Human beings are highly resistant to acquiring self-knowledge. Our ego, the turtle shell of our mind, readily embraces willful, even militant, ignorance as self-protection against the humbling reality of how we instigate and then cover-up our participation in self-defeating behaviors.
Militant ignorance is a stubborn, fierce determination to remain ignorant and stuck in psychological darkness. People aren’t finding the courage required for introspection. M. Scott Peck, author of the bestseller, The Road Less Travelled, wrote that militant ignorance was “one of the better definitions” of evil. The refusal to grow psychologically produces the evil we do to ourselves. Our race toward environmental disaster is exhibit number one.
If we irredeemably harm the Earth, we will have committed a great evil. If our democracy doesn’t survive, we’ll likely be taken down by our ignorance of our psychological nature.
What is this psychological knowledge that humanity is so reluctant to assimilate? Through vanity and defensive self-deception, we fail to understand the nature of the inner conflict at the heart of our mental and emotional life. How is this conflict experienced? Consciously, we want to feel strong, yet we’re pulled on a regular basis into agonizing thoughts, feelings, and memories of being weak, helpless, and at the mercy of others. We want to feel loved, yet many of us are steeped in feeling rejected and unloved. We want to feel brave, yet are plagued with fears. We fluctuate between self-respect and self-doubt. We like praise but fear and hate criticism. Many more such examples exist of inner conflict.
Most people aren’t conscious of their psychological entanglement in inner conflict. All they feel are the troublesome symptoms such as worry, fear, regrets, anger, bitterness, guilt, shame, passivity, even self-hatred. Our lack of awareness means we’re psychologically “programmed” to continue experiencing inner conflict, even though its symptoms are painful. Unconsciously, many of us make the choice to suffer rather than to awaken. Unknowingly, we adopt militant ignorance to “protect us” from the humbling reality of how we participate in our suffering and self-defeat. This is the governing principle in the widespread denial of climate change.
The human ego protects the illusion of its preeminence. When unchallenged, our ego becomes a champion of militant ignorance, blocking our consciousness from accessing our authentic self. It’s likely that more people identify with their ego than with their authentic self. The ego’s self-glorification is visible in the inwardly focused, protective white nationalism that many Americans have adopted. Isn’t Trumpism a glorification of Trump’s prodigious ego and an affirmation of the ego’s “rightful” supremacy? Isn’t Trumpism the creed of those who refuse to grow psychologically, be humbled by reality, or “abased” in an ethnic melting-pot? Cult members adore the leader’s ego in return for second-hand affirmation of their own.
Operating through the ego, we don’t care so much about facts or truth. Instead, we care about what preserves the illusion of our knowing what is true and real.
The zealous ego “rescues” people from awareness of the dark side of their psyche. It saves them from the base humility of being a know-nothing. The fainthearted who refuse the hero’s journey love to hear they’re doing the right thing. Their survivalist ego subverts reality into a pleasurable illusion of power and entitlement, giving rise to the joy of denial and stubbornness. Everyday people are now bestowed with the “power” to defy and deny reality. When millions of others join in the celebratory defiance, their collective will subverts science, mocks truth, and threatens nonbelievers. “You can strip me to the bone,” the feeling goes, “but you can’t take away my ego.”
Self-knowledge cultivates our better self, leading us away from incivility and hatred. Yet how can we succeed when even our brightest contemporary scholars and authors have not understood our collusion in generating negative emotions. Mainstream education is not identifying the source of self-defeating impulses and resistance to inner truth. Case in point: The best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari offers a lesson on psychological ignorance in his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Penguin Random House, New York, 2018). The book attempts to illuminate the core issues facing the world, yet his chapter on ignorance and its harmful effects (lesson number 15) is itself lacking vital knowledge.
Harari accurately observes that “the world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on.” Human rationality, he notes, is undermined by emotional reactions and ill-conceived shortcuts. “The best we can do under such conditions,” he writes, “is to acknowledge our own individual ignorance.”
