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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Choosing the blue pill: Self-imposed ignorance

Published: March 27, 2009
Section: Opinions

“Ignorance is bliss.” We’ve all heard this phrase before, but I think it warrants a good deal of examination, considering that as students, our primary goal is to learn and combat ignorance. But what consequence does this strategy have for us as human beings? I’m sure not many would argue with the idea that most human beings strive to ultimately obtain some sort of self-fulfillment and happiness. Scholars attempt to achieve this by obtaining knowledge. But does obtaining this knowledge always lead to the intended goal? Is knowing the truth always satisfactory for fulfillment and happiness? My answer to these questions is “no.”

Let me provide a concrete example that many of you have probably experienced. Let us say that you take a difficult exam, and are unsure of exactly how well you did by the end of the test. When the professor announces, a few days later, that he has posted the answers to the test online (but not the grades), what would you do? I know that many students, eager to know exactly how well they performed, will immediately head to LATTE and try to calculate a rough estimate of their score. I also know that after the announcement in class, I can expect to hear a few groans. Many people would rather not worry about the answers right away, as it will only serve as a stressor until they receive their actual grade. The people who choose not to look at the answers are demonstrating a concept called “self-imposed ignorance.”

In the well known movie The Matrix, characters living in the world as we know it are presented with a choice related to self-imposed ignorance. They can choose between swallowing a red pill, after which they will be immersed into the true world, full of hopelessness and desolation, or swallowing a blue pill, after which they will forget everything they have learned about the true world and continue living their lives in a dream. After originally choosing the red pill, Cypher, one of the movie’s antagonists, attempts to take back his choice and return to the dream world where he can be ignorant, but happy. He serves as a foil to Neo, the movie’s protagonist, who chooses to continue living in the true world. While the movie intends for us to take the side of its protagonist, I cannot help but sympathize with Cypher. Although his way of doing things was corrupt, his ideologies are certainly understandable. After all, everything that he does is only an attempt for him to seek the contentment with life that he once felt. This example raises the main question I’m trying to address: is it better to be ignorant but happy or to be knowing but miserable? Furthermore, is there a balance between the two?

I cannot answer this question definitively, but I can tell you it has been my personal experience that there is a time and place for both. I’m not suggesting that we simply accept the facts that the world feeds to us blindly. As scholars, that would defeat our very cause. At the same time, I think it is beneficial to know when not to dig too deeply. Sometimes, for the sake of one’s happiness, it is better not to know the truth. If you had the opportunity to have all of the knowledge in the world, would you really want it? Would it provide you with self-fulfillment?

I’m also not suggesting that we should only focus on seeking our own happiness, and ignore that of others. On the contrary, I think it is quite possible to experience some sort of nirvana through showing compassion towards other people and watching them achieve their goals. I’m simply trying to say that one needs to consider whether knowing is always in his best interest.

Sometimes choosing to be ignorant can provide a shallow sort of happiness, and it can be that happiness that keeps us from breaking down completely. To quote Christian Bale’s and Gary Oldman’s characters in The Dark Knight, “sometimes the truth isn’t good enough.”