Knowns, Unknowns, and Unknown Knowns


Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.
–Eric Hoffer

There are things I know I know. How to add or subtract, for example. Then there are things I know I don’t know. For me, speaking Russian is a known unknown.  But what about the things I don’t know that I don’t know?

This distinction was famously (or infamously) made by Donald Rumsfeld in a speech on the Iraq war:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

There is actually an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to his quotation. It is so well-known that it has been referenced in popular culture more than a few times. Some ridicule Donald Rumsfeld for this statement while others think that it captures a very important point. I am a member of the latter camp. The inability to know your own unknown unknowns (there’s a tongue twister for you) makes them potentially dangerous. If you don’t known what you’re doing wrong, how can you possibly fix it?

It has accrued to me many times over the years that Rummy forgot one, namely the Unknown Knows. I know that I speak English (known known) but not Russia (known unknown), but then there is the language spoken by whales, what is that? It is still a known unknown, is it not? So then, what exactly would an unknown known be?

There are at least two interpretations of Unknown knowns. The first is that they are things that we knew but have forgotten. The other is that they are the things that we know, but are unaware of knowing. The coining of the term is attributed to Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek and it refers to the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it. It is the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Jacques Lacan said.

Žižek argues that if Rumsfeld thought that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns,” that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect. But then the Abu Ghraib scandal revealed an even greater danger, and it was from the enemy within, the “unknown known,”  that ugly part of our own nature that we keep hidden from ourselves and each other. It would seem there is the devil inside each and every moral crusader, and when you see photographic evidence of this, it isn’t something you want to look at and certainly don’t want others to see (especially if you happen to be occupying their country).

This “unknown known” is called the “normalcy bias” by some–it is a thing which seems normal when it isn’t or a thing accepted that should not be. In the case Abu Ghraib what the world saw exposed was not just the dark “latent tendencies” on the part a few, but what   Žižek calls the “disavowed beliefs” of Western culture. He points out that these are very often obscene and violent practices we pretend not to know about (even though they, in no small part, form the background of our public values). In short, these the beliefs which produce behavior no one wants to talk about, much less critically examine.

In his reaction to the photos showing Iraqi prisoners tortured and humiliated by U.S. soldiers, President George W. Bush, as expected, emphasized how the deeds of the soldiers were isolated crimes that do not reflect what America stands and fights for – the values of democracy, freedom and personal dignity. And the fact that the case turned into a public scandal that put the U.S. administration on the defensive is a positive sign. In a really “totalitarian” regime, the case would simply be hushed up. (In the same way, the fact that U.S. forces did not find weapons of mass destruction is a positive sign: A truly “totalitarian” power would have done what cops usually do-plant drugs and then “discover” the evidence of crime.)

However, a number of disturbing features complicate this simple picture. In the past several months, the International Committee of the Red Cross regularly bombarded the Pentagon with reports about the abuses in Iraqi military prisons, and the reports were systematically ignored. So it was not that U.S. authorities were getting no signals about what was going on – they simply admitted the crimes only when (and because) they were faced with their disclosure in the media. The immediate reaction of the U.S. military officials was surprising, to say the least. They explained that the soldiers were not properly taught the Geneva Convention rules about how to treat war prisoners – as if one has to be taught not to humiliate and torture prisoners!

But the main complication is the contrast between the “standard” way prisoners were tortured in Saddam’s regime and how they were tortured under U.S. occupation. Under Saddam, the accent was on direct infliction of pain, while the American soldiers focused on psychological humiliation. Further, recording the humiliation with a camera, with the perpetrators included in the picture, their faces stupidly smiling beside the twisted naked bodies of the prisoners, was an integral part of the process, in stark contrast with the secrecy of the Saddam tortures. The very positions and costumes of the prisoners suggest a theatrical staging, a kind of tableau vivant, which brings to mind American performance art, “theatre of cruelty,” the photos of Mapplethorpe or the unnerving scenes in David Lynch’s films.

