Off-Topic: Anti-Intellectualism

Or as I like to call it: Pro-Foolishness

tbh both these fellows look sus (the beefcake is supposed to look like the relatable working-man, who did NOT skip leg day.)

So for the past few years (for some unknown unfathomable reason) I’ve become increasingly concerned by, and wanting to learn more about Anti-Intellectualism (with a smidgen of irony I’m just going to say Anti-Int as a shorthand. Anti-Int is a political movement or ideology of undermining, opposing, or even persecuting ‘intellectual’ institutions, groups, and individuals associated with intellectualism, as in Universities, Academics, specialists, and experts, and sometimes media.

Why Tho?

The first question of my journey of understanding was: Just Why? Of any ideology you can have, why literally be opposed to smart people or the institutions associated with wisdom and teaching?

At first I thought perhaps it could just the net effect of politicians often being opposed to the suggestions or input of academics. For example see the Star Wars saga (not the movies this time) where the US government was convinced of the potential of a massive project of missile defence which could effectively render nuclear weapons obsolete. The primary problem was that the project was scientifically and technologically impossible. (There were also political issues of potentially destabilizing international relations but I’ll stay on topic).

The above is an issue of where Science conflicted with Politics, but its not exactly an example of Anti-Int, except not directly – (In my opinion the disregard of Scientific opinion and ultimately reality is Anti-Int)

Similar examples could be made in history where Religion has clashed with Science – specific conflicts aren’t necessarily Anti-Int. However a case could be made than many Religions engage in Anti-Int efforts to avoid undermining their own belief system.

So my research and reflection continued and I discovered that at its heart Anti-Int is in effect anti-accountability and in its extreme anti-reality. I hope I don’t have to explain why politicians or pernicious individuals might want to avoid accountability. In terms of anti-reality this might be harder to explain briefly, but there is a subset of narcissistic belief where people genuinely believe that there is no objective reality – there is simply the will or perception of the powerful (and of course the narcissist is most powerful) who impose their reality on the rest of the world. If this seems a bit far-fetched, consider that this is the psychology of many dictators and cult-leaders.

For the sake of all our sanities I’ll focus on the accountability explanation for most of this Anti-Int discussion.

If you’re wondering how Anti-Int is anti-accountability, consider that Academics are often the source of general scepticism and criticism especially of governments, large institutions, culture and societal systems. The same could be said of the Media – technically media gets its own sort of attention in politics in discussions around Free-Press, unsurprisingly Anti-Int and media-silencing efforts almost always go hand in hand.

Because Academics and Experts are typically smaller in population and don’t hold much direct power, the immediate cost of being ‘anti’ is usually not high. Discrediting and undermining intellectualism is not usually seen as offensive, nor typically upsetting to a large enough population to lose political power.

So how does it work?

I was kinda disturbed when I did some reading, because I’d forgotten that part of school where they teach you about authoritarian regimes that literally murdered and persecuted intellectuals. Its not my intention with this blog to list all the specific crimes and which regimes did such things (although a brief mention of Nazi Germany is necessary) however it was and still can be very common in authoritarian regimes to engage in violence and persecution towards academics and experts. Techniques range from straight up murder, intimidation, scholastic terrorism (engaging in prejudiced rhetoric which encouraged vigilante violence) specifically targeting the educated among known political opponents.

Fascist ideology such as Nazi Germany engaged in a slightly different form of Anti-Int where Academia was co-opted into supporting the regime. Scientific endeavours where encouraged if they benefited and suppressed if they did not.

Also in a move which will move us into modern democratic Anti-Intellectual Nazi Fascists were skilled at weaponizing conspiracy theories to prop up the regime. Like me, you might ask ‘How does that help?’ So here’s the method – firstly embracing and encouraging unfounded and unsupported claims within the population primes people for intentional propaganda and misinformation. If you try and lie to a population that demands a modicum of evidence you might be in trouble. Also by embracing conspiracies, you create a kind of ‘free-market’ of ideas that allows you to literally pick and choose what you say based on what people have generally accepted already – for a recent example Russia started to claim there were chemical-weapon plants in the Ukraine after conspiracy theorists globally started positing the theory and it was getting popular, of course this was after the Ukraine was already invaded and this had never been mentioned before the invasion.

