Unenlightenment and incuriosity

Curious Dogs - explored

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…


  • francesbell

    Interesting post Martin. Thinking about your other posts about the Enlightenment and their comment streams. How curious are we about the legacy of the Enlightenment and how it has played out for women, PoC? I am grateful for your writing about the Enlightenment in that it has encouraged me to read more about it 🙂 So my ideas, as you say about yours, are partially formed. I suspect that women, PoC have been beneficiaries and victims of the Enlightenment, and of Marxism, and of critical theories, and of science. What always strikes me, and this relates to what you say about what discourages curiosity, is that structural inequalities of class, race, gender, etc. are really good at reinventing themselves in changing contexts.
    Let’s be curious about ourselves and platforms

    • admin

      Hi Frances, thanks for comment. yes, I too have started reading about the enlightenment (perhaps too late given these blog posts). You make a good point and nicely bring the incuriosity round to our own, not unproblematic past. I suppose following on from the previous post, I would say I don’t think it’s the case that ignorance is always to be decried, we are all ignorant in so many topics, and people have busy lives so I wouldn’t want to be judging people on what they know or don’t know. But rather it’s the over-arching attitude towards knowledge, or the acquisition of knowledge itself. There are lots of subjects we don’t know about, and are more curious about some than others. But in general we are curious about lives, perspectives etc other than our own, indeed these are the ones that are most interesting.

  • Frances Bell

    I remain absolutely committed to education as a means for emancipation but that huge aspiration means that it must itself be subject to scrutiny. I was shocked by the smug and well-meaning superiority of some in HE whose diagnosis of not getting the #Remain outcome they and I wanted was ignorant voters. I don’t think all Brexit voters were incurious. That has some uncomfortable parallels with some of the Enlightenment attitude to say women, and also to anecdotes 1, 2 and 4 in your post. They are more about power than information. In preparing for OER17, I came across a poem by Peter Reilly about the Kinder Scout Trespass (done by the educated and working class people) in which he posited the idea that ‘the foundation of the state is education’ that has had me thinking since end of 2016. Trespass and voting can be done perfectly well without a university education and incuriosity exists in the academy. I have been banging on (and engaging in research) in the sociotech of platforms and learning for quite a few years now and encountered quite a lack of curiosity. It seems to me that in Edtech who is saying something often seems to matter more than what is said.

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