Political Intellectuals Discouraging Political Intellect

Many intellectuals[1] lament the supposed apathy, stupidity, or ignorance of the average person. Some start from a charitable idea: e.g., people don’t care about issues of greater political implication for rational (economic) reasons. However, an end point for many is to conclude that it’s better if the idiots around them don’t engage in political activities — those with less-informed opinions are a burden to political processes because they don’t understand the policy issues at play. Those who fancy themselves politically learned tend to chart (what they view as) the wrong, mistaken, and insufficient opinions of others as just that and go no further. What they miss are the positive tendencies of inquiry that can be engaged with and built upon. By not constructively engaging with these tendencies, intellectuals become the enemy of their own standards by taking approaches to political discussion which actively discourage others from improving their thinking. This elitism isn’t helping anyone.

Thankfully, it does seem that many, if not most, people do think it desirable if the issues that come with living in communities and under the regime of a state are not completely ignored or pushed to the side. In the face of conversations, which can be seen as opportunities for sympathetic thought, it seems natural for people to take an interest in the facts of life beyond their narrowest sense of self-interest or personal activities — if not from a position of intricate principles, at least from some basic tenets of human solidarity and mutual respect. Make no mistake, some sort of pure form of altruism is not what I am describing here. Adam Smith’s insight on pursuing and improving your own affairs as a course of action which overlaps with the general good comes to mind. Understood properly, this concept goes beyond the implications of a businessperson seeking profit: those who engage in public affairs  to improve conditions within their own interest can end up doing things that benefit many others.

True, a major factor discouraging many from putting more time into political awareness or activity is the very real question of return on investment. For instance, many economists rightly point out that, at a purely individual level, the costs involved in obtaining the information and knowledge required to make your vote[2] a truly informed and confident contribution to the democratic process are not outweighed by the benefits — one vote will almost never sway an election result, and the policy research required to be truly informed is not a small amount. Having virtually no control over the issues and structures that affect you is a depressing thought, to say the least. Being voiceless against classes and groups that influence important economic and social outcomes is a reality most understand already. This fact, consciously or subconsciously understood by most, is a large contributor to a sense of political helplessness for many living in “free” societies. 

Yet, many people still care about the world’s problems even if they don’t have the tools to deal with them on their own, or feel that their voice is small in comparison to the injustices they see. Better yet, most seem to understand that increasing awareness or inciting action on a particular issue is achievable when people join together to form stronger voices or systems of support. This flame is thankfully very hard to extinguish in most people. Every day, I find admiration for the passion and concern of those who are politically aware or active, and this is especially impressive in contexts much less privileged than many of us enjoy in the west. Most have strong opinions on issues they believe in and feel that if their point of view was shared by others universally, it would make the world a better place.

There are exceptions, of course. Not everyone believes one thing or another for the sake of “good,” and evil does exist. However, more often than not, even those I disagree with sharply (or find to have reprehensible opinions or recommendations on a given issue) never fail in one way: At some level their voice is coming from their perception of justice and a yearning for more of it. No matter how misguided one might think another is, you don’t find many people calling for a more unjust world.

All of this is why it’s so disappointing to see many intellectuals (be they academics or self-taught thinkers on a subject) so often display frustration and dismissiveness against levels of political understanding and knowledge below their own, or at those who hold opinions that are — in their view — clearly wrong. We can probably all think of examples here, be it the self-proclaimed capitalist libertarian who has a good laugh at people who honestly think raising the minimum wage will improve the living standards of workers, or anyone who thinks today’s discourse on social justice is simply about sheltering people’s feelings from criticism. Ultimately, whether it’s their modus operandi or simply their more cynical side on display for an instance or two, you can find many thinkers begrudging: mainstream public sentiments for simply existing; universities or disciplines they view as teaching widely accepted yet wrong truths; people voicing opinions on issues when they are so clearly understudied; and so on. Intellectuals may intellectualize these feelings in their essays, books, and conversations, but it becomes clear to anyone who spends more than a few minutes with certain ones that many are just expressing frustration with the “others” who don’t think the way they do — or perhaps even bother to think differently at all. Beneath it all is a raw and not-very-novel form of cynicism for what they view as the stupidity, ignorance, and lack of thoughtfulness of the average person.

