The Best Way to Fight Ignorance

The Best Way to Fight Ignorance July 12, 2018

In special-needs circles, we are all-too familiar with “ignorant” questions. Parents of kids on the autism spectrum, for instance, hear stuff like this all the time:

“Does he have a special skill like Rain Man?”
“Is it contagious?”
And everyone’s favorite: “He doesn’t look autistic!”

If it seems strange that such ideas could abound in the information age, it probably shouldn’t. Yes, solid information is only a click away, but so is misinformation. The fake news phenomenon ought to have taught us that lesson by now.

Beyond that, not everything in our world is black and white in the first place. There are wide fields of gray beneath many of the black-and-white ideological bunkers we entrench ourselves in. Don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of facts here, just as there are obvious falsehoods. But oftentimes, in the absence of completed research, one person’s favorite doctor is another person’s favorite quack.

It should be no surprise, then, that people who have zero experience in any of these realms often ask ask what we deem “ignorant” questions. They haven’t waded through the information we have. They haven’t become experts in the factors that touch our lives. They have their own stuff to deal with, after all, and we are probably just as ignorant in those realms as they are in this one.

The only surprising thing is the exasperated responses we sometimes give them. We want to roll our eyes and snap at them. We want to tell them to “get educated” and then storm off.

This, however, is exactly the wrong response to honest inquiries. Ignorant people are not the enemy. Ignorant people are only ignorant because nobody has ever instructed them.

I’m not talking about callousness, of course. There are plenty of callous jerks out there who spout off all manner of filth as a tribute to their own cleverness. Sure, they are ignorant too, but their questions aim at bruising, not at learning. There is a marked difference, and it’s usually easy to spot.

But those who ask sincere questions deserve better from us. If we respond with snark and angst, they’ll start to walk on eggshells and eventually stop asking questions altogether. Then what? We certainly won’t make allies out of those ones. They’ll stay on the sidelines and out of the line of fire.

No, honest inqirers deserve real answers like this:

“Rain Man was just a movie. Sure, some people with autism are savants like Dustin Hoffman, but that is quite rare.”

“No, you can’t ‘catch’ autism. It’s not contagious. Your kid can give him a high-five.”

“No, there is no ‘look’ to autism. Are you thinking of Down syndrome? Because those two things are very different.”

I’m not telling you not to feel annoyed at the questions. I get it. They come often, and they can be symptomatic of a culture that doesn’t care very much about getting to know our kids. There is a reason to feel annoyance.

But just as a calm answer turns back wrath, so an instructive answer turns ignorance on its head. If we want the world to be a kinder, safer place for the special-needs community, we need to get in the habit of instructing, not lashing out. We need to lower our defenses a little and invite the conversation. We need to take a friendly posture that invites all the silly questions, and doesn’t make the asker feel silly.

This is how you fight ignorance: with teaching. And with grace.

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