Finally embracing conspiracy theories allowed the Reich to adroitly engage in their own ‘double-think’ and deflect any criticism as a conspiracy theory, a much more believable claim if the population is already rife with conspiracy.

What’s the relevance now?

If you’re reading this it probably means that you have noticed or considered this issue in 2022 and even among democratic nations (which are not supposed to be fascists generally) there are threads in the discourse and sometimes even it seems entire countries embracing Anti-Int.

Of course we haven’t seen professors and experts getting attacked or killed, but we have as mentioned above seen an increase in the adoption and promotion of conspiracy theories. Also as mentioned attempts to undermine media have become common and accepted.

Other Anti-Int propaganda has included:

  • The decrying, mockery, or broad stereotyping of Academics and Experts or even just critical thinking. Think comments about ‘The-Elite’ suggesting that they don’t have your best interests at heart. Or avoiding engaging in actual substance of arguments just saying people are brainwashed, or ‘sheeple’
  • Spreading of anti-education conspiracy theories – such as educators have ‘Leftist’ biases or even are part of ‘Leftist Agendas’. (even more atrociously calling teachers “groomers”)
  • The degradation of rhetoric, using argumentation that encourages un-sceptical and non-critical thinking e.g. “Just imagine if only some of these accusations are true how bad this would be.” Ad-hominin arguments that specifically discourage critical thinking “Nit-picking critics, ivory tower policy-wonks, soft/weak academics”
  • Generally not engaging with integrity, e.g attempting to rewrite history, politicians/public figures not taking responsibility for own statements

Here’s an example (really wish I didn’t have to scroll his feed to find these e.g.s)

There is a bit more than just Anti-Intellectualism going on above, but its a great example of a style of rhetoric which simply lacks integrity and trades critical thinking for ‘hot-takes’ and snarky ad-hominin argument. The example would have also been slightly more powerful if Elon was attacking an expert/academic rather than just Democrats…

Oh wait….

This is the perfect example of rather than say, writing an article (or getting an expert employee to write one) explaining that there appeared to be some sort of bias in how ESG scores are determined. This article then could be debated and discussed rationally, instead a simple meme is posted with, if you think about it for a second, obvious bias which is probably going to make any expert who attempts to debunk this tweet look petty and strange themselves “You’re just triggered about getting owned Lib” = Anti-intellectualism!

To generalize my rant out further Anti-Int has had impacts in obvious areas such as the global Covid-19 response, Climate Change, and human rights (to say the least). Anti-Intellectual propaganda is worse than just a cunning way to avoid accountability and criticism, as a side or sometimes intended effect it undermines processes that save lives, create progress, and generally make the world a better place.

To conclude I want to make one final point – one might think that Anti-Intellectualism could be a natural, or authentic movement of a population against experts, but I would counter that this is almost logically impossible. Yes people may have a naturally developed Anti-Intellectual attitude, possibly due to bad experiences or an aversion to what their perception of academics are. Maybe even said individuals are on the rise and have a bit of natural grouping together…

BUT, in order to organize, to co-ordinate messages and generally have an Anti-Intellectual movement there almost by definition needs to be some sort of formal co-ordination (by someone or someones with intelligence it turns out). Check out this article which explains that Covid misinformation was largely spread by just 12 individuals.

What I’m saying is that a population can have a generally negative perspective or opinion of ‘intellectuals’ however this doesn’t translate into a specifically Anti-Intellectual movement without some form of intention and plan. While people might come to their own decision to be cynical of intellectualism, no-one just happens to organize and engage in anti-intellectualism which is specifically undermining the concept without someone having an agenda.

So – that’s my essay on Pro-Foolishness. I’m wondering what your thoughts on the matter are? Do you have any examples of Anti-Intellectual rhetoric or political action? Do you think I’ve missed the mark? Any other random comments?

2 thoughts on “Off-Topic: Anti-Intellectualism

  1. Just seconding the ridiculous irony of anti-intellectuals ranting about others being brainwashed, or “sheeple” – an argument with the literal basis of “You don’t understand this; I know better than you.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s unfortunately quite an effective bad faith argument technique, because the poor pleb who gets called brainwashed will usually attempt to explain how they’re not brainwashed – when probably a better response is “do you have any evidence that I’m brainwashed, what brainwashing techniques do you think I’ve experienced?”

      Liked by 1 person

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