The paradox of knowledge

Why knowledge doesn’t always feel empowering

In a short story, The Beau Catcher, a bashful young girl named Genevieve finds confidence in a green hair ribbon she purchases from a local drugstore. The salesperson tells her:

“If you’re going to wear anything a little out of the ordinary, wear it like nobody had a better right than you. In this world, you gotta hold your head up.”

With her head held a bit higher, Genevieve walks down the street into a soda shop where a classmate approaches her. Flush with the confidence bestowed by her new ribbon, Genevieve carries the conversation beautifully and her classmate asks her to the school dance. It’s only later that she realizes the ribbon had fallen out of her hair when she left the drugstore. The confidence that overcame her had nothing to do with the green ribbon – it was in her all along. 

The moral of the story goes beyond the value of self-confidence – it also speaks to the paradox of knowledge. Had Genevieve known the ribbon had fallen out, she wouldn’t have been so self-assured. Knowledge is powerful, but can a lack of knowledge also be empowering?

That’s what researcher Jamie Napier discovered in a recent study on gender discrimination. She found that many women deny or downplay such discrimination. In fact, denial is strongest in countries where sexism is highest. Jamie thinks this may be something of a survival mechanism for many women, because it can be debilitating to acknowledge how much the deck is stacked against you. 

Clint Smith, a writer at The Atlantic, wonders about the possibility of having a healthier relationship with knowledge. Is there a way to face the truth without being consumed by it? “If you only ever consume the despair, you are more likely to embody and feel that sense of despair,” he says, “rather than the fullness of what it means to be human.” 

As a high school English teacher in Maryland, Smith used literature as a reprieve from the real world. His students were growing up in a community that faced many social challenges, and Smith wanted his classroom to be a bit of an oasis from those challenges. He often assigned books in the genres of fantasy and magical realism. “My classroom was a place we could lose ourselves in literature,” he says. “My hope was that literature could transport us to a place where it gives us a sense of escape.” 

Escape isn’t always possible, of course -- and the benefits it provides us as individuals may come at a cost to society. So how can we seek knowledge without being debilitated by it? For starters, check in with your emotions as you’re reading the news, watching difficult videos, or sitting through a heavy documentary. Recognize when you’re reaching the emotional and psychological threshold in which the information you’re consuming begins to desensitize you. 

“It’s an emotional oversaturation, and that oversaturation can turn into a sort of paralysis,” Smith says. “That’s something very different than the intellectual toolkit one can obtain from reading history, from reading policy, from reading sociology, from reading stories.” The complicated truth about knowledge is that it can be both helpful and harmful. To be empowered by knowledge, perhaps we first have to acknowledge this paradox.

ON THE PODCAST

February 15: Being able to see what's happening around us can help us make smart decisions. But knowledge – especially knowledge of how others perceive us – can also hold us back, mire us in needless worry, and keep us from achieving our potential. This week, we look at the paradox of knowledge.

February 22: If you’ve taken part in a religious service, have you ever stopped to think about how it all came to be? How did people become believers? Where did the rituals come from? And what purpose does it all serve? This week, we bring you a favorite 2018 episode with social psychologist Azim Shariff. He argues that we should consider religion from a Darwinian perspective, as an innovation that helped human societies to thrive and flourish. 

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