For any thinking person sometimes it seems as though we’re drowning in a sea of stupidity. Anti-intellectualism has gotten so bad that a growing movement of people believe the Earth is flat, a staggering 12 million Americans believe alien shape sifting lizard people rules us and the president of the most powerful country on Earth is so frequently incorrect that it is hard to keep up with. Anti-intellectuals have managed to root into western culture the idea that intelligence, reason and science are cold, robotic, boring and difficult. Ideas that could save lives are often easily dismissed in favor of theories and conspiracies that appeal to emotion and not reason.
Richard Hofstadter, Dabiel J. Rigney, Diane S. Claussen defined three types of anti-intellectualism:
- Religious: Viewing various scientific endeavors as unholy, sinful or against scripture in various ways.
- Populist: Undue skepticism of ‘the establishment’ and intellectual elites.
- Unreflective Instrumentalism: Valuing education that leads to immediate monetary or material gain over humanities and social sciences.
A historical examination shows that anti-intellectualism has been been a problem since the Enlightenment:
For all these thinkers, rationalism was the source of the evil: it led to ‘‘materialism,’’ to utopias, to the supremely pernicious idea that man is able to change things. It killed instinct and vital forces; it destroyed the almost carnal connection between the members of an ethnic community and made one live in an unreal world. (Zeev Sternhell)
It doesn’t help that people are entertained by people acting stupidly, from simple slapstick to dangerous stunts (Jackass 1 and 2 made over 130 million at the box office). The success of these types of movies and T.V. shows helps glorify stupidity and enhance the cultural tumour of anti-intellectualism. The dangerous results of this anti-intellectualism are not hard to see:
- Anti-Vaccination: The Anti-Vaccination movement, started by one falsified study, has caused the resurgence of preventable diseases like whooping cough, rubella and measles worldwide. Thousands of people are getting sick and many are dying as a result.
- Global Warming: We are on the brink of a global disaster. If global warming continues we will see more frequent and severe weather, higher death rates due to illness exasperated by heat (such as cardiovascular and kidney diseases), worsened air pollution, more frequent animal extinctions, more acidic oceans and higher sea levels.
Anti-Intellectualism is linked to lower quality of life (human development index), higher incarceration rates and high teen pregnancy rates. The Catholic church and other religions have put us behind scientifically, by some estimates, as much as a thousand years.
Given the strong and pervasive nature of anti-intellectualism prevalent in modern Western Culture fighting it could be a daunting task for it will require a multifaceted approach that attacks many part of western culture itself. The first step is to start taking it more seriously. The current backlash against the Trump administration and its supporters could have the hidden benefit of showing everyone why anti-intellectualism is such a big problem. But more raising awareness is needed to truly counter it. Everyone is capable fighting the fallacies common to anti-intellectuals such as appeal to emotion or fear, pandering and appeal to emotion.
In fact, especially in a democracy, the fight against anti-reason can ultimately be won only at the grassroots, via a general population that recognizes it, rejects it, and demands more rational public policy that reflects real human interests. (David Niose)
Niose recognizes four areas in western culture that need changing to stem the rising tide of anti-intellectualism:
- The Government: Using our votes and pressuring our representatives to pass rational policies.
- The Corporate Sector: Using media to distract people and promote mass consumption and using their wealth manipulate government.
- Fundamentalist Religion: The sometimes vague nature of religious scripture can leave it open to interpretation leading to opposition of everything from music and beauty products to stem cell research.
- Ourselves: Recognizing our irrational thinking and not letting it lead us.
The corporate sector also realizes that an entertained and poorly informed population is much less likely to engage in political activity that might oppose corporate-friendly public policy. Distracted citizens will passively allow large corporate interests to dominate government. As such, anti-intellectualism is the magic weapon that the corporate sector has used to maintain control. (Niose)
I would suggest a fifth approach: Making intellectualism more appealing, even sexy. In Western culture sexy is currently tied to wealth and beauty, a standard defined primarily by the mass media. The entirely impossible modern standards of sexy where women are expected to be impossibly thin and men are expected to be buff and/or ‘rugged’ and both must dress a certain way (usually requiring wealth). All of these modern standards of sexy are purely physical. Magazines don’t feature cover models for their IQ and very few movies and television shows make their main characters sexy based on their intelligence (although this is slowly changing). A shift in appeal to intellect as attractive would have enormously good long term benefits for everyone.
Whatever our approach stemming the tide of anti-intellectualism is in everyone’s best interest. A cultural change won’t happen overnight and our human nature wants us to take the easy route but anti-intellectualism is a dangerous weed we must all do our part in rooting out, our future depends on it.