Friday, November 4, 2016

Anti-intellectualism (and other myths)

I don't think anti-intellectuals really exist. To redefine what has become a hopelessly muddled trope: there are those who tend to think and those who don't. People who think aren't necessarily intellectual, and intellectuals don't necessarily think. This is really, really obvious to any thinking person. Different pro-thinking people choose to spend their time thinking about different things, and there might be various cognitive or emotional factors which affect their ability to think clearly, but the willingness to think should be the most important qualification. Discussing the aforementioned deficits is useless, and it only makes sense to address things that you have some control over.

It's possible to teach almost anyone how to filter the ideas coming towards them, to look carefully at things, test them, and give them all a fair trial regardless of their source. Intellectualism, though, bundles the trait of being 'pro-thinking' with formal academic achievement (among other potentially useless things).  It also has numerous connotations which, depending on your 'clan', tend to make you either favorably or unfavorably disposed towards Intellectuals™.

Now this is a natural (if not epistemologically sound) way of chunking information. But we have a problem when these other distinctions become so important to people that being 'pro-thinking' quickly becomes the least important part of the Intellectual Platform. It becomes about whether you vote Democrat, or believe in global warming, or listen to classical music.

I don't care whether someone believes in global warming though. I care why they believe or don't believe. Their belief doesn't necessarily matter. Their process does. The fact that most people who don't believe in climate change have absolutely sodding terrible processes is almost irrelevant, because a disconcerting number of people who believe otherwise have equally terrible ways of reaching their conclusions. Those same people can't be relied on to reach accurate conclusions on any other subject, because they arrived at the right answer by accident.

Yet we still consistently categorize people according to their beliefs and not their willingness to think. It's as if the world is being run by teenagers, where your 'identity' (which is necessarily defined by everyone else and their 'identities') is more important than your thoughts.

Of course I understand that this is part of how people think (or don't). Of course I admit that this happens with other groups as well (hipsters, just for an example, look at the lack of substance that constitutes most people's 'self-expression'* and then perpetuate the problem by doing the exact same bloody thing), but if no other group is defined by their actual beliefs, at least intellectuals should be.The irony of a clique that claims to be pro-thinking simply because they fly the right colors is so absurd that it borders on unbelievable.

Yet rather than being the champions of rationalism and useful abstraction as they should be, Intellectuals have managed to set themselves up as a mere class of elites. As with most elitist social structures, eventually the hierarchy stops reflecting the actual merits and abilities of its members. ...and the sad fact is that people outside of the clique can often see this, and their few valid criticisms are written off precisely because they are coming from outside of the group.

This is why 'anti-intellectualism' has the support that it does, because of this clannish way of thinking. This is why politicians can go baby-kissing and hot-dog-eating and basketball-watching and it works; you do the little populist song-and-dance and then you can say anything, because all of that taps into our ridiculous fear of elitism and the fact that someone else be more right than we are. Of course, it is a rather vicious cycle; anti-intellectualism does contribute to Intellectuals™' defensive, cultish ways of thinking and acting, but - guess what? - most people get offended, and offensive in turn, if you imply that you're smarter than them and that you know better. Why, then, are we surprised at the results when there's an entire cohort of people doing just that?

I'm not throwing stones, I've done it myself. Even if you're well-intentioned and widely-exposed, it's easy to write people off because they... say something stupid, misspell something, or espouse an idea which you know is just factually wrong. But the mentality of converting people to a better set of ideas (or, far worse, regarding them as intellectually irredeemable) instead of giving them the tools to think just makes things worse. And it is like a kind of conversion; if I were your average person and it were made clear to me that I had to, say, be a fan of James Joyce, or admire Mirot's work, or abandon my beliefs about the sanctity of human life etc, etc, then of course I would rebel against the idea. Because it's insane. And yet we constantly expect that of people, putting them off of real education and self-betterment because they don't fit our idea of what thinking people should be like.


