Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
To fully understand this point (that, as proponents of social equality, we are seen as representatives of the overemphasised intellect), it is important to bear the recent history of our species in mind. We have undergone more change in the last one hundred years than any previous century (as per Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns), and as primates this inevitably means a certain amount of stress added to our lives. We are creatures of habit, denied the social stability that is natural to us. Our technological advancements, as well as allowing us to connect to an precedented degree, have also made us more aware of the global scale of human suffering. Regardless of whether the world is a better place or not, it is certainly a more tense and fearful one. Many of us, ill equipped to deal with these circumstances, seek scapegoats in various forms on which to blame our discomfort.
Now think about what a bully the intellect has become, what its overreach has done and continues to do to society, to our children, to the planet. To some people, resisting social equality - the most publicly visible application of the intellect - is synonymous with opposing what it is fair to say is among the most negative influences on our development today. They are heroes in their own stories, standing up against an evil enemy, and they’re not entirely unjustified!
To clarify, I’m not saying that any of this is our fault - the overreach is a cultural phenomenon, a consequence of industrialisation. What I’m trying to explain is why we encounter the resistance that we do to the perfectly reasonable propositions we make about how people should treat one another. It’s important that we understand how the defining aspect of our way of identifying is a figurehead for a genuine problem that all humans are facing.
I’m also not saying that this reasoning is conscious on the part of our opponents. Did we, as supporters of the application of intellect, consciously make the decision to over-apply it in the world? No, certainly not. That doesn’t mean we weren’t moved to contribute to it though, as a function of identification. Likewise, they resist from a subconscious, intuitive need to limit intellectuality. And to explain that to themselves or others would require an intellectualisation contrary to that urge which is driving them. They’re responding to emotion and intuition, which is why they can seem so nonsensical to us, appearing to almost revel in their irrationality. So we can’t expect this information to come from them - our medium of communication itself is offensive. (And, to be fair and balanced, this is an intellect-specific analysis of a problem that’s being experienced across all intelligences and their means of communication. I look forward to experiencing the kinaesthetic-oriented interpretive dance version some day!)
And I’m definitely not trying to justify any violations of personal liberty, especially acts of violence, committed by those people opposing equality. Immoral behaviour is still exactly that.
What I’m proposing is that there are fundamental subconscious energies and interactions at work on all of us that we haven’t been paying attention to. Think of it like the fictitious (yet entirely credible) science of psychohistory, which forms the basis of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. The idea is that there are rules which govern how societies develop, fractal system of checks and balances that are invisible to individuals in their private workings but both grow out of and influence them. Our society has swung too far in one direction, so a contrary force has arisen to oppose it. Or imagine an ecosystem. What happens when one species is able to multiply beyond the environment’s capacity to sustain it? There’s an aggressive compensating factor, a famine or disease, to bring back balance.
An advantage to these perfectly feasible, rational ways of seeing the current situation is that they allow us to go beyond the feeling that our opponents are attacking us personally (as those who identify with the intellect, we can experienced an insult to it as an insult to us). Seeing through that, we can make dispassionate, compassionate and - most importantly - balanced choices about what to do next. First though, before we do that, let’s take a look at how this picture of a natural and necessary counter-intellectual movement as I have described it fits with the facts of the situation. As a basic summary of counter-progressive conservatism internationally, it’s not at all unfair to say that its most active proponents are those living in rural and less diverse areas, where the objectivity of intellect plays a less important role in day-to-day interactions, because people are far more similar to each other. Generally, they’re older too, which means they’re more likely to have a point of comparison for less intellectually driven times (I’m only 39 and see a big difference between the milieu I was educated in and the still further increased stress on today’s high school students). Age would also account for an adaptation later in life to technological advancements, particularly the internet. The joys, challenges and distractions of technology are ideal for becoming increasingly identified with the intellect. The same is true of identifying with a minority group, whether racial, sexual or gender, because functioning effectively within such groups requires self-analysis. Counter-progressive conservatives rarely self-identify with minorities. And finally, they are usually not in professions that require a high level of intellectual acuity. Please remember, this is not a comment on intelligence, which is necessarily diverse (a farmer can be as intelligent about crops as a lawyer is about law). The only point to take away from all of these observations is that conservative people are less likely to be strongly identified with their intellects. It plays a less important role in their lives and sense of identity than it does in ours, which is not only natural but also positive given the need to lessen the intellect’s role. This is also exactly the demographic where one would expect a pushback against intellect’s overreach to arise - in those least invested in it, most likely to feel its excessive impingement on their lives, even if they’re unable to articulate what it is.
