Friday, 8 July 2016

The Age of Stupid

"What has happened to critical thinking," mused my Twitter friend. Another wondered if people just believe any old shit now. A third daily retweets articles about our "post-fact, post-rationality" world. These are all thoughts and fears that I recognize because for the past few weeks I have been musing on similar ideas myself. I wanted to write about them instinctively but I couldn't bring myself to do it. For these are ideas so depressing, so undermining of the point and purpose of our societies, that to think the thoughts is to have to suffer the consequences of it. But here I am, finally ready to take that step.

We have been in the midst of a number of election campaigns recently on both sides of the Atlantic. The campaigns for the US Presidency roll on. In the UK, the referendum on the UK's membership of the EU has taken place and narrowly been won by the "Leave" campaign. The referendum campaigns, which I am more familiar with, revealed a lot of ugliness about society. I have spoken before about it as a turning over of a stone with all the horrors that live underneath the rock allowed to crawl out. And they have. Racist incidents have reportedly increased since the Leave Campaign won the vote. People have had graffiti daubed on their buildings, notes pushed through their letterboxes.  On a bus a 16 year old and his 18 year old friend felt empowered to tell someone not from the UK to get off the bus. People have been interviewed who apparently thought they were voting to expel all foreigners from the country. They weren't doing this and even the leaders of the Leave Campaign weren't proposing something so extreme. But those who think such thoughts have felt emboldened by what they have chosen to take as a validation of their position.

The referendum campaign itself was most notable for being a fact-free zone. Blatant lies (which have since been deleted and denied by all concerned) were used to convince people that the EU is a body which takes all the money and, in return, sends back lots of unwelcome foreign people to take their jobs, homes and schools. The honest amongst us might call it simple xenophobia but the Leave campaigners insist this is a cheap jibe and that they all really love "our European friends" (a phrase they use a lot). Of course, there was also rhetoric of "taking our country back" and "taking control". What better way to scare people into the polling booth than to tell them that somebody not like them is in charge of things? This campaign, which became overtly political during the referendum period, had been going on in various media outlets and newspapers for years. One well-known media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, was open about why he wanted the UK to leave the EU: it never listens to him and so he cannot influence it. Murdoch is a regular guest at the parties of various UK Prime Ministers (regardless of party) so it seems he feels he has more pull in the UK domestically.

All that is as maybe. The heart of this blog is what has happened to public discourse. During the referendum, and seemingly during the US presidential election race too, there is a palpable sense that facts don't matter anymore. No one is using any reasoning. There are no commonly agreed items about which people discuss their various approaches. Instead what we have is a series of extremely ignorant, dull-witted, partisan, unexplained GUT FEELINGS which have now taken the place of reason and fact and assumed a position as the most important things of all. (Trump is the figurehead and cheerleader of this state of mind.) This bothers me on a number of levels. It bothers me that no one seems concerned to explain their working out about things anymore. We've gone post-reasoning. It bothers me that there aren't anymore facts just assertions. "I believe this so it must be true" has never been a more common belief. We've gone post-fact. It bothers me that people who think about things or who pose questions or expect some detail, such as the "why" and "for what reason" people think things, are regarded as effete nuisances. 

We have recently in the UK revisited the Iraq War which Tony Blair seemingly was convinced to fight because of a personal belief of his own and desire to support George W. Bush regardless of the outcome. There was a government employee called Dr David Kelly, a weapons expert and weapons inspector, who questioned some of the dubious claims the British government were making at the time. He was found dead in mysterious circumstances. At the time the government was fervently insisting that Iraq could launch weapons in 45 minutes. Kelly said they didn't even have such weapons. The press loyally trumpeted the government claims in the rush to war. Journalist Peter Oborne has since reported that at least one newspaper, a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, was in cohoots with the government as part of the government's own media strategy, to present a certain case which would lead to the outcomes the government sought.