So yes, this post happened because I've had to listen to Trump's neo-Fascist whale vomit for over a year. (I thought I could make it to the end of the election, but no; if I have to suffer, I refuse to suffer alone.) Yes, obviously, Trump is a friendless acid spot on the back-buttock of a weeping society, but it's a much bigger, older problem than this 2016 ****fest. (I'm not yammering on about the decay of society or some sort of academic Armageddon, but individual traditions can fail, and that can affect entire nations and/or people groups.) Western Intellectuals should be the ones defending the values of the Enlightenment, and instead -like every other failed academic tradition ever- we've been content with ritualized demonstrations of competence, happy to sit behind the walls, watching the barbarians ululate while true civilization crumbles around our ears. (There must be an anthropology joke in there somewhere, but I can't bring myself to make it.)  My point is that true intellectual freedom has to be preserved in the same way as any other freedom, by constant, good-faith application of effort, and there are a lot of fields (and settings) where that's not happening.

Because what people fail to recognize is that you can't preserve culture, leaving it to sit there like a piece in a museum. Which, actually, is a terrible metaphor, because people tend to forget the enormous amount of time spent preserving, restoring, curating and shooing away snotty-nosed children that makes museums possible. And that's the point. Most good things are hard. This isn't a revelation. But since I'm continually running into people who seem to think that it is, I figured it couldn't hurt to say it again.


This is wasn't a rant. Honest. It was all a metaphor. Really.

*Sorry for the scare-quotes there, I try to avoid them, but it's the only way I can type 'self-expression' without breaking out into hives.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A toddler-aged letter about American politics

I feel completely emotionally unequipped to say anything about current events. I don’t think anyone is anywhere near horrified enough by the state of both global and American politics. …and this is not just because of the recent “election.” I don’t think national horror-levels have been where they should be for decades. (I’m also reasonably sure that this is not just because I grew up surrounded by curmudgeons.)

