Knowledge: Power and Curse

I’m sure that you have come across the sayings…

“Knowledge is power”

…and…

“Knowledge is a dangerous thing”

These two nuggets of philosophy are both brimming with truth, yet appear to be in direct contradiction to one another. How can something that is beneficial to us also cause us great harm? The simple truth is that there are many such dualities in life – many double-sided coins. On a surface level, there are the obvious addictive substances and pursuits which are perfectly harmless (and sometimes healthy) in moderation, but have the capability to ruin us if we fail to exercise self-control and restraint. This is what the saying, “too much of a good thing is bad for you” warns us of.

The aforementioned saying can also be applied to the subject of knowledge…to an extent. History is littered with tales of those who pursued knowledge doggedly, their thirst for information isatiable. Some of them were driven mad or into extreme seclusion. However, this is pretty much as far as the relevancy of “too much of a good thing is bad for you” goes with regards to knowledge. Why? Because a single item of knowledge could prove to be too much. Knowledge – depending on its form – can be dangerous regardless of its size or the time taken to obtain it.

So let’s explore the two sides of this duality, shall we? Knowledge being power is much easier to understand. That knowledge may come in the form of a forewarning of some kind; the ability to be prepared for a situation thanks to advance knowledge of what might or will happen. Knowledge of practical skills and how to do things is power, especially the more of it that an individual or group possesses. Then there is general knowledge: learned information about our history, nature, science etc. Perhaps not the most practical or applicable mental library but still useful to have.

Knowledge being a danger to us is a little more complex as it is the aftermath of the learning that is the real danger, not the raw information itself. Positive knowledge can be forgotten if it isn’t used for a long while, or wasn’t ingrained into the mind firmly enough. We don’t remember everything we are taught at school for example, once we have used that knowledge to deal with exams. Dangerous knowledge on the other hand is usually unforgettable. Obtaining it is often a conscious decision that we have to make with the great tragedy being that we rarely pause and take the time to consider whether we really want to own that knowledge. It is only in hindsight that we look back and think, “I wish I’d never asked,” or, “I wish I hadn’t seen that.” We can liken this to the tale of Pandora’s Box. Pandora didn’t know what her box – given to her by Zeus and the other Olympian gods – contained, and curiosity got the better of her. She sought the knowledge of the box’s contents and all the great evils of the world could not be put back once released.

There are many examples of such dangerous knowledge. Perhaps you find evidence that your partner is cheating on you. Maybe you pry into a loved one’s personal affairs and discover something that you cannot undiscover. Or perhaps you are diagnosed with a terminal health condition and opt to be told just how long you have left to live. In all three cases (not to mention countless other possible scenarios), this is poisonous knowledge that can eat away at and potentially destroy a person. It is also knowledge that we may well didn’t have to take possession of.

Dangerous knowledge can come in many forms but the other notable example that I want to focus on is our increased exposure to the world via the internet and social media. We literally have the whole world in the palm of our hand these days, thanks to smartphones and an internet connection. On one hand – keeping this post on-topic – we have access to more knowledge, answers, and imagery than every before. This truly is the information age, and if knowledge is indeed power, then we should be all-powerful beings of tremendous capability and potential…shouldn’t we?

Alas, this isn’t the case. The majority of us have elected to shun education in favour of obsessing over what everybody else is doing, be that celebrities, friends, or total strangers. I won’t do a deep-dive into the monstrous problem for society that social media has become (because that would require its own dedicated post) but, suffice to say, it IS a problem and, to briefly return to the first paragraph of this post, I would categorise social media along with drugs, alcohol, and other addictive substances/pursuits – something that is perfectly fine if used responsibly.

And so we find ourselves absorbing a lot of bad knowledge that is of no actual use to us (or anybody). Fake news is rife. Opinions being broadcast as fact is a constant trend. Whacky conspiracy theories are gaining traction and being subscribed to by millions of people, enchanted by these alternate explanations for global events in a cultist-like fashion. It is now extremely difficult to discern fact from fiction – to separate truth from speculation. Even the mainstream media’s word cannot be taken as truth when most news outlets are quite clearly politically or socially biased. Sensationalism and clickbait is everywhere.

But there is (in my opinion) an even darker side to our phones acting as a window to the wider world around us. After all, it is possible to filter out the sewage that is fake, unfounded news by using a rational, logical approach. Likewise, it’s also very easy to avoid the ego-driven status updates and pictures on the likes of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. However, it’s impossible to unsee the truth of the world we live in. We are only ever a few clicks away from being able to see all the injustice, suffering, and high-level corruption going on in the world. We are exposed to the hopelessness of a world directed by (in depressingly frequent cases) the least, who are more focused on retaining political power or making money, rather than simply doing what is right. We are witness to our race making the same mistakes over and over again. We see how superficial and materialistic so many people are, as well as – at times – their ugly and selfish perspectives.