Its long been doubted by a number of people that governments are trustworthy. Revelations brought to light by those such as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have undermined trust and led to an erosion in the value of truth claims generally. In addition, as we have seen, media organisations have formed alliances with governments to stage manage the news and present a desired picture to the general public. In short, we are being played from numerous angles. Those in positions of power in government or media, and they are not as separate at it might first seem, set up elaborate campaigns to lead the mass of the people by the nose. They sloganize (Make America Great Again, Take Back Control) and concentrate on stirring up sentiment. Its all very "4 legs good, 2 legs bad" to quote George Orwell from his book Animal Farm. And we can see that it works. No one really expected the Leave campaign to win the UK referendum. When they did even its most vocal supporters were a little surprised. But that campaign inspired one person to kill an MP and lots of others to racially abuse foreigners, seemingly empowered and emboldened by a result they thought validated their backward points of view. No one really thinks that Trump has detailed plans for all the areas he may soon, in theory, get a chance to be in charge of. But in this society we now live in it doesn't matter. "The British don't like experts" was a recent claim of prominent Leave campaigner, Michael Gove. And he's right in a lot of ways. But its not just the British. Many American industrialists don't like climate scientists because they say things the industrialists don't want to hear. They don't refute the science. They can't. They just refuse to believe it and blow a raspberry in their direction. They don't want to believe it and that, for them, is good enough.

But this is the point at which things become most frustrating. Ignorant slogans take the place of knowledge that was earned on the back of reasoned thought and debate. "What I feel or think" becomes as valuable as something that may have taken much academic effort. And once that move has been made then thought doesn't matter anymore much less why I think something. Anything goes, quite literally. And people become dumb animals to be pushed this way and that on tides of sentiment. Who is the new bogey man? He is! Let's get him. Booo! We see a lot of this in certain reactions to various nominally muslim terrorist organisations. The slogan here is "Radical Islam". "Radical Islam" is something all right-thinking people should hate, we are told. But don't expect those obsessed with "Radical Islam" to tell you what it is. They wouldn't have a clue. The idea has no content. Its empty. Its just another bogey man to be used, abused and twisted out of all reasonable meaning as part of a PR campaign. "Radical Islam" is a hollow and rhetorical enemy.

All this, of course, has been noted and lambasted before. Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead, did a live action film a few years ago called "Idiocracy" which pretty much lays out a comic vision of the future compatible with my thoughts here. We are in the Age of Stupid where its in the interests of the powerful and the dispossessed alike to ignore facts, belittle knowledge and, most of all, sidetrack those who want us to provide thought and reasoning for things. Let's just corral people with a slogan and a campaign, something no right thinking person could disagree with. So what if a few people get a bit carried away and some get hurt? We live in a world where the most powerful nation on Earth willingly allows thousands of its residents to shoot each other every year and does nothing about it to stop it. We live in a world where you can watch refugees drowning on TV 24/7. We live in a very disjointed world which is not at all benign. For there are always consequences to actions, and inactions, and there are always winners and losers in any outcome of events. Its naive to believe stuff will always just work out or that some aren't working for their benefit alone to the detriment of others. We in the developed countries of the world are trapped in a media/political nexus of competing forces. Our assent is sought for things and the methods used to get it are often far from honest or even true. We want a soundbite or a slogan we can get behind and that's good enough. Its about surfaces and not depth.

All this has been theorized much better than I write it here, primarily by French theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Even in educated circles Baudrillard was often read with a little credulity with his theories of simulacra and simulation and notions such as that "The Gulf War Did Not Take Place". But now some are coming to see his point. Baudrillard highlights many things in his work but not least that life is much more than what you see with your own eyes on TV or what people tell you or want you to believe. Baudrillard's work is primarily an encouragement to look deeper and see beyond the surface level thinking which is all a postmodern age wants to present. Baudrillard says that understanding is about thinking and not merely having your feelings (prejudices) stimulated. Its not about enjoying the show and going along with it because "the show" is often there to fool you. Baudrillard writes a lot about history and meaning and, not least, the death of these things in modern society under the influence of just such things as I have already described. In his work mass communication, reality, meaning and history all become interconnected and interdependent. This is an important insight in itself in a world where people want to pretend that they can be independent of others. I see Baudrillard's work on a timeline that started with Nietzsche and his emphasis on how human beings falsify things for their own purposes. (For Nietzsche this started and ended with "reality" itself!) We, in this sense and according to Baudrillard, falsify the news to ends and purposes too. Nothing is naively done anymore. There's always a reason but its always unspoken. And something about which you should never speak.

I shall stop writing before this goes off on too many tangents. I'm sure you get the idea. Its fair to say that I see us as in something of a hole. We are all of us held in the grip of larger forces, political, media, industrial, and they will not let us go. Ignorance is promoted because ignorance is more easily controllable. Thinking is outlawed because it raises pesky questions and frustrates the hollow beliefs of others. The dumb and moronic are everywhere given latitude and encouraged because they are easily led and serve as a bulwark against those who would oppose with thought and reason. It is not that one side is right and one wrong here. Its more about power and how to wield it more easily. Control is what's wanted and its much harder to control a thinker.


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