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The Failure of Misanthropy: Why Calling People Stupid Is a Stupid Way to Do Politics

MisanthropySome find “I see stupid people” memes to be funny and viscerally satisfying. “Americans are stupid” is a common rallying cry in certain sections of both the right and the left. There’s a whole minor industry in calling the masses stupid and decrying their stupidity. More often than not, those who are doing it are self-declared progressives.

This may be surprising. On the left, it’s easy for us to spot the judgments made by the other side. The “47%” hypothesis is an offensive notion, based on faulty data, that those who vote for Democrats do so because they are lazy and gullible people who want government handouts. The scientifically discredited “Bell Curve” theory holds that certain races are more intelligent than others. We rightly reject that nonsense. Meanwhile, the right accuses the left of intellectual elitism when we make fun of Sarah Palin’s glorification of ignorance, for example. In the right-left clash of civilizations, there’s always a rabbit hole of infinitely regressive condemnation of condemnation.

But in this post, I’m not talking about calling our opponents stupid. That’s probably bad (and the distinction between calling them stupid and calling their arguments stupid is thin). My concern here is with the conclusion that people, in general, are stupid; calling people “sheeple,” lamenting on the easily-misled and consumerist and unreflective state of “the masses,” is a political dead end. If we don’t believe in people’s capacity for understanding and improvement, we’re going to suck energy and vitality from any movement. Worse, we make scapegoating, divisiveness, and violence more likely. Those of us who do so ought to reconsider our relationship to the universe, and to other people.

Part of the problem has to do with media framing and sensationalism. Marty Kaplan’s October 30 Alternet piece makes the fair point that most Americans misunderstand the distribution of wealth in the United States. Apparently, according to Pew research, a majority of Americans believe that 20% of the nation own about half of the nation’s wealth. This is certainly wrong, and that misunderstanding reflects misinformation about wealth distribution and the rich/poor gap. But it doesn’t remotely justify the carnival barker-like headline “You Will Be Shocked at How Ignorant Americans Really Are.” While a sobering sign of misunderstanding, it’s not shocking, nor does it suggest an incorrigible or offensive degree of ignorance.  But Alternet’s editors seem lately to be getting off on calling Americans ignorant. Perhaps they believe it invites web clicks; if it does, it’s because it plays a rather nasty tune of superiority, and invites people to read it precisely because it promises to validate that sense of superiority. But if the concern is to make thinking people aware that most Americans misunderstand the wealth gap, and if the reasons for making readers aware of this misunderstanding is to further the cause of egalitarianism, then playing the “come and see how smarter you are than everybody else” trope seems counterproductive.

And Alternet apparently loves to play the “Americans are ignorant” tune almost as much as they love their inane list titles (surprised I haven’t seen “7 Reasons Americans Are Stupid”) and multiple-page-click-bait articles. On April 8, 2013, Alternet titled a re-post by Lawrence Davidson “Why Americans Are So Ignorant — It’s Not Only Fox News, There Are Some Understandable Reasons for it.” Apparently, the original title of the piece in Consortium News, “The Whys of American Ignorance,” was insufficiently provocative.

And even the original piece is part of the problem. Davidson’s article lists bureaucracy and other social conditioning as reasons Americans are less aware than they should be, but the article is long on diagnosis and short on solutions, making it easily hijacked by those wishing to essentialize American stupidity.

Buzzflash-Truthout editor Mark Karlin’s October 16 piece, “A Modest Proposal: Voters Must Pass a Sanity Test Before Casting a Ballot,” begins a troubling (and questionably ironic) case for a test for voting by suggesting that we “play the game” started by conservatives who want to restrict the voting rights of poor people and minorities. The piece is short, and the Karlin wisely makes sure his proposal has no details whatsoever. Still, it’s a terrible idea if serious, and not a terribly funny joke if not. Arbiters of sanity as gatekeepers of political participation, of course, have a dark and rich history.

