Stupidity: A Malady of the Cultural Elite

We live in something of a meritocracy, and our rulers believe they are by far the most enlightened and well-informed people who ever lived. For that reason they feel entitled to make the aspirations of the present day, or what they consider such, the compulsory standard for public life. They view the claim that there are principles that transcend those aspirations as the sort of thing that led to 9/11, and treat the past as worth considering only as something to escape from or a foreshadowing of the glories of the present.

Nonetheless, a variety of conditions, from the state of education and the arts to that of political discussion, makes it evident that Western society is growing less and less able to think clearly and effectively. That’s a big problem, and one that’s hard to deal with, because it is difficult to cure oneself of mindlessness. Still, we should do our best to understand what’s going on.

A basic part of the problem is that the kind of meritocracy we have leads to stupidity. Its effect is that local and subordinate groupings are deprived of talent and respect, and the leadership at the top becomes unable to think or function outside established understandings. The people at the top mostly went to the same highly competitive schools, where they were all told the same things, and it’s taken all their effort and devotion to get where they are today. The result is that they’re absorbed in their social function and setting, and would find it very difficult to adopt an independent perspective if the desire to do so ever entered their heads.

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The results are evident in our public life. How often do our leaders say or write anything that would be of interest if a different name were attached? Can anyone imagine Hilary Clinton thinking something she isn’t supposed to think? And to get to the bottom line, do our rulers give the impression that they know what’s going on or what to do about it?

Naturally, meritocracy isn’t the only culprit. There are other factors at work that also stem from the nature of a society ruled by technology and technocratic ideals. Their effect is that the understandings that guide thought are becoming increasingly nonfunctional:

  • Electronic diversions train people out of the habit of consecutive thought. Tweets, texting, and multitasking mean discussions never get to the point and are hardly discussions at all.
  • Rejection of transcendent standards leads to denial of the good, beautiful, and true in favor of rhetoric and power. That means the subordination of thought to politics, propaganda, and partisanship.
  • Bureaucracy, commerce, and the media absorb functions once performed by individuals, families, and tradition. Instead of the arts of life, which require thought, we have consumer goods, social programs, and industrially-produced pop culture. The result is that thought becomes less important as a day-to-day matter.
  • Thought requires engagement with reality. Electronic entertainment and the distance between cause and effect in a complex globalized society mean people do not engage reality, while skepticism as to truth means they consider it theoretically impossible to do so.
  • A technological approach to society means mechanical unity of components, and thought and discussion are not mechanical. Common histories, understandings, and commitments, as well as freedom of association, are necessary for complex and subtle activities such as scholarly inquiry and speculative thought, and technocracy disrupts such things.
  • Thought depends on recognizing and applying patterns, and technology rejects pattern recognition in favor of simple relations of cause and effect. To make matters worse, relating individual cases to patterns means stereotyping and discrimination. Ideals of diversity and inclusiveness, which draw their institutional strength from the technocratic desire to turn people into interchangeable components, thus require suppression of the habits of mind that make thought possible.
  • Thought also depends on standards of cogency, which are disfavored because they are at odds with diversity. People want to include marginalized voices, so they feel called upon to treat thoughts nonjudgmentally, as long as they are politically acceptable.
  • In any event, standards require effort, so they’re at odds with consumerism, comfort, and lifestyle libertarianism, and the technological outlook makes those the goals of life. Such an attitude may help explain the recent startling decline of academic achievement among thoroughly assimilated Jewish and Japanese Americans.

If America and the West are getting stupider as a result of the basic nature and tendency of our society, including the measures that have been adopted to increase the intelligence with which it is run, we have to ask about the future. Some say that the no-nonsense Chinese will take over everything, others that genetic engineering will save the day, still others predict a period of general disorder, something like the Middle East but on a global scale.

It seems unlikely the Chinese will take over, since they have their own problems. For starters, selective abortion and the one-child rule mean they’re going to have a huge population of young men with no prospect of marriage, and an even huger population of elderly people with no one to support and look after them. Nor does genetic engineering look like a cure-all for stupidity, if only because the problems are mostly cultural and grow out of an understanding of man and society that reduces human life to an engineering problem. So the obvious outcome of present trends in the West is growing incoherence of thought, leading to nonfunctional public life and a retreat into inward-turning networks of survival. We’ve tried to turn Iraq into Minnesota, but it’s more likely we’ll turn Minnesota into Iraq.

What’s needed, then, is a basic change of cultural direction that allows better things to develop. That’s not impossible. Intelligence is more functional than stupidity, and cooperation works better than chaos, so why shouldn’t they have a competitive advantage?

What’s caused the problem is the habit of viewing the world exclusively as a mechanical system. That approach has been fruitful in the physical sciences, but it has no place for intelligence, meaning, or agency, so it defeats itself when applied to the world as a whole. It can deal with protons, but not with physics as a science carried on by intelligent human beings, so in the long run it undermines even science.

Man is rational, at least to the extent that if he drives intelligence and meaning out of his understanding of the world he will eventually drive them out of his way of life. What we need, then, is a fundamental change of understanding that makes intelligence and meaning integral to how things are. To be functional and stable the new understanding must be concrete enough to give determinate results, and to deserve confidence it must have a way that can be counted on to settle disruptive questions.

That sounds a lot like Catholicism. Things haven’t been going well for the Church lately, but we’re not the only ones with problems. In the long run basic principles determine results, so if we can remain true to what we are then even from a purely this-worldly standpoint we have advantages that the forces of secular modernity can’t match. The conversion of the Roman Empire became final when thinkers like Augustine found they needed the Church to make sense of life and the world. What works best wins out, so there are reasons to expect something similar to happen again.

Editor’s note: Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.


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