We all have things we don’t want to know and/or don’t want other people to know. Last week, a video of an ISIS militant beheading an American journalist was released on the web. I’m not going to watch that video, because (among other reasons) I don’t want to know what a beheading looks like. I also don’t want my kids to watch it. I warn them that once you know something, it’s pretty hard to unknow it. I tell them that just as swallowing poison will damage their bodies, consuming disturbing images can harm their minds.
I didn’t always think this. I used to espouse a view that John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, articulated in his prose work Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary…. the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world [is] so necessary to the constituting of human virtue.” William Blake, the nineteenth-century author and visual artist who wrote an epic poem about Milton, believed something similar. For Blake, humans must progress from a state of childlike innocence (a guileless naivete), to adult experience (with all its horrors), and finally back to a state of renewed innocence (an innocence that encompasses and transcends human horrors). Both Milton and Blake might have been thinking of an adage attributed to the Roman playwright Terence, who said “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto” — that is, “I am human, I consider nothing human to be alien to me.” I take this to mean that all things — whether they are amazing, joyful, depressing, or horrific — are worthy of human study. And I guess they are. It’s just that I don’t want to be the one studying the horrific things. So, for better or worse, I more and more find myself changing the channel when the news comes on. There are so many things I just don’t want to know.
On the other hand, there are also things that I want to know, but other people want to keep them from me. A case in point: in February, after attending a conference in Anchorage, I took a five-hour boat cruise that got us up close to 21 different glaciers. The tour guide — who was actually a National Parks Forest Ranger — was excellent: informative, articulate, and passionate about the environment. As we approached each glacier in turn, she pointed out where the glacier was a decade ago and where it was now. In each case, the glacier had receded, sometimes by thousands of meters. Never, though, did she allude to global warming as causing the retreat of the glaciers. At the end of the cruise, I approached her and asked her about this omission. She paused, gave me a knowing look, and then said, “We’re not allowed to talk about global warming or climate change.”
Maybe the US government thinks it’s protecting me from dangerous knowledge about climate change, in the same way that I try to protect myself and my kids from disturbing images. And maybe Stephen Harper’s government is also trying to keep me safe by preventing those know-it-all scientists from sharing their troubling research with me. In reality, though, I think that neither the US government nor the current Canadian government has my best interests in mind when it comes to “dangerous” knowledge. Information about fisheries, rivers, forests, tar sands, and so on are not the same as pictures and videos of people being beheaded. We can grieve for the executed American journalist, and work toward ending such conflicts, without having to see his head fall onto the sand. But if we’re going to save the planet — or at least the ecosystems in it that support us — we need access to all the knowledge that’s out there.