I’ve listed only a few examples here, but trust me, the history is long. Whatever the virtues of studying and decrying Americans’ political ignorance in particular contexts, it’s hard to not see the obsessive bullying of the device. The cry of “sheeple” is also a common tool of conspiracy theorists. After all, anyone who doesn’t accept the irrefutable truth that reptillian aliens control all of the world’s governments is clearly a ruminant livestock mammal—just as we’d clearly have single payer health care if Americans weren’t so goddam obtuse.

Misanthropy, anti-humanism, and a shallow rendering of the “false consciousness” thesis have a long history. Socrates’ explanation of misanthropy in the Phaedo is that it occurs as a result of thwarted expectations.  “Misanthropy develops when without art one puts complete trust in somebody thinking the man absolutely true and sound and reliable and then a little later discovers him to be bad and unreliable…and when it happens to someone often…he ends up…hating everyone.” Plato’s Socrates may have a point–that we expect better from our own species and are thus bitterly disappointed when we don’t get it–but he misses a more important one: Knowledge and intellectual capacity are fluid, material, and contingent. Rather than blaming Americans for the results of their overworked and undereducated minds, a more informed perspective identifies miseducation both accidental and deliberate.  Failure to recognize the socially constructed nature of both intelligence and ignorance risks giving a free pass to the elites who, as Reinhold Niebuhr famously pointed out in Moral Man and Immoral Society, deny education to the majority of the population, and then argue that the masses lack the intellectual capacity to participate fully in governance.

What the elites do is one thing; what we do is another. It is the contrast between what rhetoricians refer to as the comic frame and the tragic frame that perhaps offers the most cogent theoretical explanation for this nasty political fatalism. In his 1937 book Attitudes Toward History, the iconoclastic socialist Kenneth Burke proposed that, among frames of acceptance and rejection, the tragic frame is one that sees an adversary’s flaws as inherent and intractable, brooking only destruction: what Chris Smith and Ben Voth describe as a human condition “unfriendly and incapable of understanding.” In contrast, the comic frame sees humans in general, and particularly the humans that contingently irritate us, as flawed in a lighter, less fatalistic way:  in Burke’s words, “the charitable attitude towards people that is required for purposes of persuasion and co-operation . . .”

Of course, rhetorical theory can only go so far in explaining the condescending judgmentalism that draws some of us towards this kind of mass condemnation. The invitational conclusion from the comic frame is ultimately an ethical, rather than a theoretical gesture. It’s an instruction in how to view other people. Publicly declaring, and even privately suspecting, that “most people are too stupid” for progress leaves us unable to control the threshold where suspicion becomes fatalism and, ultimately, where realism becomes surrender.

What if, instead of beginning by decrying the intellectual deficits of “the masses,” we began differently? What if, instead of talking about “those” stupid people, we began by admitting that we are all susceptible to propaganda, that “false consciousness” is a political and social construct, not a condition suffered by some-people-who-obviously-aren’t-us? And what if we framed that knowledge deficit as contingent rather than inevitable, foible rather than fatal, laughable rather than lamentable? That kind of shift requires more work, but burns less energy. The work it requires is an admission of our own imperfections rather than judging others, particularly judging them en masse. More taxing still, perhaps, it requires that we examine the material and ideological causes of misinformation and false consciousness, while at each step in our analysis, reminding ourselves that we are probably not qualitatively more intelligent than those whom we analyze.

There are at least as many examples of human beings performing acts of overwhelming solidarity, self-sacrifice, and collective brilliance as there are of people failing to do those things. Such creativity and solidarity blooms in the most arduous and unlikely of circumstances; often, the worse the external context, the better the results. That hopeful search for our capacity for self-improvement ought to replace the bitter, aloof, and impatient gesture of concluding that the majority of Americans are too stupid to recognize social evil or strive for social justice—and hence, too stupid to deserve it.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.