Stupid people are usually too stupid to know they’re stupid. Ignorance can be bliss for them. Alas, the half-stupid aren’t nearly so lucky. They’re smart enough to know they’re not that smart, but too lazy to do anything about it. Perhaps this is why they’re so often attracted to the cheap moralism and silly simplicity found in reductive ideologies. These are, after all, fundamentally lazy people, TED-talk watching skim-readers, who secretly can’t remember the last time they read a serious book cover-to-cover.
Ideology is the fig leaf the half-stupid use to conceal their essentially shallow understanding of the world. It’s what allows them to have an opinion about everything, despite having an in-depth knowledge of practically nothing. The notion of epistemic privilege, so central to the identity politics of our age, is especially attractive to the half-stupid, as it allows them to further avoid the difficult task of thinking (e.g., I know, in advance, that whatever this white guy says is wrong because of who he is; just as I know, in advance, that whatever this indigenous woman says is right because of who she is).
The moral grandstanding of the half-stupid is surely fired, to some extent, by a love of justice; but it’s fired, too, by petty resentments and an anti-intellectual hatred of thinking. Just as less successful siblings often console themselves with the belief that they’re cooler than their more successful siblings, the half-stupid often console themselves with the belief that they’re more moral than us.
I know sociology profs who can talk about systemic social problems, like sexism and racism, without making any of their students feel like group representatives. They can do this because they’re intellectuals, first and foremost. They can do this because they’re adept at dealing with the paradoxical nature of reality. They can do this because they’re good at binocular thinking: at seeing “the forest” and “the trees” at one and the same time. Alas, half-stupid profs aren’t nearly so good at this. A former student of mine experienced this first-hand last year at Concordia University.
She wears the hijab. And this makes her rather obviously Muslim. A well-meaning progressive prof—who, as she puts it, “talks about privilege all the time”—calls upon her in class whenever they’re talking about anything remotely related to Islam (e.g., Islamophobia, I.S.I.S., women in Islam, etc.). As you might expect, being habitually treated like a group representative makes her profoundly uncomfortable. Makes other students uncomfortable too. The same prof calls on black students for “the black perspective” on a regular basis, much to their chagrin, and she systematically silences young white men who dare to “take up too much space.” She never seems to remember her students’ names. What a surprise.
When your ideas about the world have evolved, sometimes painfully, over the course of decades—through trial and error, mistakes, reflection, reading, learning—it’s incredibly insulting to have someone imply that your politics are a mere function of your biography. And yet it’s hard to deny that the two are interconnected. For instance, I was disappointed to learn, in Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography (2003), that most of Nietzsche’s deep-seated hatred of antisemitism was based, not so much on general principle, as on his visceral contempt for his virulently antisemitic brother-in-law.
In his outstanding article on antislavery activism in The Journal of Southern History (November 1990)—“The Experiential Basis of the Northern Antislavery Impulse”—historian John Huston demonstrates that the vast majority of those who joined the antislavery cause did so, not because they were convinced by a detached, theoretical, Enlightenment critique of the institution of slavery, but rather because they were radicalized by a visceral, traumatizing experience, wherein they were exposed, usually by accident, to the brutality and violence of slavery up-close-and-personal (e.g., watching a drunken slaveholder beat his slave to death whilst vacationing in Newport).
Humanities profs love to go on and on about how they teach critical thinking. But if you ask them what critical thinking is, you’ll invariably get a garbled, fuzzy response. The root of the problem, to my mind, is that critical thinking can’t be taught. Not directly. Because it’s an emergent property of a process. Critical thinking is a byproduct of perspective. At their best, the Humanities provide us with much needed perspective on what is. But what students do with that perspective is up to them.
The worst Humanities profs are, in essence, Sunday School teachers teaching a catechism class. These are, in my experience, precisely the profs who go on and on about how they’re teaching their students critical thinking. By contrast, the best Humanities profs do not seek to indoctrinate their students; they merely seek, instead, to provide them with perspective. There are various ways to do this. The study of history is perhaps the best. Regardless, before you can think critically about what is, you must first think about what was, what is elsewhere, and what might be. Without a point of comparison, thinking critically is quite literally impossible. A fish must first realize he’s swimming in water before he can think critically about water.