Yes, it’s true, there’s wisdom in humility. But we can do much better than just acknowledge our ignorance. We can become more aware of the particular knowledge that exposes how we generate suffering and self-defeat. This knowledge has tremendous value for us personally and collectively.
Harari points to groupthink and group loyalty as an explanation for widespread ignorance. Yet what is it about human nature that produces groupthink and group loyalty of the self-defeating kind? I’ll return to Harari’s reasons for human ignorance, but first let’s plunge deeper into the psyche. (Readers might now watch for a sense of their own willful or militant resistance to the following psychological facts.)
At levels that are conscious and unconscious, we are haunted by or fixated on what is psychologically unresolved. We make choices at an unconscious level to indulge in (or flirt with, or entertain, or cozy up to) feelings associated with refusal, deprivation, helplessness, feeling controlled, criticism, rejection, and abandonment. Our dark side consists of our unconscious determination to recycle and replay these experiences as negative emotions. These emotions originate as painful frustration in every child’s polarized experience of biological helplessness versus infantile illusions of power. The inner conflicts that emerge from early childhood continue to be experienced compulsively, even when painful, in the new daily context of adult life. Fortunately, the misery can be overcome once the underlying conflicts are understood.
How do we understand our conflicted psyche? We learn, for instance, that when we’re sensitive to feeling criticized by others or easily hurt by their criticism of us, we’re experiencing our emotional attachment to feeling criticized. Inner conflict magnifies the feeling of being criticized. The problem mainly arises when we’re inwardly passive to our inner critic. Our inner critic mocks and scorns us relentlessly—and we absorb much of this abuse. Consequently, we’re familiar with feeling criticized and belittled on an inner level, though we vigorously deny our emotional resonance with (and willingness to tolerate) the feeling of being criticized or belittled. This means we have an emotional attachment to the painful feeling, even an emotional addiction to it. The criticism touches a nerve deep inside, such that we reverberate emotionally with the feeling of being deservedly exposed and targeted as wrong, flawed, or bad.
Our inner critic claims to represent truth but it’s not objective. We experience our inner critic as the master of our personality, though it’s nothing but a nasty troll, a primitive aggression that in early childhood partially turned inward against ourselves. Meanwhile, our unconscious ego, the center of inner passivity, produces inner defensiveness and serves as an enabler of our inner critic. As we become aware of the inner dynamics, we become more intelligent and thereby stronger on an inner level, able to protect ourselves from the inner critic’s cruelty and irrationality.
Other conflicts exist within us. When we’re prone to feeling rejected by others, we’re entangled in self-rejection, meaning we’re personalizing the rejection, taking it deeply into ourselves. The rejection seems to be shining a light on a dark stain of unworthiness deep within. Rejection from others now merges with self-rejection. At this point, we’re likely to project the feeling of rejection outwards to become a person who’s rejecting of others. However, once we see the inner critic’s rejection of us as an alien intrusion, we can neutralize it, at which point we overcome our sensitivity to feeling rejected by others and we’re also less likely to be rejecting of others.
On another front, we learn to recognize self-abandonment as the primary conflict when we’re feeling acutely lonely, rejected, abandoned, unsupported by others, or disconnected from others. Now we understand that self-abandonment, maintained by a lack of self-understanding, is the source of our misery. As we understand the inner dysfunction, we can make repairs (heal ourselves or resolve the conflict) at that level.
If we’re feeling refused by others or unsupported by others, we can trace it back to our unconscious refusal to appreciate ourselves and to support ourselves emotionally. Both the inner critic and inner passivity, as components of our most troublesome inner conflict, block us from accessing emotional strength and our better self. This conflict is likely to be engaged within us when we take ourselves and others for granted.
Inner conflict is the CEO of the dark side. Our dark side is powerful and determined to be felt. As mentioned, we hate to acknowledge its executive powers. Our ego is highly offended at the thought that oppressive decision-making is occurring inside us without our awareness. We were born out of the darkness of the womb, and now as adults we’re yet to be born from the darkness of the psyche.
