Privilege of Ignoring

Published: 10/10/2021

Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Recently I wrote a tweet which I wanted to clarify my thoughts on.

I see this exchange all the time in the wild:

A: I don't follow politics/news because it's very depressing and doesn't effect my life.

B: That's a very privileged take. For some people this is a matter of life or death.

And of course B really does have a point. A can tune out of the issue but not everyone can. For some people the resolution or consequences of the issue will be very important.

But B's point still makes me very angry and I want to expand on why:

1. It's a general argument against not knowing anything.

Consider some analogous exchanges:

A: I don't follow Pacific fish stocks because they're depressing and don't effect my life.

B: That's a very privileged take. Consider the fisherman who depend on those fish to support their family.


A: I don't read books about Algebraic Geometry because it's very painful and I don't need this information to live my life.

B: That's a very privileged take. Consider the math Grad Students who need to understand this material to progress in their program.

Here the reader might object and say "Politics is not like Fish stocks or Algebraic Geometry for X, Y or Z reason" [1]. I want to point out that these are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT EXPLANATIONS OF WHY ONE MIGHT HAVE A MORAL DUTY TO FOLLOW POLITICS. In this post I don't want to make the case for the moral position that "A is correct" but "B is making a bad faith and dumb statement".

Of course the reader might not accept the Reducto Ad Absurdum and simply bite the bullet "yes, actually you are morally compelled to know everything". And to that all I can do is apologize for not living up to my moral obligations.

2. The unstated implication "therefore you should follow politics".

There are of course a lot of ways my life is a luxurious paradise. Being born at all is a precious gift and a cosmic improbability. I shouldn't not cherish my life on account of all the poor sperms and eggs who didn't make it. Or all the poor saps born in the 9th century. If I said "I'm sure grateful to be alive" who would say "actually you shouldn't be grateful to be alive because of everything that didn't get to. Check your being alive privilege". And yet that seems to be the shape of the A-B exchange. If A is correct that politics doesn't affect them much then perhaps A is very lucky but why shouldn't they act as they are and not as a median person must?

Perhaps I'm misreading B and what they're really getting at isn't "you're wrong you should follow politics" but more like "shut up, not all of us are so lucky". And maybe this would be a good point in a world where almost everyone needed to be aware of almost everything going on under the umbrella of 'politics' but I really don't think that's the world we're living in. Looking around me I see so many people stressing out about this or that event that is happening far away from them and they have no mechanism to effect the outcome of. And this stress is preventing them from making their own lives and the lives of people near them actually better.

3. The way everyone actually follows politics is the epitome of privilege.

I have two points here:

A. Learning About Politics Takes Time and Energy

Only a relatively wealthy and secure person can spend their intellectual energy learning marginal facts about politics instead of developing skills and connections which might actually help them feed themselves and their family. There is an opportunity cost to paying attention to things.

B. People Think More about Shoulds than Wills

If one really saw themselves buffeted about by the winds of politics maybe they'd spend less time thinking about what they'd like to happen or what should happen and more time thinking about what is most likely to happen? And how they should act in light of their predictions? But instead everyone when they turn to politics puts on their mini-sovereign hat, as if their 1/1,000,000% of the electorate vote is important, and asks themselves 'What is right? What is good? What policy is best?'. What could be a more privileged perspective on the world? This perspective of 'I have an opinion and that opinion matters to the world'.

[1] For example: A has the potential to effect politics through voting or some other mechanism, Politics is more general interest than these other things and any educated citizen should be aware of it, or some other explanation.