Friday, 3 February 2012

Stupid is as stupid does

As anyone who’s ever watched A Few Good Men, The Social Network or The West Wing can attest, Aaron Sorkin knows his way around a barnstorming speech. One of the best examples of this came in a live televised debate during the final season of his presidential drama, between Democratic Congressman Matt Santos and Republican Senator Arnold Vinick.

After reeling off an extensive list of liberal accomplishments, Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) declared: “…when you try to hurl the word 'liberal' at my feet, as if it were dirty, something to run away from, something that I should be ashamed of, it won't work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and wear it as a badge of honour.”

Now, it turns out that liberals can wear more than just the label with pride. They can also take comfort in the fact that they’re smarter than their political opponents, according to a new study by Canadian psychologists. In a paper published by Psychological Science, the researches have determined that right-wingers tend to be less intelligent than their liberal counterparts. Finding that people with low childhood intelligence are more susceptible to racist and homophobic rhetoric, the study suggests that conservative politics act as a “gateway” into more extreme prejudices – in much the same way that conservatives believe a couple of joints invariably lead to a belt strap around the bicep.

Having studied the views and opinions of over 15,000 test subjects, the authors have concluded that right-wing rhetoric makes people with a low capacity for reasoning feel safer. The academics responsible for the study report that “Cognitive abilities are critical in forming impressions of other people and in being open minded. Individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate towards more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo [which] provide a sense of order.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in the increasingly divisive world of American politics, where liberalism has been successfully portrayed as some kind of mental disorder by a political party which has managed to make a virtue out of being incurious. The Simpsons Movie scored a big laugh from ‘President Schwarzenegger’ telling his advisors “I was elected to lead, not to read.” But no-one was chuckling when one-time presidential candidate Herman Cain told supporters in New Hampshire "We need a leader, not a reader." Just imagine putting the big red button in hands that refuse to turn the pages of a book.

For the Republican party, such a celebration of wilful ignorance was nothing new. George W Bush spent eight years waging a one-man war against intellectual rigour, ultimately coasting into a second term because 57% of undecided voters felt that they’d rather have a beer with the incumbent President than Senator Kerry. When he made his famous "You're either with us or against us…” speech, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, he was celebrated by his followers for taking such a decisive stance. But his unwillingness to understand the deeper objections behind aggressive military action was symptomatic of the black-and-white nature of the conservative worldview.

Meanwhile, the term ‘liberal elite’ was successfully forced into the political lexicon. This cynical move effectively branded those with a complex understanding of the issues as aloof intellectuals, out of touch with the common man. It’s easy to roll your eyes at those wacky Americans, until you consider how much of this anti-intellectualism is already seeping into our own political discourse.

In the mind of most conservatives, there’s only room for definitives and certainty. After all, why waste time debating the nuances and ethics of the issues, when you could be locking them up, sending them back or letting them hang? Of course, there’s also a worry that a more complex discussion of the issues might identify the root causes. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but that would involve much more hard work and soul searching.

Interestingly, the conservative press like to invoke the name of George Orwell’s Thought Police whenever the subject of political correctness rears its unconventionally attractive head. If they had their way, there’d be no need for ‘thought police’, in a world where people either refuse to think, or simply lack the capacity to do so. And that’s the main flaw with this otherwise illuminating research. It overlooks the fact that there are two kinds of conservatives – the leaders, and the mindless flock willing to trot along in their shadow.

“Don’t worry yourself with the facts and the detail,” they seem to tell the party faithful, “We’ll do the thinking so you don’t have to.” The true darkness at the heart of contemporary conservative ideology is that it hides its genuine intellect under a bushel of ignorance. Like Les Dawson pretending to be a shit pianist, it takes great talent to be convincingly inept. The conservative politicians and commentators aren’t as stupid as they’d like to look. Quite the opposite, in fact. They’re playing a role, wearing the village idiot’s hat, in order to convince the voters that they’re in good, if simple, company. Like wolves in sheeple’s clothing. Which begs the question, if they don’t even believe their own rhetoric, why should anyone else?

1 comment:

  1. As one of those "wacky Americans," I can say I grew up looking at Europeans as a shining beacon of hope. When I was stuck in the rurals of Illinois with little to no intellectual curiosity (and wore it as a badge of honor), at least I could look to your side of the pond and be reassured Planet Earth had a future. So I can only hope your country doesn't devolve into the same horrible political freakshow that America has become.