Political Ignorance is not a Virtue

If, like many Americans, you get most of your news from social media, please stop. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s claims to the contrary, Facebook is not a company that wants to save the world from its own ignorance. In fact, like most big technology companies, it’s all too happy to let ignorance flourish online and on its own platform as long as the company remains profitable.

So what’s a twenty-first century citizen, inundated with newsfeeds and Tweets and 24/7 cable news to do? Although the country is still feeling the aftershocks of a fractious presidential election, it is possible to bridge political divides, even in Trump-era America. One way is to take a stand against political ignorance in our own lives by refusing to take the convenient way out when it comes to understanding our political choices.

As one of the winners of the “State of the American Mind” essay and video contest, sponsored by Templeton Press, noted in his video entry, we live in a world where people spend more time researching which television to buy than they do exploring the qualifications and ideological positions of their elected officials:

This encourages a political culture that rewards ideological rants rather than thoughtful debate; and easy slogans over in-depth education about important issues.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We could decide to step outside our ideological bubbles (and political comfort zones) and actually try to understand the other side. We could commit to discussing difficult issues without resorting to ad hominem attacks. We could stop using the term “fake news” as a one-size-fits-all bludgeon with which to attack political opponents. We could encourage young people in particular to pursue civility rather than retweets, and free speech rather than “safe spaces.” To do that, however, we need to take a stand against political ignorance.

As George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin has so aptly noted, “The specter of political ignorance hangs over American democracy, undermining a system of government that is supposed to epitomize the rule of the people. If the people often do not know what government is doing or what its effects are, it is far from clear that the people can rule in any meaningful or effective way.”

A healthy democracy requires thoughtful citizens. As our contest winners remind us, ignorance is no excuse.

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  • BunnyHooHoo

    Political ignorance has always been the Achilles heel of democracy, before “social media” and after “social media”.

    Social media gives us the best chance to break through the Mark Twain quandary where not reading the news makes you uninformed and reading the news makes you misinformed. Social media gives you the ability to back test your sources to see if they are reliable. If your source has a history of flip-flopping or being wildly wrong, you cut them out of the loop. Sources that have proven themselves to be accurate should be followed. There will always be misinformation, but reliable sources will grow while unreliable ones wither away.