I’m indebted to Sherri Spelic for introducing me to the term ‘incuriosity’. In her excellent post last year she writes “This concept of being ‘incurious’ fascinates me. ‘Not curious’ means that we feel no need to pose questions about a thing or to wonder about its origins. It’s not so much that we are against the thing, it simply stays off (not even under) our radar”. Incuriosity is defined in the dictionary as “indifferent, unconcerned, incurious, aloof, detached, disinterested mean not showing or feeling interest. indifferent implies neutrality of attitude from lack of inclination, preference, or prejudice”. But there is a cultural angle to it also. Sherri links to this piece talking about incuriosity from white Americans in terms of reparations. In this Patrick Phillips states “one of the main obstacles to racial justice is white incuriosity about the crimes of the past.”
I think it can be broadened out to be viewed as a result of cultural hegemony. I’m reminded of this great piece by Rebecca Solnit, in which she talks about the reaction she received after criticising Lolita. She makes the point that men don’t have to engage in empathy because most books and films feature them in central roles:
It isn’t a fact universally acknowledged that a person who mistakes his opinions for facts may also mistake himself for God. This can happen if he’s been insufficiently exposed to the fact that there are also other people who have other experiences, and that they too were created equal, with certain inalienable rights, and that consciousness thing that is so interesting and troubling is also going on inside their heads. This is a problem straight white men suffer from especially, because the western world has held up a mirror to them for so long… The rest of us get used to the transgendering and cross-racializing of our identities as we invest in protagonists like Ishmael or Dirty Harry or Holden Caulfield. But straight white men don’t, so much.
This paying attention is the foundational act of empathy, of listening, of seeing, of imagining experiences other than one’s own, of getting out of the boundaries of one’s own experience. There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not.”
And this is what leads to incuriosity. White men don’t have to be curious, because they see themselves on screen (and elsewhere) all the time. It’s at the root of why some of them then become so angry when, say, an all female cast remakes Ghostbusters, or Mad Max has a woman as the main action lead, or Star Wars has a black hero, or a cinema hosts women only Wonder Woman screenings. They are being forced to confront their incuriosity, and they resent it. Boy, do they resent it. It is also exacerbated by being English speaking. If English is your first (and usually, only) language then you don’t have to engage with another culture. It all comes to you because English dominates movies and the internet.
The relevance of all this for attitudes to knowledge is that it makes people lazy. Why bother to engage with other cultures, consider other viewpoints? And incuriosity spreads like a virus because people pander to it (“don’t put subtitles on a film!”). It’s like having a pill that means you can eat whatever you want and stay slim, why bother to make the effort to exercise? Incuriosity is fatal to education – it suggests that there is no need to learn anything beyond that which your already know. Much of learning is an uncomfortable process, we often have our accepted beliefs stripped away, we are made to feel vulnerable because we lack knowledge, we have to expose our ignorance in order to address it. And as with the reaction to the film examples above, the incurious do not like to be made to be uncomfortable. Incuriosity spreads then to politics and communities – there is no need to be concerned with the plight or needs of people who are not exactly like you. The degree to which you feel you are representative of everyone is greatly magnified because of the cultural mirror that is held up to you. This lack of empathy solidifies and any challenge to it becomes an attack. Then along comes Trump, the King of Incuriosity…