Through our psychological defenses, we proclaim that we’re innocent of harboring an attachment to (a perverse willingness to experience) these unresolved negative emotions. For instance, though we’re indulging in feeling rejected, our defenses will say, “I want love, not rejection!” This is how, in self-deceptive ignorance and failure to understand the paradoxical nature of the psyche, we cover up our willingness to intensify feelings of being rejected, refused, criticized, or helpless.
If your psyche could speak to you it might say, as one example: “Hey there pal, you’re still sensitive to feeling unloved because you haven’t outgrown childhood impressions, whether real or imagined, of being rejected and unloved. Well, guess what! That feeling of being rejected or unloved is now an emotional attachment. You unwittingly create that negative emotion, whether in your imagination or in actual daily life. You stumble unwittingly into situations that enable you to continue to experience (or act out) that painful emotion. Doing this creates anguish, makes you self-centered, and limits your ability to love others.”
As another example, your psyche, were it to speak aloud, might say: “Guess what, dear sufferer, you have an affinity for feeling weak, foolish, and unappreciated. You identify with yourself, in significant measure, through feelings of inadequacy, disappointment, loss, helplessness, and general passivity. You make a choice unconsciously to go on living through impressions of yourself at your worst—in your thoughts, memories, and conscious and unconscious negative feelings. Other times, with feelings and thoughts of grandiosity and boasting, you hide from yourself an awareness of this activity. The symptoms of this dysfunction are painful, arising as anger, retaliation, blame, hatred, and violence. The scramble of negative emotions in your psyche produces much guilt and shame.”
With these deeper dynamics in mind, let’s return to Harari’s contention that groupthink and group loyalty are at the core of human ignorance. If so, what is at the core of groupthink and group loyalty?
Fears of being unappreciated, unloved, and unworthy are major factors in groupthink and group loyalty. These fears are first felt when young children see or imagine that their parents are not caring enough or loving enough toward them. However, even good parents cannot necessarily protect a child from developing inner conflict. Mysterious biological processes associated with overcoming childhood irrationality are major factors in adult mental health. Despite being decent people, many adults have difficulty believing in their goodness, integrity, and value, just as they have difficulties with self-regulation.
For solace and comfort, people seek the validation of like-minded people, even when those people are aligned emotionally and mentally with blaming, complaining, and resistance to insight. If the group accepts you, you feel some semblance of connection, support, and love. Now you become loyal to the group not for the primary purpose of caring about or loving its individual members (although you might certainly care deeply for them) but because of your inner weakness, your chronic need for validation, appreciation, and support. You’re declining to make the leap into the unknown where, for solid footing, you need a mind of your own.
When people are attached to feeling unloved, they’re also fearful of being unloved. Fear of being unloved is both a psychological symptom and a defense. As a defense, it covers up one’s emotional attachment to feeling unloved. The unconscious defense offers rationalizations such as: “I’m not looking to feel unloved—look at how much I fear the prospect or reality of it.” Or, “I’m not looking to feel unloved—look at how much I enjoy the comfort, solace, and connection of my chosen group.” In this way, groupthink serves as a psychological defense: “I don’t want to feel disconnected emotionally (from others or from myself). Look how good it feels to be connected to a like-minded group.”
When people are weakened by an inability to support themselves emotionally and to connect with their goodness and value, they need group adhesion to provide a feeling of strength. For instance, flag-waving patriots of the zealous variety can use group loyalty, on the scale of nationalism, to feel connected to group identity and solidarity as compensation for inner weakness.
Ignorance of human nature has produced the evil we do to nature, to others, and to ourselves. It’s probably been our greatest failing. We’re now at a critical point on the spectrum of human evolution. It may be that only one giant leap is needed, powered by the best self-knowledge, to get us from these perilous times to a safer perch along this spectrum.