(This originally appeared in Brutarian Quarterly #50; for a while I wrote a column there about ignorance in general and my ignorance in specific. It was a lot of fun and I figure I’ll post them here now and again.)
I USED to think I was the only jackass in the world. A lone jackass, doomed to a solitary life of jackassery, wandering this world in a haze of ignorance and unintentional destruction—cities burned to the ground, populations wiped out by disease, entire societies ruined and desecrated by some consequence of my ignorant jackassery. This was not an entirely unpleasant notion; after all, is it better to be forgotten and swept into history’s dustbin, or to be remembered as The Destroyer of Worlds? If that’s your only choice, bubba, I say go for Destroyer of Worlds. The title sounds pretty cool, and thousands of years after your death it’s almost guaranteed that cults will pop up to worship your memory. No one worships Jeff Somers, Jackass, but Somers, Destroyer of Worlds will get a lot of tithing, I think.
Ah, but I’m older now, and I realize that I am not, indeed, the only jackass in the world. In fact, I’ve come to realize that just about everyone has at least a moment or two of jackassery in their lives. You have the people who lead perfectly normal, uneventful existences until one day they decide to deep-fry their Thanksgiving turkey, or to investigate that gas smell in the crawlspace with an open flame for illumination. All of us have a Secret Jackass inside us, waiting to come out. We all just put a lot of energy into hiding it from each other, creating a sort of multi-level marketing environment of jackassery—we’re each passing on jackassery, deepening like a coastal shelf, in a desperate bid to hide it. My goodness, how often can I use the word jackassery in one essay? Let’s find out. Jackassery.
The secret ingredient in most jackassery, of course, is our old friend Ignorance. If you’re aware that you should turn the power off in your home before attempting to rewire a broken light fixture, you are less likely to be lit up like a sparkler later in the day. Thus, jackassery would seem to be an easy thing to cure; simply embrace education, eliminate ignorance, and we are living in an all-singing, tap-dancing jackass-free world. The problem, however, is that ignorance is like mold: You scrub at it and it seems to go away, but in reality it’s growing under the drywall and infiltrating every damn place. This is because most people are afraid to admit ignorance, and will pretty much pretend to know things they don’t in order to project a learned and wise demeanor.
We’re all ignorant of something, after all. Even if you know pretty much everything I bet I could think of some subject you know little about—even some everyday, practical things, things you probably haven’t even thought of. And I bet if I were to discover your secret ignorance, rather than admit it, you’d go to great lengths to cover it up and obfuscate it, to pretend you know something you don’t. That’s how ignorance maintains itself. My god, people, we live in an age where men have walked on the moon, where we’ve split the atom and mapped the human genome! And yet, we also live in an age where most people have no idea how the electoral college works and where grown men have only the vaguest idea how the technology that serves us works. I’m not talking about the complex physics of, say, electricity, here; I’m talking about knowing how something like jumper cables work. I’ve personally observed people who have the same level of knowledge regarding jumper cables they have regarding Tiny Poisonous Frogs of the Brazilian Rain Forest. The difference being your chances of encountering a Tiny Poisonous Brazilian Rain Forest Frog versus your chances of needing to use jumper cables.
Still, you’ll never know what people know or don’t know. Witness the various hoaxes concerning Dihydrogen monoxide—otherwise known as water (H2O). People happily signed petitions to ban this terrible substance once they’d been told all the terrible things it does (for example, inhalation, even in small quantities, may cause death) even though none of them, clearly, knew what the hell it was. They were handed a petition and challenged to either feign knowledge or admit ignorance, and they chose to feign knowledge. Because Ignorance is the most powerful force in the universe, and we’re all powerless against it. You might as well fortify your house, lay in stores of Spam and Twinkies, buy some guns, and prepare, because when the world ends it won’t be a huge red sun in the sky or a plague or a fundamental breakdown in our environment, it will be hordes of ignorant people convinced you are an evil spirit who must be destroyed, or that you possess an army of Tiny Poisonous Brazilian Frogs that threaten the universe. It will be an army of jackasses transformed into Destroyers of Worlds through sheer ignorance.
This does, I think, take some of the shame out of being ignorant, or at least it should. Next time you’re puzzling over some aspect of modern life that seems like something everyone but you understands—fashion, perhaps—take a step back and realize that it’s more than probably no one understands it, and we’re all just pretending to. It seems pretty likely that fortunes have been made off of such assumptions, but fortunes, sadly, are one of the many, many things I remain ignorant about.