I’d like to focus on the most recent U.S. election as an apotheosis of the counter-intellectual movement. This is because of the United States’ role as the most internationally influential nation, but also because this president’s victory was a wake-up call of the most palpable kind. We aren’t surprised at the continuing support for the Russian leader. The Brexit leave vote and the Philippine’s choice of leader are unfortunate occurrences that could indicate a trend. But when someone with the character traits of the current U.S. president is voted into office, with open pride on the part of no small percentage of the population, it is nothing short of a paradigm shift (let’s just take a second to sit with the idea that what we’ve been feeling since the election is the completely justified shock of a new paradigm coming into existence). It borders on the inconceivable, at least for those of us oriented intellectually (and perhaps it’s possible to understand the jubilation of those oriented otherwise somewhat more now).
It is difficult to imagine someone who embodies the antithesis of intellect more fully than the U.S. president. He makes up facts and gives flimsy or no justification. His emotions rule his responses in argument. His focus is on surface image rather than depth of analysis, and his proposed solutions to problems are a reflection of this. Like the Russian and Philippine leaders, he identifies with the masculinity of his body over any abstract conceptual quality. And he’s entirely self-interested, incapable of objectivity. Could a more suitable figurehead for a movement against the intellect be found? He is our mirror image on the opposite side of the equation, our Other made incarnate.
During his campaign, there are countless examples of his supporters giving up intellectual rigour of any kind. Tautology abounds, contradiction is irrelevant. It’s clearly documented that the appeal of his speeches is how they make people feel, how they confirm the feelings that the listeners have. To give credit where credit is due, as is the case for the lead speaker at a protest march, it takes skill to externalise the emotions of large crowds, though note that it’s not a particularly intellectual skill.
There was also no concern for control or consistency - intellectual considerations - during the campaign. When the basest emotions saw expression in hate speech or violence, they were neither officially praised or disavowed. Let’s be fair though, supporters of the now-president range from the openly nazi to the morally well-intentioned, which is another important point. They are not united under any one ideology or vision other than wanting some unnamed thing to change (that I am positing here is the overreach of intellect). This can also be seen in the way that the opposition candidate was targeted. An adequate mainstream politician, her orthodoxy and intellectual capacity were used against her by weaving a web of potential conspiracies - some ridiculous - meant to reveal a conniving intelligence. She was scapegoated as an example of the hypocrisy of the intellect, to people averse to deeper analysis anyway.
To talk briefly about the administration as it stands now, it is painfully clear that intellectual intelligence is playing a minimal role. From the beginning, clarity of intention has been lacking. It’s uncertain whether they’re idiots or evil masterminds. Appointees for cabinet positions are mystifying, not because of conservative views that candidates hold but because of their often complete lack of knowledge in a field they would ideally be leaders in. The birth of the term “alternate fact” and the overriding of evidence by the president’s “deeply held beliefs” give a taste of the disdain in which intellect is held, the overall effect being an eroding of the very medium of intellectual communication itself, the meaning of language. Perhaps the perfect metaphor for this, though, is his refusal to accept official daily intelligence reports.
Hopefully this is enough evidence to encourage you to at least consider the possibility that we’re dealing with a subconscious, society-wide, natural aversion to the intellectual intelligence, in response to its overemphasis. I do realise that this requires a leap of faith of sorts. There is no scientific proof that this is how things actually operate. I remind you of two things though. First, how you felt on first hearing of the current U.S. president’s victory. If you’re anything like me, a strong element of that feeling was disbelief that the world could work this way. Shockingly, it can. We are up against something outside our expectation and experience here, and can either bemoan the hardship of that or make it a precious opportunity to expand our conception of what’s possible. If there is any truth in what I’m proposing then that expansion of understanding means a vital, continuing acknowledgement of realities outside of what we consider normal, an acknowledgement and acceptance of the Other. That’s the challenge I believe is being presented to us here, and if we don’t embrace it we risk having a future totally outside of our influence being forced on us.
Secondly in an effort to convince, consider the idea that, if it was simply a matter of possessing the relevant information, the problem would already be solved (which I’ve tried to source, but the closest I could get was Einstein’s “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move towards higher levels” - close but not quite the point I want to make). We’ve had accurate data on the dangers that climate change poses to us, for example, for well over a two decades. Yet not only is change painfully slow due to multiple entrenched social factors, there is a movement to outright deny the facts. Information alone isn’t working. The application of intellect to the world, which, in the case of climate change among many other things, is what has precipitated the problem in the first place, is not where to look for the solution. A new approach is needed. Einstein, a huge proponent of multiple intelligences, certainly didn’t mean a more intense intellectual focus when he used the term “a new way of thinking”. Whether my overall explanation speaks to you or not, that the time has come to employ a different tactic should be obvious.
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