We’re not allowed to say ‘stupid’ any more, of course, because it’s ‘élitist’. But isn’t that what most of the arguments for Brexit are? And shouldn’t we be allowed to call them out as that, rather than hiding behind other, more weasily words for fear of seeming arrogant?
‘Stupid’ doesn’t necessarily mean that people who say stupid things are dumb. Intelligent people can have stupid beliefs as well: usually because they’re not able to get at the facts, or are deliberately manipulated by the media, or haven’t been taught to think things through. (The idea that a trade deal with the USA will make us free-er than our present arrangements with the EU is an example. Read up on ‘informal imperialism’.) And often the people peddling ‘stupid’ ideas know perfectly well what they are, but are nonetheless using them to exploit this state of ignorance for their own purposes. (E.g., I presume, the allegedly clever Boris Johnson.) Lastly, you can have intelligent – if sometimes complicated – reasons for believing in things that only seem stupid on the surface. It was deep thought, for example, that revealed to us that the earth isn’t flat. Much of the case for Brexit, however, and most of the arguments against a second referendum based on present knowledge, are objectively stupid. And so, I’m beginning to suspect, are the great majority of people’s views about almost anything. Which poses the question: wtf can we élitists do about it?
My own doubts about the fundamental rationality of the human species were first sown after hearing an interview on American all-night radio in the year 2000, which I retailed a few years ago on this blog: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/22/btl/. What mainly struck and shocked me was this final protest of the interviewee, after the obvious error of his argument had been pointed out to him: ‘I’m a free American and can believe whatever I like’. To me that was a new and startling understanding of ‘democracy’, and now of course in retrospect sheds considerable light on Trump and his admirers. Since 2000 these doubts about human rationality have been augmented by much of the stuff I read on the internet – Facebook, tweets, BTL comments and so on: nearly always semi-literate – which seem demonstrably and self-evidently ‘stupid’; at least to an ‘élitist’ like me. They’re also far more common than I would at one time have guessed. How representative are they of ‘ordinary people’ – and voters? Reading them can lead one to lose what little faith one ever had in democracy. I’m going that way.
Up until now I’ve always felt the answer lay in better education: especially political education. Another solution might be to require a certain level of measurable ‘intelligence’ in people before they’re allowed to vote: except that I don’t believe that intelligence really is ‘measurable’. If it could be measured early on – in vitro, for example – we could perhaps deny the dumbest children any education, so that they couldn’t read or write their tweets and BTL comments. No, of course not; I’ve been watching too many TV programmes about ‘eugenics’ recently. Which means that we have to come back to childhood and early adult education: in Politics, obviously; but also – and perhaps most essentially – in Logic.
Of course the present-day ‘populist’ reaction against educated people – the ‘Establishment’, ‘experts’, High Court judges and the like – is a barrier to that; as are the use of the word ‘élite’ to dismiss all of them as a self-serving incubus on society, and the inability – exploited by the likes of Trump – to differentiate between ‘fake’ and (mostly) true news. This wave of ‘know-nothingness’ seems overwhelming just now. Whatever the solution to it may be, I’m beginning to doubt whether pandering to ‘anti-élitism’ is really going to help. Some élites should be respected – academics (in general), I would say; but then I would, wouldn’t I? And, secondly: perhaps stupidity should be named for what it is. Even at the risk of giving offence.