Ah, the Complexity of Stupidity

Stupidity, especially considered as a factor in politics, is surprisingly complex. Note these simple statistics, from CNBC, regarding the states which score the lowest in education:

41. New Mexico Total score: 36.11
42. Oklahoma Total score: 35.58
43. Tennessee Total score: 35.52
44. Nevada Total score: 32.84
45. Kentucky Total score: 31.80
46. Alabama Total score: 31.33
47. Arkansas Total score: 27.18
48. Louisiana Total score: 22.96
49. West Virginia Total score: 21.71
50. Mississippi Total score: 21.06

These states are known for their racism and their support of right wing extremism and…Donald Trump. The people of Kentucky are on the least educated list and they keep re-electing Mitch McConnell despite his willingness to take away services that help them enormously. You’ll see many a MAGA hat in those states. So theoretically, the explanation for much of the support for people like Trump and McConnell, is raw ignorance. And of course we associate ignorance with stupidity. But here’s the first complexity–sometimes stupidity vanishes if the real facts are impressed on the apparently stupid. Were they to become educated to the fact that they’ll get more services, more help getting their kids into college, from progressives, and that history shows that government investment in subsidizing, in infrastructure, in schools, ends up driving the economy–many of them would change their minds. “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated,” Trump said during his campaign. From USAToday: “Trump did well across the board in Nevada, garnering 45.9% of the vote, but he did even better among voters with a high school education or less. Fifty-seven percent of those voters supported him, according to entrance polls…”

There’s another factor that affects intelligence, or the lack of it, in political choices. Emotion. Less educated people haven’t learned critical thinking, haven’t had a chance to exercise the moderation of emotion that education supports, and many of them tend to fall headlong under the sway of irrational emotion-based reactions. Demagogues like Trump and Newt Gingrich and the congressional right-wing extremists in the GOP know all about the emotional factor, and they exploit it. I myself have felt my ability to think undermined by moments of high emotion. Everyone reasonably educated knows this, just as they know your IQ will plummet while you’re sucking down four or five alcoholic beverages. (That I have personally experienced, too.)

What a demagogue also instinctively knows, is that in evocation of fear of foreigners, in evocation of race-based anger, in painting terrifying pictures of crime, they’re inducing in their excited listeners a kind of catharsis, a good feeling that comes from bringing anger to quench fear; that feeling is amplified by the us-against-them illusion,  otherwise known as the mob mentality. What results is a sort of high. Look at Hitler’s followers; look at the followers of Mussolini. Look at Trump rallies. The demagogue knows that people brought to that excited, angry, us-against-them state are easier to manipulate. Because, for awhile, they’re stupider. Ideology imprinted into them in these suggestive states tends to linger–the brain supports whatever induces pleasure.

More specifically, Trump followers were already misled into thinking that Planned Parenthood clinics exist to kill children, that gays want to turn their children into homosexual whores, that an evil Satanic conspiracy controls “big government”, that immigrants have taken the best jobs–and these treasured fantasies have made them quietly, bubblingly angry all the time. Trigger the release of that anger and they feel that pleasurable rush–and that good feeling is not something these folks want to give up. So they’re motivated to be selective about the information they’ll accept. Despite evidences that Trump, for example, is brutal with women, despite evidence that he’s incompetent and he cheats people in business, despite evidence that he’s a liar–lately they’ve been saying “we don’t care” if he lies–and despite evidence that he’s broken the laws of the land. Emotion blurs the import of all that negative data about Trump. Obviously emotion can be good–empathy is emotionally based. And there is even a time for directed anger. But often, blind emotion simply makes us stupid.

Then there’s another complexity–simple mental laziness. It’s so much more comfortable to be mentally lazy, to go for that big, fat, simple explanation–”Jews caused all our problems”–rather than do the work needed to get and confirm the facts that would debunk that monstrous lie. Mental laziness can feel good just as taking a nap does. It’s so easy to follow a link to some clickbait website–maybe it’ll be called The Eagle’s Angry Scream  or simply Infowars–to shore up your comfortable biases by gorging on every possible aspersion against Democrats and gays and Muslims and people of color. Or where you can simply get endless endorsement of that old saw, the trickle-down theory.

There is, you see, such a thing as selective intelligence. People unconsciously or even deliberately ignore data that doesn’t fit into their comfortable worldview. They “select it out”. Even clever people do it: Silicon Valley, awash with clever people, cultivates a deliberate mental blind spot, they cling to the idea that technology has no responsibility attached to it.

I really suspect that if education in the United States was fairly high across the board, Trump would not have been elected, and conscienceless  puppets of the oil industry like McConnell would not be elected either. But–there are complexities. And it’s all one mesh, that holds people in place, like a Chinese finger trap, clasping them, gripping them…made up of  many different strands.

There are so many ways to be stupid.

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