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.