Stupidity, philosophy, and the press – negative social effects of ignorance – The Culture War

Stupidity, philosophy, and the press – negative social effects of ignorance – The Culture War – Column

John Hamerlinck

The next time you’re watching television and you see some drunken, face painted, shirtless in subfreezing weather football fan, remember that, in our democracy, his vote has the same value as yours.

Or to come at the subject another way: these days, dumb is cool. Forrest Gump became a phenomenon of startling proportions. Jim Carrey is currently the hottest star in the movies. (The title of one recent film? Dumb and Dumber.) Beavis and Butthead are national pop heroes, while blithering radio and television talk show hosts have made them selves wealthy promoting a pernicious kind of pseudopopulist stupidity. From all this it can be seen that dumb is profitable, even patriotic. Unfortunately, dumb is also dangerous.

Perhaps it is time to reintroduce ourselves to the ideas of British philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who argued that ignorance had four causes: appeals to unsuited authority; the undue influence of custom; the opinions of the unlearned crowd; and displays of wisdom that simply covered up ignorance.

For some reason, reading Bacon makes me think of conservative media clown Rush Limbaugh, clearly the ultimate “unsuited authority” His reactionary style of conservatism is, by definition, based upon an “undue influence of custom” His self righteous, brag gadocio laced infotainment is certainly the shallow style over substance with which Bacon was concerned. When social commentary is reduced to jingoism and bad one liners, citizens have been cheated. Active participants in a democracy need and deserve more.

Roger Bacon is, of course, not to be confused with another famous thinker, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who is probably best known these days as the person who coined the phrase, “Knowledge is power” But if Francis Bacon was correct, the sorry state of democracy in this country is a reflection of the valUe we place on education. The folks at the grassroots have difficulty demonstrating their power and authority in this democracy because they lack the knowledge from which real power comes. Because we are not encouraged to be thinkers, we tend to adopt a dualistic view of the world. We want simple explanations to complex issues. We expect easy answers. Worst of all, we are willing to accept as knowledge the superficial analysis of a press which too often displays the intellectual capacity of a handful of drier lint.

Even the more responsible sectors of mainstream journalism (as opposed to the tabloid variety) perpetuate dualistic thinking. Because of self imposed time and space limitations and a desire not to offend advertisers, journalists seek to present news as if it were a movie trailer: they need a brief setup, some sound bites, and a hook to keep their viewers interested. It is a basic dramatic premise that, without conflict, there is no drama. For journalists, drama is good: two way conflict is the easiest to portray, so you’ll get “both sides” of the issue-the black and white but no grays in between. Contrary to media policy, however, most news consumers are smart enough to handle multifaceted stories; to give them less is to insult their intelligence.

Another philosopher who lived at the same time as Francis Bacon was Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes thought so little of democracy he was convinced that an absolute supremacy of the state was necessary to avoid social chaos. On the surface, that seems to conflict with the anti government posture of the right. In reality, however, the politicians who claim they want smaller government are not out to relinquish any power at all. The Newt Gingrich-led pseudopopulists see human nature much the way Hobbes did. The right seems to think that human beings, in general, cannot be trusted. Women can’t be al lowed to make decisions regarding their own fertility; the right sees that as properly the government’s duty. Nor can citizens be trusted to determine budget priorities; we’ll leave that up to lobbyists for huge business interests. And be cause people cannot be trusted, we’d better arm everybody to the teeth and put a militia on every block. That’s what the Constitution says, right?

One big problem is that most of us don’t know what our Constitution says because we’ve never read it. We seldom read anything of substance, and when we do read, it is seldom done with a critical eye. We have more information available to us than ever before, but we don’t know what to do with it. It’s too easy to be ignorant. Besides, it’s hip. Our philosophers have been replaced by pundits.

What most philosophers have in common is an earnest desire to create a better society. Unlike a previously mentioned radio talk show host, they aren’t just out there trying to make a buck (or millions of bucks) by turning themselves into loud, obnoxious, right wing court jesters. Real philosophy ex amines multiple perspectives. It uses logic to assess degrees of truth. People need exposure to a level of intellectual engagement that transcends what is currently available through the mass media. Any positive social change depends on our ability to cut through the sound bite level of political analysis. The greatest first step we can take in that direction would be making it cool to be an intelligent, well informed citizen.

John Hamerlinck is a freelance writer in St. Cloud, Minnesota, who specializes in popular culture. He is currently working on a progressive history of women’s sports and public policy in the 1920s and 1930s.

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