This theatricality leads us to the crux of the matter: To anyone acquainted with the reality of the American way of life, the photos brought to mind the obscene underside of U.S. popular culture – say, the initiatory rituals of torture and humiliation one has to undergo to be accepted into a closed community. Similar photos appear at regular intervals in the U.S. press after some scandal explodes at an Army base or high school campus, when such rituals went overboard. Far too often we are treated to images of soldiers and students forced to assume humiliating poses, perform debasing gestures and suffer sadistic punishments.

The torture at Abu Ghraib was thus not simply a case of American arrogance toward a Third World people. In being submitted to the humiliating tortures, the Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture: They got a taste of the culture’s obscene underside that forms the necessary supplement to the public values of personal dignity, democracy and freedom. No wonder, then, the ritualistic humiliation of Iraqi prisoners was not an isolated case but part of a widespread practice. On May 6, Donald Rumsfeld had to admit that the photos rendered public are just the “tip of the iceberg,” and that there were much stronger things to come, including videos of rape and murder.

Thus, Bush was wrong. What we get when we see the photos of humiliated Iraqi prisoners is precisely a direct insight into “American values,” into the core of an obscene enjoyment that sustains the American way of life.

What are my Latent Tendencies? This is a question we should all ask ourselves. First, we should understand that a Latent Tendency means lurking liability, hidden inclination, some underlying readiness to do evil, a recurring dormant drive to do unto others what we would never want done to us! Why is that flawed belief and dysfunctional behavioral in us waiting to get out? Could our culture be to blame? or perhaps the example of a parent or guardian? Regardless of where these meme originate, be must realize that we host a great many “unknown knowns” and living in denial of this fact will do us no good.

The man men called Buddha once said:

There are these seven kinds of Latent Tendency. What seven?

1: The Latent Tendency to Sense-Pleasure…
2: The Latent Tendency to Aversion & Ill-Will…
3: The Latent Tendency to Speculative Views…
4: The Latent Tendency to Skeptical Doubt…
5: The Latent Tendency to Conceiving “I Am”…
6: The Latent Tendency to Lust for Becoming…
7: The Latent Tendency to Ignorance…

These are the seven kinds of Latent Tendency! The Noble 8-fold Way should be developed for the direct experience of these seven kinds of Latent Tendency, for the full understanding and elimination of them, and for their final overcoming, abandoning and leaving all behind. …This Noble 8-fold Way is developed for the sake of the uprooting of all Latent Tendency!

According to the teaching of Buddha, this Latent Tendency to Ignorance (the unknown known) is not seeing, not understanding, and not knowing the Four Noble Truths…. Buddha once emphasized: without eliminating the latent tendency to lust for any pleasant feeling, without abolishing the latent tendency to aversion towards any painful feeling, without uprooting the latent tendency to neglect and ignorance accompanying any neutral feeling, without extirpating ignorance & making clear understanding arise, to find peace here & now, in this very life, be able to cease suffering & awaken, is indeed impossible.

There arises consciousness at the intellect but the undisciplined mind is quick to cling, to become attached to the outcome. With self-awareness as a requisite condition, one can learn to let go of the ego-desire and thus relinquish self-inflicted pain. What arises in the mind is felt either as pleasure, pain, or neither pleasure nor pain. If, when touched by a feeling of pleasure, one does not relish it, welcome it, or remain fastened to it, then one’s passion doesn’t get obsessed. If, when touched by a feeling of pain, one does not sorrow, grieve, or lament, beat one’s breast or become distraught, then one’s resistance obsession doesn’t get triggered. If, when touched by a feeling of neither pleasure nor pain, one discerns, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, & escape from that feeling, then one’s ignorance-obsession doesn’t become a problem.

That a person — through abandoning passion-obsession (knowns/wants) with regard to a feeling of pleasure, through abolishing resistance-obsession (unknowns/fears) with regard to a feeling of pain, through abandoning ignorance (Unknown knowns) and giving rise to clear knowing — would put an end to suffering & stress in the here & now: such a thing is possible and Buddha showed us THE WAY.

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