Did you see that speech by President Obama where he called out wilful ignorance? He was speaking at a university graduation ceremony and took on the narrative that suggests that intellect and knowledge are somehow disconnected to “real” people. “In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” he said. “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about.”
The thing that really resonated with me was that it was not just about calling out the Donald Trump campaign of ignorance, fear mongering and rudeness. It was about an age that has supplanted reading books with assuming knowledge, based on Facebook statuses or Tweets on Twitter. Or the basing of opinion on smartass retorts rather than reasoned out arguments.
This is not an American phenomenon. Or something that happens in a parallel place to us. We suffer a similar environment.
The Brexit referendum is a good example of how a significant and serious issue can be turned into a campaign of fear laden headlines, which are rarely interrogated beyond whether they do further damage to the Conservative party. I have been at meetings where people have talked about this being a debate between hearts and heads. Really. The economic, educational, political and legal frameworks of our society are facing the biggest backward slide since before the Second World War and whether you “feel” European is given legitimacy in political debate!
We have come out of an election campaign and there have been significant changes to the political landscape since, with an opposition formed and a new type of coalition government and a new programme for government, which is out for consultation. I know people who will say that it goes over their heads and turns them off. However the same people will engage in lengthy debates on crime, education, planning permission or how much money they have left after paying the bills. And yet it is unlikely that they will read or contribute back to the Programme For Government consultation.
I think political activists need to engage with this. This disconnect is real and it is a political force in its own right. It cannot be engaged with by forming policy through press releases or snappy headlines. Nor by thinking that they need a social media strategy, which is a given. If we want all of our citizens franchised, politically engaged and universally informed we need to promote education, informed debate and informed politics.
Intellectual engagement with politics needs to be fostered. It cannot be that it becomes something for a privileged elite, and Facebook, Twitter and tabloid headlines are for the rest of us. And that requires real investment. It also takes real humility and a degree of patience. Those with power take note.
Fundamentally however only universal access to education can address ignorance. At all levels, and especially at third level. America has not invested as it should in universal education. In our jurisdiction we have an education system that continues to narrow further education and learning to an elite. This will only serve to compound the privileging of only certain voices. For Gods sake even the libraries are closing!
The damage that placing high burdens of debt, removing childcare, maintenance grants, and access to liberal arts degrees is currently doing will take a generation to repair. These moves disproportionately affect working classes and women. And most worryingly these moves say only the elite are worthy of further education. And that consistent structural disconnect will create the Trump type of ignorant discourse. In our context political disconnection manifests itself in violence. The stakes are high.
Our politically responsive, aware and active communities are worth so much more than that.