On necessary knowledge

(or: how ignorance is a privilege)

My friend has started working on her MA thesis and I am so pleased for her! Her particular discipline, disability studies, is comparatively little-known compared to more fashionable fields like feminist theory or queer theory, so it's very much an uphill struggle. Even then, disability is multifaceted and it's very difficult to get people to acknowledge this (including disabled people ourselves, because not everyone is experienced on every disability ever by virtue of having one particular disability).

(Speaking of identities, here is Melanie Yergeau on "shiny identities". She's so fantastic.)

Anyway, as my friend is working on her thesis, she is reading various different writers and introducing me to them; in particular, the work of the poet Tom Andrews struck me. It's dark and funny and pulls inspiration from every aspect of life.

(Also poetry about disability: Karl Mercer is busy moving his stuff around, but To Death and NHS-Factor give you a good indication of his work about mental illness. It can be quite head-on in its descripions of sensitive topics so please keep that in mind.)

Another thing that struck me about Tom Andrews' poetry is how medicalised it all is, as you would expect; he was a haemophiliac who was hospitalised after an accident on an icy sidewalk as a young man. His poetry and his memoirs make frequent mention of things like factor VIII, an essential blood-clotting protein.

These are things that someone who doesn't have a bleeding disorder wouldn't know about; unless they were a medical professional, or a relative or close friend of someone with a bleeding disorder, they would simply have no reason to know about it.

Wherever you look, the story's the same. Be it abled people who know about chronic conditions or neurodivergence, men who know about feminist theory and are seen publicly as allies, or just generally any privileged people who know about the struggles of an oppressed group, they're somehow seen as shiny and special for knowing about something nonessential.

Meanwhile, for us, it's necessary knowledge. Whether you grow up with it or it comes upon you later in life, there's a lot of things you might end up needing to know because it's part of your day-to-day life. It becomes quite natural.

A lot of people seem to think of this in terms of bravery or cleverness or some other virtue on the part of oppressed people. I think we need to turn this view on its head; this knowledge doesn't come out of bravery or cleverness or virtue, it comes out of necessity. Seen like this, ignorance is a privilege. It's a luxury you have when knowing about these things is not essential.

I know that now I've used "privilege", a sizeable contingent of well-meaning white middle-class people are going to be agonising over how oppressive they're being and how they need to learn all the things. An equally sizeable contingent of thin-skinned, easily offended pundits are going to be agonising over how I'm a scary social justice warrior out to make everyone feel guilty. Both these contingents need to calm down; I'm describing an extant phenomenon, not trying to pass judgement on people. I'm also not an authority on the subject - I'm describing my own observations and I'm sure plenty of people might disagree with me.

In any case, I feel like it's necessary to point out that ignorance is a privilege. Being able to go about your life without having some knowledge of, say, medicine or queer theory is a privilege. And honestly? I feel like this is systemic. I feel like this won't change until privileged people decide that these things are worth learning about and working with us on, and until privileged people who do learn about these things aren't seen as shiny and special. I know there are lots of barriers to this due to the specialist nature of a lot of these things and due to some people not wanting to intrude or put a foot wrong, but I'd like to believe we can overcome them.