Ignorance as power? | Inquirer Opinion

Ignorance as power?

According to Alice Leal Guo, the 37-year-old mayor of Bamban, Tarlac, she cannot remember anything from the early parts of her life—from the house where she was born to the last name of the teacher who homeschooled her every day for 17 years. At least, this was what she claimed during the Senate hearing about Guo’s alleged involvement in illegal Philippine offshore gaming operations in her town.

Feigning ignorance is a manipulation tactic that is commonly used in legal cases and negotiations to avoid self-incrimination, create confusion, and delay proceedings. During the hearing, Guo admitted to having a Chinese stepbrother but denied having two other siblings. When Sen. Risa Hontiveros asked about the two individuals who shared her middle and surname and listed the same home address in a business document, Guo repeatedly said she did not remember. By claiming she needed time to double-check the details, Guo may have bought herself more time to prepare a better defense or negotiate a deal.

If knowledge is power, ignorance can also function as a harmful form of power. Strategic ignorance is a calculated choice to remain unaware or to appear uninformed about certain facts, enabling plausible deniability. In the corporate world, for instance, some organizations may use strategic ignorance to allow profitable but unethical activities to continue while providing a defense for those in leadership positions.

A classic example is how tobacco companies historically claimed ignorance about the link between smoking and cancer, to avoid legal and ethical responsibility. Similarly, ExxonMobil, despite their scientists’ accurate projections of global warming from fossil fuel burning, responded by funding research that questioned the scientific consensus on climate change. The resulting doubt and confusion downplayed the issue’s severity and delayed regulatory action, protecting the company’s economic interests.


In some organizations, the collective avoidance of incriminating information becomes ingrained in the culture, making it increasingly difficult to challenge as more people accept it. Miramax Films, under the leadership of Harvey Weinstein, cultivated a culture of fear and feigned ignorance about his sexual assaults. Since the senior executives and the HR department were unresponsive to the allegations, employees started avoiding asking questions about Weinstein’s predatory behavior—ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing it as industry practice. The company’s success in producing commercially viable high-quality films just reinforced this culture of complicity, further shielding Weinstein from closer examination.

Of course, feigning ignorance or choosing to be ignorant does not absolve one from accountability. As Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote, “For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is bound and able to know.” Individuals and organizations have the moral and ethical responsibility to seek and acknowledge the truth, especially on matters that significantly impact others. The legal system also recognizes the culpability of “willful blindness”—the deliberate avoidance of knowledge of a crime by failing to inquire about suspected wrongdoing despite signs of probable misconduct.

More often than not, institutions that rely on strategic ignorance eventually face consequences, significantly risking their integrity and longevity. The tobacco industry ultimately faced financial and reputational damage from legal battles, massive settlements, and stricter regulations as mounting evidence of the dangers their products posed to public health came to light. Miramax has been included in various lawsuits from actresses for enabling the sexual abuse perpetrated by Weinstein. In October 2018, the State of New York sued ExxonMobil, alleging that the company defrauded shareholders by downplaying the risks of climate change for its businesses, which is now viewed by many as a major contributor to the delay in addressing climate change.

In democratic societies, “fake news” and the manipulation of social media algorithms are contemporary examples where ignorance is cultivated to influence electoral outcomes. By critically examining the intricate relationship between power and knowledge, we can better identify and confront how ignorance—whether feigned, willful, or deliberately promoted—serves various personal, organizational, and political agendas.


Hontiveros’ calm yet persistent questioning during the hearing highlighted the inconsistencies and improbabilities in Guo’s claims of forgetfulness. The online videos and memes poking fun at her evasive answers helped raise broader public awareness, turning the hearing into a widely discussed topic. When we identify and call out various tactics of strategic ignorance, we make it clear that attempts to manipulate or evade the truth will not go unchallenged. Even if we cannot compel individuals like Guo to reveal the whole truth, we can ensure that they understand they have not succeeded in deceiving us.



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