Real intellectuals surprise you from time to time. They praise something you didn’t expect them to praise. They attack something you didn’t expect them to attack. And they change their minds occasionally. For instance, an old friend of mine recently jettisoned his longstanding skepticism concerning climate change. His reasons for doing so were thoroughly intellectual: “I used to be a ‘climate skeptic’ until I realized that the argumentative patterns of ‘climate skeptics’ are the same as that of ‘Holocaust Revisionists.’ While I can’t do climate science, I can do pattern recognition.” Alas, dogmatic people never surprise you like this. All to the contrary, the dogmatic person’s position on pretty much any subject is entirely predictable—indeed, tediously and nauseatingly predictable.
An old college buddy of mine is a case in point. He was always quite politically conservative, even when we were in undergrad, but he was an intellectual back then, first and foremost, and that made arguing with him till three in the morning thoroughly delightful, regardless of our differences. But arguing with him is no longer delightful. He’s become dogmatically neoconservative in middle age, and, as a consequence, conversation with him has become pointless, repetitive, and boring—despite the fact that he’s extremely well-read and highly intelligent.
On good days, talking to him is like talking to an answering machine that answers all questions with one of ten prerecorded responses; on bad days, it’s like talking to a doctor who prescribes the same three prescriptions to all of his patients, all day long, regardless of what they say to him. He used to be a conservative intellectual. Now he’s just a conservative.
An ideologue is a person possessed by an idea; a philosopher is a person in possession of a few ideas. This is precisely why philosophers who disagree about religion or politics can be friends, whilst ideologues cannot. The ideologue’s inability to brook disagreement is rooted in his inability to see himself as anything other than the incarnation of an idea. When you challenge an ideologue’s idea, it’s an existential threat: you’re challenging everything that he thinks he is. By contrast, the philosopher cannot be reduced to her ideas. And she knows it.
Plato was acutely interested in sociological categories and psychological types. All of the major human types are captured and cataloged in his dialogues with cold-eyed precision. The charming host of The Symposium is a case in point. Agathon is a type: an intellectual lightweight, with a flair for language, who’s smart enough to suspect that he’s not all that smart, a good-looking guy who loves pretty things and doesn’t care if they’re real, the sort of guy who values beauty far more than he’s ever valued truth.
Eryximachus, the annoying doctor in The Symposium, is also a familiar type: an overbearing know-it-all with a stick up his ass and a PhD in Being Boring, a narrow-minded expert who seems to know everything there is to know about the little fenced-in patch of intellectual property he calls home, but practically nothing about the world outside of it.
Phaedrus is also a type: a self-absorbed narcissist who celebrates love, not because he’s a romantic, but because he’s noticed that people do lots of nice things for you when they’re in love with you. These are flawed characters. No doubt about that. Agathon is a bit of a tool, Phaedrus is a bit of a dick, and Eryximachus is a bit of a douche; and yet you can’t help but like all of them. Because they’re so much more than just types.
Like all of Plato’s characters, these guys are thoroughly human, entirely believable, and utterly unforgettable. These aren’t cardboard cut-outs or sock puppets; these are real people, people you recognize. You never forget their humanity when they’re in the midst of a heated debate, regardless of whether or not you agree with them. Alas, the same cannot be said of a heated debate in Social Media Land. We slip into demonization and nastiness far too easily there.
My friend Jean-Louis says this is an inescapable feature of the electronic medium. And maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s just too easy to be an asshole online. Regardless, the sociological paradox Plato resolved long ago remains unchanged. It sits there on the path before us like a stumbling block. We can’t get around it. So we might as well face up to it.
To study people as a group, we have to place them into categories: individuals must cease to be individuals. They must become representatives of this or that category. If you want to know humanity the way an entomologist knows butterflies, you’ll have to learn how to see forests not trees. But if you want to be a decent human being, who treats people with respect, you’ll have to learn how to see trees not forests. Because people are not butterflies. And few things are more dehumanizing than being treated like the representative of a category. Individuals want to be treated like individuals.
Plato figured out how to talk about the complicated relationships between people and power, ideas and institutions, without dehumanizing us. We’ve yet to figure out how to do this in Social Media Land.
—John Faithful Hamer, Being a Philosopher in Social Media Land (2017)