The only real freedom is self-knowledge
As Plato stated: ‘Ignorance is the root and stem of all evil’. Quite a strong statement right? Especially when you wear it on the back of your t-shirt. So let me explain why I am of opinion that ignorance is evil and why this is so important to me. I believe that ignorance creates a world where people with good hearts do bad things, without even knowing they do so. Because they do not question their assumptions. We live a life in which we are conditioned to do certain things without questioning them. What we learn in school, what we see on the television, what we see the people around us do, all these things are taken for granted as being normal or natural. However, when we challenge taken for granted realities, and start to consciously think about our behavior and our choices, we might find out that these taken for granted realities and truths are not as natural as they seem.
One very important example of this issue volunteerism. We generally grow up thinking that volunteering in a “developing country” means doing good. After all, a volunteer gives up his or her own time and money to help others. How admirable. However, volunteerism has deep consequences that people don’t normally think of. First of all, think about local economies. If a Western volunteer comes to a small village in Kenya for example, and builds a school there, what does that mean for the local builder and brick layer? How would you feel if someone came in and insisted and doing your job for free, leaving you with no income?
Second, there is an inherent superiority in thinking that you should travel to the other side of the world to “help” other people because they can’t do it themselves. This Western superiority and the universal beliefs that go with it, have created the idea of Third World countries that need to be developed. These terms suggest that we in the West know how to create a good life, and we can teach people in developing countries to do the same, ignoring their own realities.
Third, big NGOs often develop projects and policies from their big head offices in New York, Amsterdam or Londen, far from the people they are supposed to help. This creates situations where a lot of money is raised for projects that don’t actually do any good. And this is only one example of Western intervention gone wrong. The fact that we in the West get brainwashed by television and other media advertisements showing starving African children is what creates ignorance about the actual nuanced reality of a certain situation, which in turn creates evil in the form of detrimental, top-down development projects.
You’re probably wondering why I am such a critic of volunteerism, when I was a volunteer myself. The project I did didn’t take any work away from the local workers, on the contrary, we hired local painters, carpenters and builders to help us with our project. I also worked together with the local community and my partner, Mabulani, to make sure I wasn’t seen as the “white helper”. However, I do believe that I have a lot to learn when it comes to doing projects in African countries.
Another reason why I believe that ignorance is evil is our meat-eating behavior. A couple of years ago I became aware of the pollution and injustice that the meat and dairy industry are creating, which made me change my ways. In her Tedtalk, Melanie Joy explains that carnism – the ideology behind eating meat – leads to people committing atrocities without knowing they do so, because our ideology of carnism is invisible. Being a vegetarian is seen as a choice, but eating meat is not. Eating meat is seen as the norm: it’s just a given that we eat animals. However, the meat industry is killing millions of animals every day, sometimes under the most inhumane circumstances you can imagine. Is this really a norm we want to live by? Sounds evil to me. I know a lot of animal lovers who would not want to be part of such an ideology, but they do not know that it is a choice. They are conditioned to eat meat, because this is seen as normal, natural or even necessary. If they realized the real consequences of their seemingly natural behavior, if they challenged their own assumptions, they might change their behavior and their choices, but they don’t know or realize any of this. The fact that they don’t know means that they do not experience the effect of their (potentially) immoral behavior, leading to .
I believe that awareness is the first step to a better world. Knowing what is going on in the world around us, and knowing about the consequences of our actions is the most important knowledge one can have. According to the German philosopher Hegel, the only real freedom is self-knowledge. Being aware of why you do what you do creates freedom, as you are freed from external dictators that dictate how you should live your life. So the message I want to give you today is: challenge taken for granted realities.
If you’re interested, here are some interesting videos on the issues I raised:
Melanie Joy’s TedTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o0VrZPBskpg
Cowspiracy (also on Netflix): http://putlocker.is/watch-cowspiracy-the-sustainability-secret-online-free-putlocker.html