…but while cleaning out my file system I found this; something I wrote explaining American politics to someone within the context of an international class on Framing (i.e. The New Rhetoric) that we were taking, and which communicates my feelings more clearly than anything that I might manage to put into words right now:
The first thing you need to realize is that American political culture is centered around the idea of conflict. For example: the notion of ‘good triumphing…’ wins out over that of ‘problem solving’ a vast majority of the time. Successful frames almost always take the form of “defeating a problem” or “overcoming resistance.” We have what is essentially a two-party system, which precludes any sort of nuance or explicit compromise between the opposing ideologies. Implicit in all of American politics is the frame of ‘you have only two choices.’ As a result there is a sort of “bundling” of ideologies that takes place; you must, in effect, take a political party as a package.
Because of this, American political frames are often very shallow. The ‘conflict frame’ in particular motivates people to get involved, even if they have no real understanding of how the government works. So high voter turnout does not imply that those voters are truly invested in what happens. We are also very event-oriented. What I mean by this is that we tend to think of things in terms of isolated happenings, rather than as systems (i.e. something needs to blow up in order to get our attention). Once the Big Election is over we don’t care though, and very few people bother to participate in local government. Despite the fact that anyone can submit legislation, realistically, only the people we have elected to an office (or crazy people) tend to do so.
This tendency ends up making our process continually less democratic. There are also two other extremely undemocratic factors in American politics. One is that incumbents are rarely replaced in the Federal and State governments. Once you have a seat in the Senate or in Congress you are rarely replaced. Another is that elected officials can establish non-elected “agencies,” effectively extending their political influence beyond their terms of office.
Because of the fiercely partisan nature of our politics, you can never admit that you were/are wrong. This in turn makes actual compromise very difficult, as it is taken as an admission of inadequacy — as if your Party couldn’t solve everything on its own. Implicit in every debate is the idea that Your Party could fix everything if only the Other Party stopped getting in the way. In fact, any frame that denies the omnicompetence of your Party is likely to fail.
The same goes for Nationalism. Anything you say that can be twisted and made to look “unamerican” (an actual word, I’m not making it up, promise) immediately kills a debate. So humility, inclusivity, and the ability to adapt are all framed as negative in the American political scene. This is mostly because we are event-focused, and anything that doesn’t seem actively patriotic can be portrayed as negative.
Additionally, certain kinds of ethos-reliant rhetorical appeals do not work; you cannot claim to have superior knowledge or ability, even if you possess those things. We have a certain fondness for “experts” of course, but they are almost exclusively used when we agree with them, and we simply ignore them when we disagree, because, like everyone, we hate to admit that someone might know better than we do. In America this is socially acceptable, and, while it sounds cynical, misanthropic and just generally awful, we’ve basically managed to institutionalize ignorance.
So because most voters don’t really care about our rich and robust legal traditions, reason, or any of the other machinery of liberty, the thing that tends to work best in American politics is the “I’m just like you” frame. …and it tends to work precisely because it isn’t true; Americans are almost fanatical when it comes to pretending that class distinctions don’t exist. In this we are like Britain’s differently-evil-twin. We don’t want to actually do anything about class distinctions, but god forbid that you should mention them. So if a public figure appropriates certain symbols of Americana (e.g. eats hot dogs, or takes his kid to a baseball/football/whatever game) or talks in a certain convincing, “down to earth” way, that appeals to the average voter, it’s likely to work, even though we know that it’s a total sham. One reason for this is probably because once you’ve decided that you’re similar to someone, it’s much harder to disagree with them, and a lot of those kinds of decisions are subconscious. It’s also absurdly effective because American politics is dominated by catchphrases, watchwords, and shibboleths etc. etc. so much so that we tend to automatically tune those things out, and this particular frame is not necessarily verbal.
All of what I’ve said so far applies to both parties. However, it’s very neat, tidy and wrong to say that both parties are the same, even if it feels that way sometimes. To someone like myself, who is more libertarian (but please guys, should we ever attain a libertarian utopia, don’t be assholes) than anything else, of course they seem the same, but while they may share certain nauseating similarities, they do attract different kinds of people, and that’s not something that can be ignored.
Depending on the Party, appeals to tradition, to nationalism, to “Freedom” and “Rightness,” are all very popular. Basically, the last hundred years has been about how many Woodrow Wilson speeches you can rip off without anyone noticing. Increasingly the Right tends to talk about things like “restoring our former greatness,” and the Left talks about about fixing society and multi-lateralism. The key in American politics is to choose a frame that makes your opponent look passive and defeatist, regardless of your party.
Again, because our politicians rely so heavily on pathos and ethos to sway voters, the notion of… “piety,” is very important. I don’t mean it in a necessarily religious sense, but in older, more Roman sense. Most public figures spend a great deal of effort on proving their (dubious) moral competence. So most public debates center not around “the issues,” but the people discussing the issues, and their status as symbols for a larger political omnibus…
Obviously my political views have only been confirmed by everything that followed.

…and yeah, it goes on after that. And yeah, I write long letters. And yeah, I start sentences with conjunctions, and I write run-on sentences, and I play fast and loose with punctuation, because, hey, I was a grammar nazi for a long time, and there ain’t no grammar nazi like a reformed grammar nazi.

This is also on Medium. I'm not sure which I want to be using in the future, but it's not so hard to copy-and-paste until I decide.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Newest Year

I don't actually make classical New Year's resolutions. One reason for this is because I think they're pretty much useless; I am a 'concrete goals' sort of girl. Another is that I really don't have the necessary attention span. New Month resolutions are more my speed. 

But -in an attempt to have at least something in common with the rest of the humanity- I've decided that perhaps this is the year to make one. Just one; I don't want to get distracted. So I've promised myself that I'll start blogging regularly again. Because I have all the traditional resolutions (exercising, eating healthy, and just being generally perfect) in the bag already.

Now, I don't actually expect to blog regularly this year, but I'm hoping that a failed New Years resolution will satisfy that niggling feeling that nothing has gone wrong yet and that, therefore, something terrible must happen. This is superstitious in a lot of ways, but I do a lot of dumb things to placate my subconscious and, unfortunately, this is nowhere near the dumbest thing I've done.

So there. I'll be blogging again, but not really. 

(I have no idea what this next year will bring, but so far it's been pretty good.) 

Also, thank you D for making New Years collard greens. I had no idea that was a thing.