Megyn Kelly has further fallen from grace after verbalizing bigoted ideas in apparent ignorance. Now again we hear the resounding natter of disagreement between the two ideological sides. On the one hand, we are appalled that a mature and educated woman lacks insight about the troubling racist history of white blackface. On the other, we are enraged that the PC police, once again, is shaming a nice woman over an innocent comment.
We conflate ignorance and innocence.
Socrates said that there is only one good — knowledge — and one evil — ignorance. Unlike modern Americans, he would say that ignorance does not absolve us of culpability for the evil we perpetrate on others. He would say that innocence is actually the only face of evil, and that our only real moral obligation is to discover the ways that our ignorant acts harm others. That’s what he meant when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Of course, this contradicts our modern shared ideas of evil. Most of us think evil is a cosmological force, perhaps personified by a red and horned boogeyman, insidiously gaining control over the hearts of those whose beliefs are different from ours. We disregard the common-sense truth that, like us, most people view themselves as essentially good. Because we fail to see the fork-tailed monster in ourselves, we believe that he must be in others.
As for Socrates, we could be astonished that such insight about evil came from a mind that also believed that some men are born to be free and others to be slaves. How can we tell the difference? Simple. Those with slave natures are born into slavery. Cognitive dissonance, apparently, is our natural state.
Had he lived in our modern world, would Socrates have seen the evil in himself?
I recently had a conversation with an old friend who asked why he shouldn’t use the N-word. To his credit, he said “N-word” instead of actually saying the N‑word, which argues for a possible charitable viewpoint: Maybe he was just trolling me. But the uncertainty highlights a sad fact about the state of our moral educations.
The necessary skills to live Socrates’ examined life were not features of our public, familial or religious educations. We came of age in red states with predominantly white middle classes. I can count on two fingers the number of African-Americans I spoke to before adulthood, and that may be an overestimate — I’m not sure I actually spoke to them. My early education in all things African-American came from — can you guess? — “The Cosby Show.”
Speaking of Bill Cosby, the cautionary tale of his life illustrates the link between ignorance and evil. His decade of greatest fame (not counting his current decade of greatest infamy) was also an era when rape was normalized in blockbuster movies like “Sixteen Candles,” “Revenge of the Nerds” and even “Blade Runner.” Given those cultural norms, should it surprise us that Cosby could have deluded himself into thinking it was acceptable to drug and rape women? If he was ignorant, would that have made it less evil? Socrates would say he had a moral obligation to discover how his ignorance could cause harm. He would say that an incredible capacity for cognitive dissonance is no defense.
The same can also be said of racism and all other forms of bigotry.
We are living in a time of rapid social change. Our understanding of what harms others is growing so fast that we are leaving too many behind. This may be the whole reason for our nation’s apparently unbridgeable ideological divide. But a lack of insight does not absolve us of the responsibility to avoid evil acts. It only highlights that education must be a lifelong process.
We simply don’t reach adulthood knowing everything that we’ll ever need to know.
We need educations that provide skills for living examined lives, as Socrates advised. But first, we’ll have to rid ourselves of the persistent belief that evil is a cosmological force external to us. We’ll have to learn to see it in ourselves.
Joanne LaFleur is a flawed human, a scientist and an educator who lives and works in Salt Lake City.