That could be the beginning and end of it, but many take their attitude further and treat others as unchanging, static, and ignorant elements in a universe set against them, instead of dynamic people acquiring different bits of knowledge every day that lead them to their own conclusions. By giving into the temptation to think of others this way, intellectuals turn their nose up at those who are simply at one point in their personal journey of critical thinking and knowledge. In this way, intellectuals often miss something very important about people who are (in their view) wrong, misguided, misinformed, or uneducated in one area: They are still displaying an interest or concern on a topic or an eagerness to continue a conversation and explore an issue. In other words, they at least care enough to voice an opinion or engage on the issue because they feel it’s important enough to say something about.

When dealing with others, intellectuals should acknowledge that they enjoy an extremely privileged and fortunate situation. Some of them, at the very least, have opinions actively sought by others to be written down and then paid for. Others are quite literally paid to think as a career, so they publish and teach their area of study, and sometimes are credited with enough trust to teach and speak beyond their area of expertise. A little humility for this fact, along with a reminder that job markets don’t always get who they compensate right or perfect, would do well for those who are tempted to feel superior or display frustration at others they feel simply don’t get it. 

Many lament that “most” people are on the lower rungs of a given ladder of knowledge and familiarity with a subject without at all celebrating that people are at least somewhere on it. Every intellectual started somewhere and by knowing less than they know now. What they had, at least, was a desire to learn more about the world, or some inclination to ask questions and concern themselves with particular issues — the same as every other ignorant-but-curious individual. Unfortunately, constant exposure to your own normal environments and likeminded individuals — whether it be academia or just the groups of friends you surround yourself with that share your supposed level of sophistication or concern on a specific topic — begins to build dead truths into your mind about the world around you, and about your place or degree of superiority in it. It’s too easy for this to inadvertently create a lower tolerance for different opinions or those less learned than you — no matter how much you sell yourself on the idea of your own tolerance and openness. 

The easy thing to do is to comfort oneself with the idea that people don’t have the incentive, or are too stupid, to grasp the bigger issues and form a more sophisticated opinion (like yours, of course). One can certainly post a couple of social posts, share a couple of essays, or even publish a whole book about something and spend the rest of one’s time explaining why everyone else who doesn’t agree with it is dumb. Perhaps that will get people thinking about it and maybe convince some. However, the harder (and perhaps more honorable) way of approaching these topics is found in discussion, teaching, sharing, sympathy, and patience.

I once saw someone I have some degree of respect for on social media — in response to a question put to them on “why XYZ isn’t something more people know more about”— offer a frank explanation: “Because most people are stupid.” That is certainly one way to view things, and certainly not a cosmically impossible state of reality. However, taking a careful look around ourselves makes it fairly easy to see that many are concerned for a wide variety of issues, even if they don’t start by being on the same page — or using the same lingo — as others more studied in the topic. For example, a welder unfamiliar with political terms may have better ideas on much-needed improvements to safety practices and standards in welding, but will come to the discussion differently than someone arriving at it from an outsider’s perspective on the existing set of rules or regulations. In this case, it’s not just the welder’s willingness to discuss the topic and concern that makes it worth engaging with them. They may actually have more knowledge on some of these issues than others, even if  at first glance it’s illegible to the broader discussions about political systems and structures.

Ultimately, some will not have as much time or resources to dedicate to certain issues as others, and many perhaps haven’t found their way to what are widely viewed (in some circles) as the “correct answers.” But, that doesn’t mean the overall cause is lost or that these people should be dismissed — it just means more work needs to be done.

Those who continually remind themselves about how they get it and that others don’t are contributing to the very thing that frustrates them, and are adding to a culture of toxicity that certainly can’t claim the encouragement of higher understanding in a courteous dialogue as a goal. One can, at a base level, assume others do care and share similar concerns, but perhaps haven’t found the time to flesh out higher quality or more informed opinions on the topic. And, if what certain people are really lacking is a forum for honest conversation, engagement, and sympathy on a topic, why wouldn’t that be worth contributing to? That is, of course, assuming one is sincerely dedicated to a cause beyond one’s own ego, as so many who use venom claim they are.

[1] To be absolutely clear: An “intellectual” for the purposes of this essay is anyone who engages (or attempts to engage) in deeper critical thinking, reflection, research, and study on the topic. The term does not necessarily mean people who are formally employed or engaged in political activities or positions related to political thinking (e.g., a university professor).

[2] Note that a single vote to many is often used by many as a representation of the ultimate, or only serious, form of participation in democracy, and this severely limits one’s conception of what democracy is. I think this view is wrong and problematic, but it is not a subject appropriate to take up here.

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