Embrace the Noble and Well-Intentioned Ignorant

“Every day I live in mortal fear of offending someone.” 

An old friend of mine tells me this over dinner. He shouldn’t have to be afraid. He’s not bigoted or intolerant. To the contrary, he’s inclined toward broad-minded attitudes.  

But in his job, he comes into contact with a range of different people, many of whom are younger, and have lifestyles, argot, and attitudes that he might not know much about, unless he can grit his teeth through a dismal episode of “Girls” or whatnot.  And there are only so many hours in the day.

My friend worries that he might stumble into the thicket of a debate that he didn’t know existed over nomenclature in the mercurial world of identity politics; that he might casually articulate a belief now superseded by a shinier new one; or perform a once-polite gesture, now deemed offensive.

Were this to happen, it wouldn’t be because he intended to hurt someone or to express intolerance, hatred, or contempt. It would be, quite simply, because he was ignorant.

Can you be ignorant today without being offensive or—that catch-all pejorative—inappropriate, in your heart? 

As a term, ignorance certainly accommodates a value-neutral meaning. The OED defines the ignorant, first, as those “destitute of knowledge.”

In elementary school we’d occasionally insult someone by calling them an “ignoramus.” Actually, this term has somewhat value-neutral origins as well. It comes from 16th-century jurisprudence. A Grand Jury would use this term to describe an indictment for which they found insufficient evidence.

It’s the fifth definition of “ignorant,” with more recent examples, dating from 1886 onward, that carries a stronger charge of judgment. Here, ignorant means “ill-mannered” or uncouth. This meaning of ignorant seems to prevail today.

Ignorant is now loosely synonymous with unkind, bigoted, malicious, or intolerant. A state of not-caring is gleaned from a state of not-knowing.

This is unfortunate. When people don’t know about another person’s job, lifestyle, preferences, religion, or culture, they have what I think is a natural human impulse to ask a question. From a position of noble and well-intentioned ignorance, they might be curious to learn.

As someone who identifies as a feminist, people have asked me all sorts of “ignorant” questions. They’ve asked if I didn’t think that women really regret not having children, or if feminists aren’t just unfairly hostile toward men. True, these questions embed opinions, and opinions that I disagree with. But even in these situations, I didn’t assume that the speaker was asking to hurt my feelings. I assumed that he was ignorant, in the most agnostic sense of the term, and seeking to be less ignorant by the act of asking a question, and assuming that it would be met with something other than the miffed rebuttal, “That’s Ignorant.”   

This is tedious work, I know. Who wants to explain to people why they wear a headscarf, why they like guns, or how they feel about the name “Redskins?” We all want to be transparently understood by others, without having to educate, share, or build social understanding.

But building casual social understanding and good will is the nuts and bolts work of a democracy.

What’s even worse than having to “represent” for your people—which is the price one pays for having people— is that the nobly-inspired ignorant ask questions much less frequently today.

My friend is right to be afraid. One of the basic circulatory systems of democracy—the free exchange of attitudes and information through public conversation and social contact—is clogged up by the assumption that ignorance of another person’s beliefs, culture, or lifestyle signals malice, and therefore simply cannot be displayed.

If liberals sensitive to identity politics are afraid to ask ignorant questions, then other factions are proud not to. They seem to embrace unrepentant ignorance as a virtue.  They give up on trying to understand, or to learn, entirely. In the anti-intellectual backlash of our times, they rehabilitate ignorance as a principled stance, on matters ranging from homosexuality to embryology to climate change and evolution.

Ignorance, in its most useful forms, acts like the ipecac syrup of intellectual culture. It gets things moving, even if noxiously, and eventually provokes understanding, which makes us feel better. When a culture doesn’t allow people to be dumb, even as more of us are dumber than ever on most topics, if only because the sheer number of topics seems to have exploded and gotten more fine-tuned, then the state of being ignorant goes underground and becomes almost a political subversion, a proudly-declared political stance.  This is not good.

So, give a hug or at least a gracious helping hand to the noble, well-intentioned ignoramus today. 

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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