The war on knowledge

By Andrée Murphy

Have you ever seen the film The Killing Fields about the war in Cambodia? It’s an excellent film. A bit Western, and it ignores the role of the USA in the horror, but as a piece it is worth watching.

Anyway, there is a scene in it where there is a realisation that anyone with knowledge, expertise, or can even read or write, is an enemy of the “revolution” and is summarily dispensed with. I can remember the fall of the despot Pol Pot and the Western realisation of what had happened. There was an ongoing famine and Blue Peter had a bric-a-brac campaign to which my school contributed.

Recent politics has reminded me of all of that again. The anti-knowledge, anti-expert hyperbole of the Brexit campaign and the Trump campaign has shaken me. Not so much that these campaigns have used it, but that it has become popular to be openly ignorant.

The attitude can only be likened to when Galileo was prosecuted by the Inquisition for suggesting the universe did not circle the earth. Reason and intellectual development were cast aside in favour of the prevailing narrative of the day. Of course those who were in control of the narrative of the day had the most to lose from reason and intellectual development. I am led to a conclusion that the global promotion of the anti-intellect may be one of the biggest threats of the modern age. I worry where once we said that knowledge was power there is the promotion of the belief that, like in Cambodia in the 1970s, ignorance is power.

And I know most people here in Belfast are amazed and aghast at all of this. Wondering how it can happen. But do we sometimes fall into the traps of assumed knowledge or letting our opinions be formed by who gives them rather than an independent interrogation of the facts?

Does the 140-character comment on Twitter with a link to a long article suffice – rather than actually reading the article itself and asking questions of it?

In the years following the Second World War, and our own Tan War, ordinary families throughout our land put huge emphasis on reading and learning beyond the streets that surrounded us. Reciting poetry was not for school. Debating the writings of Darwin and Connolly (both!) was not uncommon at a table with a pot of Lyons tea and a packet of Jacobs fig rolls.

I was at a funeral this week of a man who valued knowledge and asked questions. He read books, listened to the radio and learned new skills until his passing at the age of 99 years. His family clearly learned from him the value of waiting to know the full story, coming at that story from a different angle than the one presented, and sometimes forming a different opinion – or even none. Because we can have knowledge without forming judgement. His life story was a lesson in the joy of learning in private and ordinary living rooms, as well as public spaces, and how it contributes to a better, richer society, from the home to the body politic and beyond. He may well have been a product of the 20th century but his legacy should live into the 21st.