The Power of Knowledge and The Powerlessness of Ignorance

It is an old adage that knowledge is power. Understanding the how and why of life allows one to maneuver and manipulate their surroundings more easily. However, from this adage, we can garner a parallel truth: if knowledge is power, lack of knowledge must be powerlessness. If one lacks the ability to make informed decisions and perceptions, they will often act in a way that is detrimental to themselves and others. Worse, those who possess knowledge can manipulate those who don’t. Toni Morrison understood how knowledge can be a weapon yielded against those without it. Her 2008 novel A Mercy features numerous instances of its protagonist Florens being confused and ignorant of the truth. The novel highlights both the ways that ignorance harms Florens and the ways that other characters weaponize that ignorance against her. Though the novel was written before 2008, the ideas contained within A Mercy apply to the financial crisis, for bankers and investors had taken advantage of Americans who didn’t understand the potential consequences of their actions.

What does it mean to be ignorant in Florens’s world? She knows her letters, after all; she can read and write. But despite this one advantage she has, Morrison presents her as outpaced by the events around her. This idea is introduced early, as Florens begins to tell her story: “Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much…. Let me start with what I know for certain.” Throughout the novel, Florens consistently demonstrates a lack of knowledge. She wanders through the woods, unsure of her direction, noting her confusion. For example, when religious villagers accuse her of being the Black Man’s minion, she responds initially, “I am not understanding anything except that I am in danger.” At the climax of Florens’s story, her ignorance has highly detrimental effects on the child she is tasked to watch. Unsure how to stop the boy from crying, she grabs him too hard. “I am trying to stop him not hurt him,” she insists. “That is why I pull his arm. To make him stop. Stop it. And yes I do hear the shoulder crack but the sound is small, no more than the crack a wing of roast grouse makes when you tear it, warm and tender, from its breast. He screams screams then faints. A little blood comes from his mouth hitting the table corner. Only a little.” Here, Florens’s inexperience has damaging effects on Malaik; she does not know how to calm him, and she minimizes the extent of his injuries. Finally, Florens’s story ends with the last and most pervasive mystery of her life: why did her mother give her up? She concludes her narrative with this haunting uncertainty. “I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.” Because she never knew that her mother’s choice to give her up was out of love, she was always eager to please. But now, because she has experienced a betrayal identical to that initial one, she is jaded and angry. Had she known that her mother was trying to save her and not hurt her, she might have matured differently.

While Florens’s ignorance affects her development and her understanding of the world, that ignorance in isolation is not as harmful as the way it is weaponized against her. Her naivete, spurred by that sense of abandonment from her mother, allows other characters to take advantage of her. Rebekka, for example, finds amusement in “Florens’ eagerness for approval. ‘Well done.’ ‘It’s fine.’ However slight, any kindness shown her she munched like a rabbit.” Because Rebekka is her mistress and praise and kindness like this is the only compensation Florens gets for good work, Rebekka is using Florens’s abandonment to increase her productivity as a slave. Scully, too, sees the potential for taking advantage of the girl’s ignorance and naivete: “if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others.” It is this same innocence that allows the blacksmith to enter a sexual relationship with her. Though neither party views the encounters as rape, the blacksmith certainly knows that Florens is childlike and trusting, for he uses that ignorance against her after she hurts Malaik. He accuses her of having become a slave to her own obliviousness; “Your head is empty and your body is wild,” he says. Thus, her ignorance acts as a weapon for the people who wish to control and hurt her.

Being taken advantage of for one’s inexperience and ignorance is not a scenario that is isolated to Florens, nor is it only contained within the pages of A Mercy. Through other works, such as Angela Flounoy’s The Turner House and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, it becomes apparent the way that ignorance harmed the homeowner in the events leading up to the 2008 housing market crash. In The Turner House, Viola Turner refinanced her mortgage, an option that seemed favorable at the time. However, that choice led to a lot of debt the family can’t pay off, and even if they can, it isn’t worth it for a house nobody lives in. Thus, a lack of knowledge is harmful to the ignorant. In The Big Short, meanwhile, average American homebuyers are manipulated by corrupt bankers who want to loan them a subprime mortgage, so that it can be repackaged and sold as a Triple-A-rated bond. Technically, the homebuyers took out loans they couldn’t pay back, and therefore one might argue that they deserved the evictions or bankruptcies that followed. However, they didn’t understand what they were doing and were guided by others to do what was against their best interest. 

Finance is incredibly complicated, and although most if not all Americans will have to engage with it at some point in their lives, few understand it. Therefore, they must trust bankers and accountants and other finance experts to advise them on how best to manage their money. Although these people can provide a great service in helping people, they can also weaponize their clients’ ignorance against them. Similarly, in A Mercy, Florens is innocent and ignorant, and the people in her life take advantage of that. It’d be ideal for Florens if she could have learned the things she is ignorant of and be less naïve. However, she is a child, and children—and people of all ages—are always going to be innocent. Florens should have been protected from the people who want to exert power over her. Similarly, most Americans will never be financial experts, and they shouldn’t have to be. Instead, the law should take measures to protect them from bankers and accountants who intentionally advise them to make ruinous decisions.

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