“Ignorance is Bliss” and other Fallacies of Counterinsurgency

By Erica Caines and Geechee Yaw 

When attempting to educate someone politically, or confront them with the contradictions present in our material reality, oftentimes the phrase “ignorance is bliss” is said, suggesting that not knowing or not being aware of certain things can bring a sense of happiness or contentment. The phrase also suggests that being unaware of certain truths, realities, or problems can be more comfortable and less troubling to an individual than knowing and dealing with them. As playwright and activist, Lorraine Hansberry understood, “Comfort has come to be its own corruption.”  Yet, not only is this sentiment commonly used to explain why some people are okay with not learning more, many are unaware of the origins of “ignorance is bliss.”

The phrase “ignorance is bliss” comes from 18th century English poet, Thomas Gray, from a passage in his 1742 poem Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. The poem explores themes of youth, nostalgia, and the contrast between innocence of childhood and the complexities of adulthood.

“Where ignorance is bliss,

‘Tis folly to be wise.”

The (mis)use of “ignorance is bliss” takes on larger implications for Afrikans living within the empire who are colonized politically, economically and socially. As colonized subjects, we are infantilized, which refers to a process by which the colonizers portray or treat colonized people as childlike, immature, or intellectually inferior. 

This psychological tactic is employed by colonial powers to justify their control and domination over colonized populations; it was a means of subjugating and suppressing the cultural, political, and intellectual development of the colonized populations. The colonized are depicted as primitive, uncivilized, and in need of guidance or paternalistic care. This portrayal serves to rationalize the imposition of colonial rule and the implementation of policies aimed at assimilation, exploitation, and/ or cultural erasure. 

Between colonial education and its corporate-owned media and entertainment apparatus, there has been a constant attack on the minds of those of Afrikan descent; the Maafa itself is a campaign of menticide in the minds of non-europeans. As anthropologist and African Studies scholar, Mama Marimba Ani teaches us in her book “Yurugu”, the Kiswahili word Utamawazo describes the colonizers’ efforts to force us into accepting the status quo and assimilating into the culture of our enemies. So there is no real choice of blissful ignorance or stagnant knowledge; there is either an acceptance of death or the continuous journey and responsibility of knowing.  

“Ignorance is bliss”, as an apolitical and egotistical response when being pushed to be aware, has spawned several other variations of itself that are just as useless for our people. In conversations about politics, economics, or even socialization, it is common to hear phrases like “agree to disagree” which is severely misused. “Agree to disagree” is supposed to represent an amicable but temporary truce in which both sides of the argument agree to disagree at the current moment, but promise to resume the conversation later. Instead, “agree to disagree” is flung around passive aggressively, representing a liberalism in which incorrect ideas are permitted to slide by for the sake of friendship or other social benefits. Then there are “it’s not that deep” and “let people enjoy things” which get tossed around when a conversation demands a level of critical thinking which may be inconvenient to the reality a person believes they need to uphold.

In a world full of challenges which desperately requires sharp minds to resolve them, we should view phrases like these as methods of counterinsurgency that prevent us from pursuing awareness of not only past and present conditions, but of the way things could be in the future as well. This is a part of the responsibility we have to choose life! 

Following Ani’s anthropological work, she urges us to not accept dichotomization, the splitting of phenomenon into confrontational, conflicting parts, which is encouraged by european thought and culture, so whichever area of human activity we decide to study we quickly understand that all things are connected, and the only logical conclusion is to confront european/American Capitalism and Imperialism.

”Our notions of what constitutes intelligence have been molded by the minority western european world-view, and so we have difficulty thinking holistically in this regard, since the european world is predicated on first separation, dichotomization, and then dominance of the opposites.”   -Marimba Ani, Yurugu

Because we have accepted the idea that ignorance brings happiness, many of us have formed an emotional and psychological dependence on it that is actually making us sick. But there is good news for those who enjoy this pseudo high: the acquisition of knowledge does not necessarily indicate an absence of ignorance.   Knowledge is actually asymptotic, so if it’s real then it is always accompanied by a little TT of ignorance. In other words, we can never know everything, as there is always more to learn. Not choosing to know something, or the fear to confront danger or conflict, doesn’t change the outcomes. 

This is precisely how “joy” itself gets weaponized and becomes a sedative for our material conditions as Afrikans. By creating an atmosphere of constant entertainment, celebration, and superficial happiness, those in power can distract the population from underlying problems. Critical thinking is discouraged in favor of a false sense of contentment. Weaponizing joy like this is a tactic of manipulation that does not genuinely address the underlying socio-political issues that keep us unhoused, unemployed, over exploited, imprisoned, and mentally and physically unwell. We pay a price for trying to “binge watch” our way out of the pain. 

Although R&B artist, Mario Winans topped the charts because he didn’t “wanna know”, Afrikans cannot afford to be intentionally oblivious. Tying the pinnacle of our experiences to a U.S. centered culture of consumption, we are constantly bombarded with advertisements, marketing messages, and societal pressures to remain blissfully ignorant. This is a diversion as the United Snakes continue to penetrate the world, advancing, alongside its parasitic allies, its global hegemony, orchestrating massive suffering.  

Brazilian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire said “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. If dealing with uncomfortable truths would make you feel powerless to change or encourage you not to confront, how does engaging in the “world of make believe” as sociologist and scholar, E. Franklin Frazier puts it, give you any power or solve the problem?

If we are not careful, “ignorance is bliss” will be a permanent replacement for, “No investigation, no right to speak.” We witness every day how those committed to the idea that “it’s not that deep” also seek to be the central voices of discourse that determines the quality of life for billions of people across the world.  Currently in each of the 3 Americas, propaganda is scaring us into believing that we are better off under the most genocidal government on the earth. 

When confronting the inconsistencies and complicity of U.S. politicians who are associated with labels like “left” and “progressive”, these critiques are often swatted down by phrases like “nobody is perfect.” It’s intentional how “nobody is perfect” only applies to capitalists and imperialists, but socialist nations like Cuba and Nicaragua are expected to be flawless. These expectations are upheld by those who themselves mindlessly support imperialism, which is doing everything in its power to undermine socialism, and destroy the possibility of a better future for all of humanity.  

The venn diagram of those who yell “It’s not that deep” and also say things like “Communism failed” is a circle. Proper investigation would look like earnestly seeking out information about the history of imperialism. There are a number of questions that could prompt the investigation: Why does the U.S. feel so threatened by the idea of socialism? What was life in Nicaragua or Cuba like before their revolutions? If socialism has failed, why won’t the U.S. just end the blockade on Cuba and let it fail there on its own?  Why have Black communists and revolutionaries been such a priority for U.S. “security” agencies, despite their lack of power? Those who engage in confirmation bias “research” can’t fathom that peace is something to be fought for and that most, if not all, the socialist government’s problems stem from its fight with the capitalists and the imperialists.

The psychological and sociopolitical effects of colonization highlights the importance of confronting harsh realities to achieve true liberation.  The great Martinican revolutionary, Frantz Fanon’s work brings clarity to the importance of facing uncomfortable truths rather than embracing ignorance.

The more the people understand, the more watchful they become, and the more they come to realize that finally everything depends on them and their salvation lies in their own cohesion, in the true understanding of their interests, and in knowing who their enemies are. The people come to understand that wealth is not the fruit of labor but the result of organized, protected robbery.” 

Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.

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