I wrote at length last week about why I value knowledge, but I only glancingly touched on one of the biggest factors in my desire to know (or at least to seem like I know) everything: not wanting to look like an idiot. I described in that post how my liberal education (and general quickness on my feet) allows me to appear well informed even with subjects that I know very little, but even those situations, I at least have a jumping-off point; I may not know the specifics of an economic theory, but I’m familiar enough with the general concepts of economics that I can ask informed questions and get up to speed pretty quickly. There are, however, certain subjects that it’s simply never even occurred to me to think about, for which I have no related general knowledge, and don’t even know where to start probing to make up the difference. These come up so rarely, and are generally about such specific and esoteric things that my ignorance is not only excusable, but understood, and any glazed looks are met with a self-deprecating apology and simplified explanation of the subject at hand; people are used to having to slow down and explain their work generating phylogenetic trees of flatworms. But what if the person doesn’t consider their niche of expertise to be eccentric? What if their offended by your unfamiliarity with their life’s passion?
My girlfriend, an industrious do-it-yourselfing organic food nut, recently responded to an internet posting from someone in the area offering extra kefir grains (the bacterial “seeds” needed to make the yogurt-like drinkable dairy product). The girl that she got the grains from invited her to a get together she was having at her house this past Sunday, so in the interest of getting out and meeting new people, we went. What we didn’t know was that this get together was actually a fundraiser for an organization that works with victims of domestic abuse in LGBTQ communities. It’s a noble cause, and one that would obviously have some passionate advocates, but is something that has simply never occurred to me to think about.
I like to consider myself a socially conscious person, and I’ve actually volunteered at women’s shelters for victims of domestic abuse and various LGBTQ causes, but I had never considered how those populations might overlap. I’m not alone; much of what people were talking about at this event was raising awareness of this cause. However, that kind of language didn’t make me feel like one of the insiders going out to teach the world, but rather like an interloping outsider. Part of this may have been one of very few straight men at this event (or one of very few men there in general), which is an interesting and unusual experience for me. I grew up in a house with two brothers, and most of my friends throughout my life have been male — if I’m used to a gender discrepancy, it’s toward a male majority. Very suddenly being in the minority is something I’ve occasionally experienced throughout my life, but is still something that consistently throws me for a loop.
At any rate, this particular type of ignorance is quite different than the one I described before; this wasn’t just a momentary subject of conversation, but was an incredibly important cause to the people that were there. Moreover, my own identity made me even more of an outsider, and this cause I knew nothing about was apparently the whole reason I was there in the first place. To be fair, I don’t think anyone there would have minded or been offended by my ignorance, and would have been more than happy to teach me, but I was still uncomfortable about the whole thing. I ended up mostly striking up conversations on unrelated topics, and even found out about a neat gallery/performance space, but this was the coward’s way out. I think my fear of being ignorant stems directly from being a know-it-all child.
My mother is a preschool teacher, and when it came time for my older brother to go to preschool, it just made sense for him to be in her class. This was considered by all accounts to be a success, so when the time rolled around for me to go to preschool, I was also enrolled in her class. I don’t know if it was because my mom was the teacher, or just because I thought I was smarter than everybody else, but I had essentially no respect for anyone in that classroom. I remember in particular (mostly because my mom won’t let me forget it) one day where I decided that I was going to call out the answer to every question that was asked, hand-raising be damned. After being warned numerous times to give someone else a chance to answer, I was moved out to the hallway so I would stop disrupting the class. I had decided that I wasn’t going to let distance stop me, and I continued to call out answers from the hallway. I kind of suspect this know-it-all attitude comes from having a particularly bright older brother. As I’ve mentioned before, he was (and still is) extremely competitive, and not too proud to let a four-year age difference soften his gloating when he would inevitably win. This was true in smarts as it was in sports, and I remember one particular occasion where I was demonstrating for my parents all of the spelling skills I had culled from Sesame Street. My parents applauded my ability to spell “dog” and “cat,” but my older brother was not so easily amused. He took it upon himself to really challenge my skills with more difficult words. I, of course, realized I had no idea how to spell “fish,” but why admit it? I asked my brother if he could spell “stop bothering me,” which he may or may not have proceeded to do correctly (I couldn’t fact check him — I couldn’t even spell “fish”). I eventually adopted my brother’s know-it-allness, which meant I spent a lot of time judging people for not knowing things.
I’ve gone over again and again how a propensity for judging people leads to a fear of being judged, so I don’t need to rehash it here, but that fear of being judged has outlasted my other know-it-all tendencies of calling out answers and general smugness. This is something I haven’t really had to confront because it’s rare that I’m actually completely uninformed about something, but I found myself yesterday feeling pretty small, even though I doubt anyone would have actually judged me. I would have judged me, which might be the most basic building block of my poseurphobia. I know resolving to address my judgmental nature is a conclusion I’ve come to before, as well as the resolution to put myself in more situations where I would maybe feel judged, but it’s becoming clear that I’m going to keep coming back to these points until I actually make some progress. I’m going to start to focus a little more on my judgement of others in the coming weeks in hopes of doing just that.