Ignorance Is Not Bliss

We live in a time of fear. In America, we have seen the most brilliant political scheme in the history of social organization — our constitutional democracy — eroded to near meaninglessness through the venal, be-afraid-be-very-afraid tactics of the Bush administration to consolidate its power. In our families, we are witnessing timid new generations of kids grow up in homes where their every activity is restricted by the brainless paranoia of their parents.

Don’t get me wrong: there are dangers in the world, and I do not advocate imprudence even as I recognize that it sometimes leads us into our most memorable, life-affirming adventures. But it is far too easy for governments and parents to play the danger card thoughtlessly. After all, few will ever criticize them for being too cautious.

While those who would make judgments on our behalf take comfort behind shopworn aphorisms like “Better safe than sorry,” they ignore the fact that there is an enormous price to pay for irrational timidity, diffidence, and restraint. Ignorant fear is soul-sucking and joy-inhibiting. When a mood of alarm comes to dominate, citizens lose the both individual liberties and many of the psychological benefits of living in a free society; and children lose the carefree pleasure which should be the very marker of childhood.

Yesterday, there was a very different piece in the space occupied by the words you are reading now. It conveyed a link to an audio file of a speech given by a brilliant high school student. Today, that essay has been removed in response to the unthinking request of her father, who trembles at the improbable notion that someone might somehow connect the wise words to the actual girl who uttered them.

The great irony of this censorship is that the message of the young woman in question — we’ll call her “L”, in a nod to Kafka — was about discovering fearlessness in the face of her father’s stifling insecurities.

“Everyone reaches a point when they become embarrassed by something they love,” reflected L. In her case, she was made to feel silly about singing in a record store. “My dad tapped me on the shoulder and told me I wasn’t supposed to sing out loud like that,” L recalls. “All of a sudden, I was self-conscious. I felt that everyone in the store was staring at me as if I was a lunatic. I had effectively been kicked out of my musical Garden of Eden.”

L came to realize that singing is nothing to be embarrassed about, no matter what her father and others might think. She couldn’t see the harm in it: “I realized that [the perils of singing badly] are not all that life-threatening.”  In a bold triumph over her apprehensions, L concluded her address by singing Leonard Cohen’s lovely — and quite challenging — Hallelujah for her audience. She deliberately performed the song a cappella, she said, “so if I mess up, there is no one else I can blame.”

L’s rendering of the song was breathtakingly beautiful, both musically and as a manifestation of the joy that comes from fearlessness. I am sorry not to be able to share it with you.

In telling this backstory, am I being too harsh on L’s father? (I mean: about his fear of the internet, not about the fact that he made his daughter feel like an asshole for enjoying herself in public.) Is there a legitimate threat to L that I should be taking seriously?

Perhaps there are cadres of axe murderers who target kids for their displays of precocious intelligence. Maybe there are evil-doers who despise exhibitions of accomplished singing. We live in an age where biologists have catalogued the human genome, mathematicians have solved the Poincaré Conjecture, and psychics are regularly able to predict romantic unions between homely women and men tall, dark, and handsome; so can we really rule out the possibility that internet readers might be able to connect this inspiring story to the particular high school senior who authored it, despite having nothing more to go on than her white-bread, astonishingly generic name?

I don’t see the danger lurking here. But if L’s father is right, isn’t the real question: why-the-hell are these diabolical lunatic-savants reading my blog?

I cannot know whether the fear expressed by L’s father is genuine paranoid delusion or whether it is artiface, put forth to make him look or feel as though he is successfully play-acting the role of the protective father. Either way, the costs of his ball-less-ness are quite obvious, and quite real. A thoughtful young person who is finding her voice in the world is denied the wider audience that her carefully crafted message deserves, and that potential audience is bereft of the inspiration of her story. The world is a duller, less engaged, more insular place. Moreover, he has given his daughter an opportunity to take on his timidity, just as she reflexively learned to adopt his self-loathing that day in the record store.

Long before the national psyche came to be defined by people like L’s father and George W. Bush, Americans understood the value of spirited fearlessness — and the cost of unthinking trepidation. Franklin Roosevelt put the proposition most famously in his first inaugural address, when he said: “[T]he only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

L’s story was remarkable for its courage and honesty. I thought people would be moved and inspired to hear — in her own words and in her own voice — how she overcame feelings of humiliation when she came to see that they were not her own, but were projected into her psyche by her father. I hope for her sake that she does not also internalize his well-developed sense of dread – or that if she does, that her next essay of epiphany is not long in coming.

1 Response to “Ignorance Is Not Bliss”

  1. 1 Vanslashington 24 February 2011 at 9:47 pm

    Great article. Wish I could have heard the audio.
    I’m going to use this as a source for a research project I’m writing about Knowledge and Wisdom.

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