Before the internet (let alone smartphones), our knowledge of the bigger picture and outside world was much more limited. Unless we physically travelled, or intentionally sought the knowledge, we weren’t quite so aware of all the bad things happening on a global scale. But now we don’t even need to go looking for the negativity when the news and social media are more than willing to beam all of the latest terrorist attacks, political corruption and suffering into your brain. It is only too easy to feel the weight of all this bad news (as well as our inability to change any of it) and become severely disillusioned with existence itself. Choosing to access the internet and become exposed to this sort of knowledge is perhaps the most fitting translation of the Pandora’s Box myth, because it’s the sort of poisonous, mentality-altering knowledge that cannot be placed back inside the box once released.

Taking in too much of this over a long period of time is akin to exposing yourself to harmful radiation. We can grow disillusioned with life; become depressed by our seemingly-insurmountable circumstances and the world around us, which can feel hatefully oppressive and dictated by the rich and elite. Nihilism can take root and we run the risk of being paralysed by intense apathy, simply existing rather than living, suffocated by a belief that we will never find a better, happier place.

The “Doomer” meme

You may have seen the “Doomer” character in internet memes. The Doomer is the personification of a young man who has become consumed by the above, and fallen by the wayside in society. It IS, however, important to point out that Doomerism is nothing new. Disillusionment when transitioning into adulthood has always been around, even in the pre-internet days. It is an inevitable by-product of a society where we are sold various dreams and promises about our futures, only to come face-to-face with the shitty elements of reality once we move into the working world and become another replaceable cog in a hungry machine not controlled by us. That’s not to say that all of us will become victims of the Doomer state – it’s usually a cocktail of certain life experiences, past traumatic events, and our own personal response to reality that invoke such a mentality. Doomers have always been a part of society; it’s just that they (along with several other prominent personality archtypes) now have a label. As to whether becoming so deeply disillusioned is an increasing societal trend, that’s not for me to say. It sure feels that way but I personally believe that it’s impossible to compare our society to a pre-internet society in these situations since social media easily warps our perception of reality, and gives us access to millions of voices that we would otherwise not be privy to. Also, it’s important to remember that people act differently online and either reveal more about themselves, or act falsely in order to fit into online communities.

All of this discussion about the pros and cons of knowledge then, leads us to an inevitable question: should we seek it, or should we avoid it? Should we tell Pandora to keep that fucking lid on her box (and have it welded shut)? Do we view knowledge as power or a curse?

I can only offer you my personal standpoint, and that is that we should embrace knowledge, not bury our heads in the sand. Obviously, I would absolutely not blame anybody for not wanting to know how long they have left to live, or for wanting to keep the sex of their unborn child a surprise, but I do believe that, on the whole, we should view knowledge as power. It can be a our greatest tool; one of our most powerful weapons when attempting to better ourselves. To protect ourselves by avoiding bad knowledge is to champion ignorance. In some cases, we will even end up lying to ourselves, and we deserve much better than that. We owe it to ourselves.

When it comes to the harsh truths of reality that can lead to crippling apathy, we are presented with a choice. We can allow it to wash over us like a black tide until we are stony and passive, or, we can train ourselves to process and respond to negative knowledge in a better way. This doesn’t involve actively ignoring it or turning away, but facing it straight, acknowledging its existence, and continuing to live anyway. It is about striking a balance between being aware of terrible events and not permitting them to dominate your life. Accept and understand the things that are out of your control but don’t obsess about them or your inability to change them.

It’s about focusing on bettering ourselves and continuing to grow, rather than spending so much time looking at the carefully-presented lives of others on social media. It’s about making the best of our current hand and not wasting precious energy lamenting the cards that we either weren’t dealt, or simply don’t have…yet.

I will openly admit that I possess a lot of so-called Doomer traits. And though I would never promote meme culture as a fountain of philosophy, those crudely drawn pictures and satirical videos on Youtube genuinely helped me begin to understand where I went wrong in certain areas and why I suffer with some of the problems I have today. Seeing myself reflected in these personifications was a kick up the arse. You see, the problem with becoming severely apathetic and disenchanted with life is that it is an ever-so-slow, creeping process. You don’t simply wake up one day feeling or acting this way. The changes happen over a period of years, the poison seeping into the well of your soul one drop at a time until the balance of the water within reaches a turning point.

I want to make some changes. I’m under no illusion that it will be easy but nothing is going to happen unless I try.

“It isn’t about whether you can or can’t; it’s whether you do or don’t

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