Saturday, June 12, 2010

The dividends of ignorance

I have often meditated on the sociological advantages of ignorance. How easy it is to live a good life without knowledge of large swatches of knowable stuff ! Moreover, I am continually discovering new ways to harmlessly squeeze cash value out of ignorance, or rather my knowledge that it exists. Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing.

Here's a recent example. Commuting between Cologne and Frankfurt, I have found the trains often overcrowded, so I ended up sitting on the floor. I was annoyed at passengers who would occupy a seat and put a bag, rucksack, coat, laptop carrier etc. on the adjacent seat, thus taking both seats out of service. But I didn't realize at first that they were doing this - all I saw was apparently occupied seats. Then, from my vantage point on the floor, I observed other passengers looking for a place to sit as I had done - passing by encumbered seats as if they were occupied. The assumption was that someone was sitting there, and had left their things to signal "occupied" until they returned from, say, the restroom or restaurant car.

I noticed that the people who encumbered seats in that way were mostly women. My first reaction was "bloody impertinence". Then I remembered positive thinking, and turning sow's ears into silk purses, and being fair even to women. So I thought: how can I turn their behavior to my advantage ? I tried stopping in the aisle by such seats and asking, in an ever so slightly stern voice: "Is that seat taken ?" The women would look annoyed, but remove their things without comment, and so I acquired a place to sit.

I have gotten bolder as time goes on, and now say Wollen Sie den Sitz bitte freiräumen ? in a neutral tone. The nice thing about that construction - not würden Sie, but wollen Sie ... bitte - is that it is a combination of request and imperative. It conveys a hint of annoyance, as the Lady Bracknell intonation does in "would you be so good as to clear the seat ?". In other words, now I am bloody impertinent, and grateful that these women reserve seats for me. They don't know they are doing it, nor do other people apart from me who are looking for a seat.

That is what I meant by harmlessly profiting from ignorance. I wouldn't have it any other way.


TC said...

"They" have always said it's possible to strike it rich on the internet, using your own natural resources, and now for the first time I begin to understand.


(I hope you will not mind that I have linked back to this from the comments thread here.)

Anonymous said...

You have cleverly figured out a way of doing justice. I celebrate that. What I felt uncomfortable with was the part where you said: "being fair even to women".

Stuart said...

What I felt uncomfortable with

Lucy: however fashionable it may be nowadays to say that - when you stop and think about it, wouldn't you agree that it's finicky, and even affected ? I am not a couch salesman.

With that reaction, mild as it is, you are throwing away an opportunity to pay attention. Could it not be that there are reasons for my having written "being fair even to women" ? Jokey, ironic reasons in the context of my blog - and perhaps further ones ? Or do you think you know all the possible reasons, but don't care because I am displaying what you regard as a bad attitude or inappropriate communicative behavior ? Isn't there a resemblance here to the annoyance shown by those women in the train when I called their bluff ? Though I was within my rights, they resented it. I should get a prize for straightforwardness, and having defused inappropriate behavior without confrontation or finger-wagging.

This business of "I feel uncomfortable with" is an etiolated form of the murderous ducal disdain in My Last Duchess:

... Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, “Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark”—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop.

TC said...

Stuart, I must say you are working the dividends of ignorance for all they're worth.

Wonderments begin to creep in however, especially in regard to those "further [i.e. beyond the obvious tonal and contextual] reasons".

Could it be that that the bloated riches of Ignorance and the thin-lipped superiority of Irony make for the sort of marriage characterized by longeurs at table followed by flatulence, murder and early parole for good blogging?

Whereas the Duke could deal with the problem by poisoning it and then hanging it on a wall where it could never again talk back, that way of handling the situation was of course enabled by the kind of power few who are not Dukes actually possess. I take it you are not a Duke, so the dividends of ignorance would represent a kind of power nest-egg. The "neutralizing" of the guest, here, would meanwhile constitute the sort of interesting anecdote that could be retold for future emissaries. "That's my last female commenter up there on the wall". Impressive indeed.

BTW, two days into my own attempts to bank on the dividends of ignorance, I have found the principal mounting but the interest waning, especially among those upon whom I attempt to pass my ignorance cheques. It appears there's more to this clever trick than first suspected by the previously ignorant. But I'd wager you knew that already.

TC said...

Re. the dubious dividends of the ironic, it's possible I was thinking of:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow,
They rightly do inherit heaven's graces
And husband nature's riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer's flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Anonymous said...

Stuart: of course I realised you must have your reasons and I did hope they were ironic. I love irony and I do agree that the Internet still lacks that "tone" key that will make irony a little bit less disguised.

I did pay attention to your post and I could not agree more with you. As a matter of fact, I said I celebrate your way of doing justice. The behaviour of the women in your post is completely inappropriate. Maybe it was mere chance that these disgusting passengers all happened to be women or maybe the women you know are all duchesses. Who knows? And on top of it, here comes a woman to say she feels uncomfortable with one word you wrote. I do apologize.

But remember generalization is a tricky thing. In my country we use to say: "Men are always the same". And whenever I hear that, I always intervene and say: "No, some of them are worse."

(irony key on ;))

Stuart said...

That's my last female commenter up there on the wall". Impressive indeed.

TC: It's hard for me to understand quite how, but you seem to have misunderstood the sentence: "This business of "I feel uncomfortable with" is an etiolated form of the murderous ducal disdain in My Last Duchess".

The "I feel uncomfortable with ..." expression is not my attitude, but that of those who say it. So it is they whom I am comparing with the duke, not myself. The expression evinces a kind of shrinking-violet disapproval, an I'm-liable-to have-a-fit-of-the-vapors-if-you-don't-stop-that-talk affectation that gets on my nerves. I feel strongly that grown-ups should not be dealing with each other in that way - because it encourages hypocrisy.

"Change the words, change the man" - how effective could that ever be ? By the way, that is another type of (in this case willful) ignorance that is easy to work for profit. Someone who thinks that the less he knows, the better off he is, is clearly naive. It's a very useful bit of information to have about someone.

I have found the principal mounting but the interest waning

That's funny ! But after all, my blog was only a little set piece to laugh over and move on from. My own interest is already directed at other things, namely this "comfortable" topic - so I don't know why you think I'm "working the dividends of ignorance for all they're worth". But I will post a few other examples.

"No, some of them are worse."

Lucy, we are in perfect agreement ! I am even inclined to fly in the face of two-valued logic and say "most of them are worse".