Archive | July 14, 2013

What We Talk About When We Talk About Shit We Know Nothing About

There’s this way people think about things that I always find surprising and more than a little pernicious.

In general it goes like this: Person A is doing something about X and actively engaged with it. Person B is not engaged with X, but thinks they know something about it because they once read an article/saw a movie/watched a youtube documentary on the subject. So while Person A has experiential, nuanced knowledge of X, Person B believes they have just as comparable and useful knowledge without really ever experiencing anything first-hand about X.

Another way of putting it is like this: when people say they know about X, what they actually know about it tends to be three pictures that they think about when they think about X.

So, for example, when I talk to most other Americans about South Korea, their knowledge of the country is pretty much the Korean War, Kim Jung Un, and kimchee; a weird incongruous  mix of 1950s world events, current cable news, and a pop culture reference or two. As if at this moment I lived amid a ruined city under North Korean siege with tanks outside my window while Psy gungnam-styled all around.

But, like I said, I find this way of thinking to be pernicious, where we mistake our thin veneer of knowledge about something, for actually knowing about it. I’d rather people, myself included, admitted to ignorance and say, “I don’t know.”

More to the point, I think it gets interesting when we start to see where those pictures originated and how they got inside our heads. What purpose is served by their being there? Maybe they say more about us and our own assumptions than they do about the thing we believe we know something about. Maybe we’d be wise to learn how to discern actual knowledge from the billboards we put up to cover our ignorance.