‘Aren’t United/France/The Harlem Globetrotters frightful?’

Opinion: A word to the wise who pretend to be ignorant

‘Last weekend, the nation was alive with happy commentary on Ireland’s victory in the Six Nations tournament. Had you listened more closely, however, you would have detected a thin, but vigorous, stream of proud stupidity.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland

‘Last weekend, the nation was alive with happy commentary on Ireland’s victory in the Six Nations tournament. Had you listened more closely, however, you would have detected a thin, but vigorous, stream of proud stupidity.’ Photograph: Billy Stickland

Sat, Mar 22, 2014, 00:01

So, apparently Barry Driscott won the rugby last week. This means that Ireland take home the World Big Kick Medal or something. I don’t know. Do I have this right? Aren’t the New Zealand boys supposed to the best at rugby?

Two possibilities may now be running through your brain. Either I’m a roaring moron who wanders about unaware of basic information relayed repeatedly at the uninterested – via headlines, news reports and social media – or I’m the sort of fatuous jerk who pretends to know less about subjects that don’t stir his heart.

The latter option is closer to the truth. But I am, in fact, the sort of fatuous jerk who, when writing columns, enjoys constructing feeble pastiches of the disingenuous comments made by people who pride themselves on selective ignorance.


Proud stupidity
Last weekend, the nation was alive with happy commentary on Ireland’s victory in the Six Nations tournament. Had you listened more closely, however, you would have detected a thin, but vigorous, stream of proud stupidity. I didn’t even know it was on. Is that the one with the square ball? You know the type of guff. You’ve probably read it in this column.

The automatic assumption that one cares about rugby, football or some other ball-related thing can, of course, be deeply irritating. Most sport agnostics will be familiar with the phenomenon of attaining the back seat of a cab and then being asked if one enjoyed “the match”. Genuine ignorance is often regarded as rudeness. A chap I know has admitted to asking Twitter for assistance as to any recent fixtures before making such a journey. A few “aren’t United/France/the Harlem Globetrotters frightful?” noises can be enough to soften any cultural dissonance.

There is, however, never any excuse for pretending to know less than you do. There is certainly nothing praiseworthy about seeming proud of such feigned ignorance. That doesn’t make you seem clever. If anything, it does the reverse.

The phenomenon manifests itself in many forms. The most common strain can, perhaps, be characterised by the phrase: “that knowledge is beneath me”. There’s nothing wrong with not possessing a television. But the people who, when asked about the latest soap star or reality show, positively brag about the vacant space in front of their sofa only manage to make themselves seem like arrogant elitists. You can own a telly and still secure a PhD. As I understand it, Camille Paglia owns several.

Some years back, I remember a work colleague – his Scottishness may have been a factor – proudly stating that he had no idea who this “Princess Anne” was. He’d heard the name, but couldn’t say for certain what relation she bore to the Queen of England. Might she be some Ruritanian cousin? When I suggested that this displayed wilful unawareness (or, much more likely, plain dishonesty), he replied that, being opposed to the monarchy, he took no interest in the doings of the royal family. Yeah, right.

I am unshakable in my abhorrence of the Third Reich, but I can tell the difference between Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler (not that we’re comparing the Princess Royal to Nazi hierarchy). As punishment for his disingenuousness, my friend was temporally suspended from the work pub team.


Basic concepts
A more worrying variation on this strain of pretended ignorance relates to otherwise knowledgeable people and their apparent inability to grasp basic concepts in science and mathematics.

Folk who would be horrified at any suggestion of slowness in the field of poetry or history rejoice in bragging about their featherheaded confusion when confronted with the most uncomplicated of equations. Use your bleeding head. If you can read Beowulf then you can make a rudimentary assault on Newton’s Laws of Emotion. At least have the decency to be embarrassed about your lack of facility in the natural sciences.

The complement to “beneath me” fake ignorance is the war on high culture carried out – often for sound reasons – by those fanatically opposed to pretentiousness and wilful obscurantism. That piece of public art doesn’t baffle you quite so much as you pretend. You know darn well that your “four-year-old” couldn’t paint that Picasso.

The moral of all this could not be easier to state. It is always better to know things than not know things. Lack of awareness makes nobody a better person.

With that in mind, I would like to clarify that, when a friend recently told me they were selling “Heisenberg” mugs in Eason, I genuinely thought the items were celebrating the quantum physicist. I was not proud when it was clarified that they referenced a character in Breaking Bad . Okay, maybe I was a little proud. Physician, heal thyself.

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