might be tempted to say, “Well, yes, of course it’s hard to solve problems if we don’t fully understand or recognize them, but that’s why we continue to do more research, conduct studies, and put the best and the brightest minds to work on such issues.” While that may be the case with some things like science and medicine, it’s crucially important to remember that the sort of ignorance involved in an epistemology of ignorance doesn’t reflect something that we simply haven’t quite figured out. Instead, the epistemology of ignorance is itself what causes us to misperceive, misunderstand, and fail to recognize the problems that exist right in front of us. And that’s because what we know isn’t just a matter of knowledge. It’s also a matter of politics. That is, the fact that ignorance shapes what we “know” serves a particular political purpose.
When politics is broadly understood as the various means through which relationships of power and privilege are created, maintained, or changed, politics can be seen to have a significant influence on what we know, how we know it, and why we know it. Or not. Oppression and domination are quintessentially political realities that are born out of social relationships among people with unequal amounts of power and privilege. When an epistemology of ignorance is at work it most often serves the interests of those with the most power and privilege, and the phenomenon of failing to identify a problem at all is one of the most effective ways of perpetuating the most harmful effects of oppression. But since it’s rather difficult to convincingly suggest that nothing is ever wrong with the world as it is, perhaps the second most effective way to preserve political power is through misdirection. In other words, divert attention to pseudo-problems that don’t ever quite get at the heart of the real issue.
With respect to oppression and injustice, the effects of an epistemology of ignorance are evident in the statement, “America was built on freedom and equality.” Given our country’s history of slavery, the eradication of indigenous populations, the exclusion of women from leadership positions, and the only relatively recent inclusion of non-discrimination laws to the books (even if not yet fully realized in practice), it seems obvious that, at most, one could say that America was built on the freedoms of certain groups of people who were only considered equal to others already like themselves. Yet so many people continue to bask in the relief (if they are among the privileged) or relative hope (if they are among the less privileged) that is packaged up in their patriotism. In other words, even though American history is rife with domination and inequality, we remain convinced that America really stands for freedom and equality, producing the result that those with power and those without power will continue to act as if, simply by virtue of being Americans, their freedom and equality are already guaranteed. No fuss, no muss, no need for any political struggle.
If you didn’t quite catch it, the last example about the American dream hinted at a very clever thing that also happens in light of an epistemology of ignorance: even those who are oppressed sometimes buy into it, which ultimately represents the height of its political effect. What better way to perpetuate oppression than to ensure that the oppressed believe that their experiences in life simply reflect the way that things are, always have been, and will continue to be? For instance, convincing women that they are naturally more vulnerable to rape than men takes rape for granted as an inevitable phenomenon rather than a willful act of political domination. And what better way to stymie any critical questioning and efforts for political change than to make oppressed people feel like they deserve to be humiliated, shamed, and that they should envy and aspire to be like those who are more fortunate, more “normal”? For instance, internalized racism and homophobia can do enough damage to one’s self-esteem and well-being such that no one has to be the bigot or bully who outwardly condemns another for being “too dark,” “too dumb,” “too perverted,” or “too disgusting” to feel worthy of happiness, love, and success.
It’s important to recognize how everyone’s views—oppressors and the oppressed—can be shaped by an epistemology of ignorance and that its effects are characteristically hard to detect. A subtle presence of an epistemology of ignorance can be found in phrases like, “If racism is real then how did a black president get elected into office?” or “There’s no need for feminism any longer since women have all the same rights as men.” And, of course, people of color and women can also hold these beliefs. The who one utters these phrases may fully agree that racist and sexist oppression are bad things that should be challenged, but each phrase ultimately dismisses the need to actively challenge these forms of oppression because the “problem” is assumed to no longer exist. The same tendency of deflection often happens with respect to one’s evaluation of oneself as a person of privilege and power. Very few people would willingly identify themselves as a racist or a misogynist. Instead, it’s much easier (to do and also easier on one’s conscience and ego) to demonize those who are obviously hateful bigots and jerks. As a result, the ways in which one might actually commit hurtful actions, hold damaging prejudices, or support and participate in oppressive systems would continue to escape one’s ability to recognize and change in oneself.
As a relatively privileged, young idealist, feminist and queer budding philosopher with hopes of someday promoting greater justice in the world, these are the features of the epistemology of ignorance that shook me so deeply. Even those who are sensitive to their own domination, and those who think of themselves as “good-hearted people,” who want to support progressive change, who don’t want to be on the side of hate and injustice, who would be ashamed to ever realize that they, too, are guilty of perpetuating the everyday harms and violences of oppression—i.e., people like me—participate in epistemologies of ignorance. Because it’s hard to do otherwise until you become aware of what you are doing. That’s how just how deep an epistemology of ignorance can run.