Donning the veil: How intentional ignorance can unblind us from our blind spots

  • National Newswatch

With fair-mindedness and bipartisanship disappearing at a seemingly ever-diminishing rate, it is time to do something about it. And it starts with the intention to do just that.We are in the midst of a scourge. Not Covid19. Rather, an epidemic that predates the current pandemic by several years.I am talking of our ideological tribalism and its regrettable consequence: near-universal hypocrisy.It is an affliction that has never been as acute as it nowadays, infecting apparently every aspect of our cultural and socio-political discourse.Diagnosing our afflictionWe have lost our ability - and maybe our will - to assess an issue on its merits. Sure, we make allusions to the evidence and convince ourselves that we are open-minded. That we are objective, logical and rational.Alas, our objectivity and rationality are mere illusions. In reality, partisanship and bias are deeply ingrained in us. Deep down we know we do it, although we rarely admit it to ourselves. We pretend we are not the hypocrites that our very own words and actions show us to be.It seems self-evident, yet we deny it. This denial – self-delusional and self-deceptive – often takes the form of us being influenced as much by who is saying something as what they are saying.The intrinsic worth of an argument must be determined never assumed. Even the noblest person can talk shit.But, too frequently, it is tribe that trumps content. And we fall dutifully in line, employing specious argument and spurious reasoning to doggedly defend or stridently contest someone depending on whether they are on our “side”.At the most basic level, we compromise ourselves, either knowingly or unwittingly.For the former, our cognitive dissonance is chronic and constant. To allay it, we perform the most extraordinary mental gymnastics to justify our attitudes and actions.While, for the latter, no such discomfort exists. We are oblivious to the contradictions and cursorily dismiss the inconsistencies. Unaware of our intellectual corruption. And so we go along unaffected, bathing in our blissful ignorance.Which is why we give a free pass to our ideological ally but mercilessly pursue our enemy for the exact same offense or infraction. The only difference in our attitude toward the alleged offender is the color of their political stripes.For instance, an existing program will be inherited by an incoming administration (of different stripes) and left in place. Before the change of government, the program was innocuous and did not raise as much as an eyebrow. Now, all of a sudden, it is deemed highly objectionable and raises the hackles of a slew of very vocal protestors.A simple question: where were these activists before? It is reasonable to conclude that their opposition has less to do with policy (substance) and far more to do with politics (perception).The double standard is in plain sight. It is its ubiquity that has inured us to the situation. And only our hypocrisy that blinds us to it.The prescriptionBut, just when our plight seems hopeless, it is our very blindness that offers some semblance of hope.After all, we employ double-blind designs to improve the outcomes of controlled experiments. We also use blind recruitment to eliminate bias from hiring decisions, along the lines of Martin Luther King's supplication for our blindness to the color of others' skin but not to the content of their character.And, of course, justice itself is meant to be blind.Which brings us to the theory of John Rawls. Specifically, his notion of the “veil of ignorance”.I don't recall studying Rawls at college. I became informed of his ideas later, in my working life as a public servant. In the context of thinking about the role of government and its putative role in promoting a good society.For the uninitiated (or as a refresher for those who need it), Rawls proposes that the structure of a good society can be arrived at from first principles. To do so, he postulates the thought experiment known as the “veil of ignorance”.Crucial to this idea is that we are ignorant of - that is, blind to - all identifying attributes. We do not know our race, sex, strengths, wealth or any other personal characteristic that would allow us to game the system to our advantage. In this context, situational knowledge is exploitative and undermining. It tilts the scales in our favor. It is cheating.The logic is that our ignorance ensures considerations - of how society should be organized - are underpinned by detached impartiality. As a result, our derived conclusions carry a greater weight of validity. They are also, in effect, more just or moral.The concept is not without criticism but there is a lot to like about it and it has always appealed to me.What if we donned a veil of ignorance when called to consider any range of topical social and political issues? Of the stories that inhabit the never-ending news cycle and excite our emotions each and every day?Would our snap judgments be modified? Would our prejudices be tempered?Would a victim for whom we would normally identify suddenly be seen as a perpetrator if we knew nothing about them? And would the villain be cast as our hero if we were ignorant of who they were?In a literal sense, less is more: the more we know, the less we are able to make untainted judgements.Which sounds blasphemous in this age of information overload. Until you accept that most of us are really quite bad at separating the wheat from the chaff. At filtering the signal from the noise.So we react to the noise and prejudge issues. It leads us to presumptively apportion blame or fault, attribute where credibility lies (or does not) and assign relative positions on the moral topography (holders of the high moral ground versus otherwise).A cautious prognosisIn practice, overcoming our knowledge biases is difficult, if not impossible.This is largely because we are ignorant that they exist. It is an unconscious phenomenon wrapped up in our own experiences and psychological processes. Their subconscious influences over us are so powerful precisely because we are unaware of them.But if we can at least acknowledge our biases then there is a chance - and the potential - of us being able to swap out our unconscious ignorance for a conscious (or intentional) version of it.Intentional ignorance requires practice and discipline until it becomes second nature. It is a conscious choice we need to make if we are not to lose sight of the things that are important and relevant. And if we want protection from those things that distract and partialize us.When we take deliberate action to eliminate our knowledge biases, we benefit from it markedly. We are freed to focus on the core and substance, not the peripherals and personalities. The upshot is that the quality of our decision-making betters and the consistency of our judgment improves.With the promise of a payoff as significant as that, intentional ignorance is not a concept that should be ignored. On the contrary, objectivity is an objectively worthy objective.So please, I encourage you to don the veil. Be wise enough to view it as your chance to realize the vision of blindness and to harness the wisdom of ignorance.Melbourne, Australia-based S. Franklin “King” Kozelle is an Antipodean writer and polemicist, with over 25 years of experience as a college teaching fellow and senior civil servant.Follow him on Twitter @KingKozelle.