By Bay Jia Wei (17S06R)
It’s GP class. My teacher is delivering a soliloquy on how awful the Yemen war is. The whole class is thoughtful and pensive. And I am too, reflecting deep thought and consideration for her claims, through the purposeful tilt of my head. The only thing I know about the Yemen war, however, is that it exists.
Beside me, one of my classmates whispers, “There’s a war in Yemen?”
While I am ashamed about my considerable lack of awareness of current affairs, I am more deeply so of my inability to admit this ignorance. We’ve all felt it before – that sinking feeling when your intelligent friend or teacher brings up a topic hitherto unknown to you, and you are forced to smile, nod, and play along.
This is especially the case when knowledge is expected of you in your capacity as a student of a certain subject – take for example, the simple case of F=ma, a very fundamental statement that all Physics students are required to know. The arts student very rarely feigns appreciation for Newton’s Laws, whereas the Physics student may feel inclined to express vague awareness on that (occasionally) otherwise unfamiliar topic.
Often, it is this unspoken obligation to know that drives our pretence. It is therefore no surprise that this culture of pretence often seeps into conversations surrounding current affairs, given that we are expected to know what’s happening in the world to some degree.
However, when learning becomes putting on a show, our discussions too tend to become increasingly hollow and meaningless, sometimes even laborious.
Too often have I sat in Literature class nodding at foreign titles, once even occasionally chiming in on a conversation revolving around Virginia Woolf and feminism, despite having only Wikipedia’s knowledge on her works. It is easy to mask literary inferiority with magical catchphrases like “first wave feminism” and “Mrs Dalloway”.
I thought that I was probably the only one disguising my ignorance, but in a casual conversation with my classmates, realised that many, much in the same style as me, had feigned appreciation for acclaimed literary masterpieces through a carefully-perfected art of thoughtful nods and meaningful gazes. If the online articles I’ve chanced upon are any indication, it seems that this is no strange phenomenon – “Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as “semiotically unstable.””
This culture of pretence is toxic, or downright silly at best.
Getting by on false intellect is tiring, and not very fulfilling, given that one leaves the class gaining nothing but the cheap relief of having survived a lesson while maintaining the false impression of smarts. This only encourages the inner manifestation of ignorance, often leaving a deep, lingering sense of hollowness with each successful performance.
But this spirit of pretence is not merely a reflection of the individual’s state of intellectual humility. Rather, it contributes to a larger problem in the culture of discourse.
The uninformed participant has little to contribute. In feigning wisdom, or at least attempting to seem aware about the topic at hand, one often assents to the most confidently-expressed opinion. This is problematic because it fosters a false sense of agreement. While this behaviour does not overtly display disregard for the discussion, it is likely to encourage a conclusion or a stance that could have very well been flawed or better developed, for the simple reason that it was the loudest opinion present.
Ostensibly, being forthcoming, or raising your hand to ask a seemingly foolish question does not add any value to the discussion. Yet this, unlike its alternative, causes no harm. Openly admitting ignorance often provides the impetus to do research and find out more about the issue at home, ultimately reflecting your regard for discourse. And perhaps a few other classmates, if they’re anything like you, may find some benefits in this exercise.
Maybe this lofty idea of respecting the “sanctity of intellectual discourse” seems unimportant or trivial. But transplant this behaviour of disguise into a political conversation, and I’d go so far as to suggest that it perpetuates the echo chamber. By affirming what appears to be the trendiest opinion, we restrict discussion; by accepting the loudest beliefs without question, we enclose ourselves in pseudo-truths.
What a shame it is, and unnecessarily so – for our pride and need to “look smart” to be prioritised over intellectual curiosity and humility. It is time for us to consider putting away our narcissistic insecurities, and to take courage in creating a culture of open and honest discourse – the pretentious pitfall is, after all, not an abyss.
Header image from https://dribbble.com/shots/2323678-Pretentious-Birdie