When the musician Prince died in 2016, there was a storm of online sharing. It seemed like everybody was talking about him, and that was certainly the case in the office where I was working at the time.
We had a small music group with colleagues, and we had played in the company’s anniversary dinner a couple of times before. In the office, we were known as the musicians. A few of us were talking when one of them broke the news to the rest: Prince died!
My response: Who?
At first, the bearer of bad news thought I was joking, and asked if I was. As I wasn’t, he started rambling about how I dared call myself a musician if I didn’t know who Prince was. So I told him: I have studied music, and I don’t know who Prince is.
As his face kept falling in disbelief, he yelled in desperation: Dude! 90% of the music you listen to was written by him! It’s just general culture! To which my reply was direct and simple: 90% of the music I listen to doesn’t even have lyrics.
Let’s start by ignoring the number itself, which is surely falsely exaggerated. There are so many inherent assumptions behind his claim that it’s hard to know where to start and which ones are worse.
His own indignation at my ignorance of a famous musician revealed his own ignorance (or denial) of an even more widespread reality: diversity. On what grounds can anybody make such claims about what the musical knowledge of another person should be? Why would it insult him that I don’t know what he does?
Most of what I listen to is classical music (excluding opera), and instrumental jazz music (excluding voice). As for the rest, every now and then I listen to some Alan Parsons Project or songs in my native language — Spanish — which were surely not written by Prince.
Going back to his reaction, there’s also the issue of a semantic autocracy in his demand that people must know Prince in order to earn the right of calling themselves a musician. The deeper problem, though, is not that a musician must know Prince: it’s that a musician must know what he knows.
This is the problem of appealing to common sense or general culture, as many people define those terms as whatever they know.
As a side note, if 90% of the music you listen to is written by a single artist, shouldn’t that tell you how limited your knowledge of the musical world is?
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first or the last time I’ve found myself in this situation. When I came to a U.S. university as an exchange student, an American classmate was surprised that I didn’t know some of the classic novels he knew from high school. I had read Spanish translations of Wuthering Heights and Dandelion Wine, but at the time wasn’t even aware of their original English titles, so I didn’t mention them.
In turn, I named a few Latin American authors, including Nobel laureates. Although he didn’t know any of them, he still managed to imply that my fault was greater, as English literature was obviously more widespread, ‘proven’ by the fact that he had grown up hearing about the likes of Poe and Eliot, but not Neruda or García Márquez.
In a similar exchange, somebody else found it laughable that I knew Queen Elizabeth as Reina Isabel, but she herself would refer to Spanish monarchs by English names, and found this perfectly acceptable. When I pointed out the inconsistency, she claimed that it was fine because that’s how she was taught in history class. Then, when I mentioned that I had the same experience in my own history education, she said it was disrespectful to translate names from English, as they lose character and meaning.
Once again, somebody took offense that my knowledge and experience was not their own, and instead of embracing this diversity and exploring the richness of our differences, decided that I must be blatantly ignorant.
As people specialize in a line of study or interest, it is not hard to see how they would get to know increasingly specific names and facts.
However, what people seem not to realize is that their own personal experience, when viewed globally, is as specific as that of world-class specialists.
The siloed nature of one’s own group of acquaintances shouldn’t for a minute make us think that we’re in the center of the Venn diagram of human culture. Not only is that a delusion, but also an incredibly arrogant attitude.
General knowledge, after all, is not so general, and common sense is not so common.