|Image Source: Institute for Competitive Intelligence.|
Over the last few years, liberals have had their egos stroked by studies which report that they are smarter than conservatives. For instance, a few months ago the Pew Center reported that people who had attended graduate school had more consistently liberal positions. These reports have fostered a “smart urban sophisticates vs. dumb rural hicks” mindset among liberals that, if you listen to some people, feeding and encouraging was the sole raison d’être for The Daily Show during Jon Stewart’s tenure. Finally, it got so egregious that even some liberals became uncomfortable with it.
Contemporary Liberalism “Lacks Humility”
Back in April 2016, Vox.com launched a 7,000-plus word essay by deputy First Person editor Emmett Rensin, titled “The smug style in American liberalism”. That liberals have tended to smug condescension has been a complaint of conservatives for some time now. Rensin’s article, however, drew a bigger impact because it came from a liberal writing on a liberal platform, one Kyle Smith of the New York Post described as “typically [combining] childlike oversimplification …, high-school-student-government-nerd idealism, just-arrived-on-campus humorcidal earnestness and the millennial generation’s pretend fealty to big data.” For conservatives like Smith, this was a liberal safety or an own-goal: a member of the opposition had finally scored their point for them.
Oddly enough — odd, because conservatives tend to take it for granted that postmodern liberals are incapable of substantive self-criticism — Rensin’s screed did provoke some internal agreement. Kevin Drum of MotherJones.com (mirabile dictu) commented, “We’re convinced that conservatives, especially working class conservatives, are just dumb. Smug suggests only a supreme confidence that we’re right — but conservative elites also believe they’re right, and they believe it as much as we do. The difference is that, generally speaking, they’re less condescending about it.” “The great virtue that contemporary liberalism lacks and needs,” lamented Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.com, “is neither civility nor solidarity. It’s humility — and sadly, even some of liberalism’s most thoughtful internal critics can’t see it.”
Even more recently, lawyer-activist Nikki Johnson-Huston took a swipe at “... the cocktail party liberals, the elites, who wear the cloak of liberalism to protect themselves from criticism and so they can keep a clear conscious [sic]” … in Huffington Post, no less. Johnson-Huston’s criticism, however, was aimed at white liberals who used their leftist concern more to assert their moral superiority over conservatives than to actually get involved in problems like racism.
Stung, other liberals have fought back, mostly with tu quoque arguments. However, Drum replies, “…as plenty of people have pointed out, outrage sells on the right, but for some reason, not on the left. We prefer mockery. So they get Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, while we get Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart.” He continues:
So liberals and conservatives have different styles. No surprise there. The question is, do these styles work? Here, I think the answer is the same on both sides: they work on their own side, but not on the other. Outrage doesn’t persuade liberals and mockery doesn’t persuade conservatives. If you’re writing something for your own side, as I am here most of the time, there’s no harm done. The problem is that mass media — and the internet in particular — makes it very hard to tailor our messages. Conservative outrage and liberal snark are heard by everyone, including the persuadable centrist types that we might actually want to persuade.
Drum’s analysis doesn’t grasp a pertinent question: why would you want to “tailor the message” so that you’re speaking contemptuously of the other side only when the other side isn’t listening? The failure is not simply that sometimes liberal smugness and conservative outrage sometimes get over the barriers of the echo chambers, but rather that the echo chambers and the attitudes exist. “Hey, guys, we shouldn’t be smug/outraged in the public square. We should only be smug/outraged in our private little klatches, where those poor dumb hicks/immoral anarchists can’t overhear us.” Drum doesn’t want liberals to stop being condescending so much as he wants them to keep their poor opinion of conservatives between themselves.
“Intelligence Has Become Totemic”
But the “liberals are smarter” trope has more basic flaws which liberal critiques have failed to grasp. The first is that whether the person making a particular argument is smarter or dumber is completely irrelevant to whether the argument itself is right. To stop assessing the merits and demerits of a particular position and simply accept it because the person advocating it is a Really Clever Smartypants is hardly the mark of an independent or critical thinker, especially when the Really Clever Smartypants isn’t speaking within his area of expertise. The appeal to intelligence is really a kind of ad verecundiam (invalid authority) fallacy.
The second flaw goes beyond the expected “correlation isn’t causation” rebuttal: IQ tests stress raw knowledge and abstract reasoning. However, this kind of intelligence doesn’t defuse cognitive biases. Recent research indicates that, on political hot-button issues, education — particularly scientific literacy — actually helps people to explain away facts that contradict or undermine their position. In fact, IQ tests are at best only mild predictors of rational thinking skills. Says University of Toronto psychology professor Keith E. Stanovich:
Critics of intelligence tests have long pointed out that the tests ignore important parts of mental life, mainly non-cognitive domains such as socio-emotional abilities, empathy, and interpersonal skills. But intelligence tests are also radically incomplete as measures of cognitive functioning, which is evident from the simple fact that many people display a systematic inability to think or behave rationally despite having a more than adequate IQ. For a variety of reasons, we have come to overvalue the kinds of thinking skills that intelligence tests measure and undervalue other important cognitive skills, such as the ability to think rationally.
More telling is this criticism: “[Schools, businesses, and government] still devote far more attention and resources to intelligence than to teaching people how to think [emphasis mine.—ASL] in order to reach their goals. It is as if intelligence has become totemic in our culture. But what we should really be pursuing is development of the reasoning strategies that could substantially increase human well-being.”
Both Patrick J. Deneen and Joseph Pearce have asserted that, however more educated liberals are, it has come at the cost of a neo-philistinism, an arrogant ignorance of their cultural and intellectual roots. Says Pearce disgustedly, “To be ‘well-educated’ [today] is ... to believe that we have nothing to learn from the Great Conversation that has animated human discourse for three millennia.”
This neo-philistinism comes with a cost. Separated from our intellectual and cultural roots, emphasizing only one modality of thought, we’ve lost much of the cross-pollination between disciplines that classical liberal education once valued. James Kalb has argued that we’re not thinking smarter so much as we’re thinking differently, and in a way that may be worse:
[The new way of thinking] has some connection to the achievements of the modern natural sciences, but leaves out too much to apply to life in general. That principled rejection of essential aspects of human thought makes it radically defective. It explains why socialism and social engineering don’t work, sexual rationalism doesn’t make people happy, and most ordinary people find the arguments of libertarian purists deeply unconvincing: the ways of thought that lead to those things leave out half of reality.
Nor is a strict Techno [Kalb’s term] view — and the view tends strongly toward strictness — adequate for science itself, since the practice of science depends on common sense and an ability to size up situations that goes beyond formal reasoning. So it’s not surprising that the general triumph of the view among educated people has been followed by complaints that scientists have less theoretical acumen than in the past, their work is losing its vision and becoming agenda and money driven, and basic advances are becoming ever more rare.
Intelligence Nothing to be Smug About
In short, intelligence, particularly the liberal intelligence “premium”, is oversold. That many liberals believe it to be a validation of their worldview, their policy preferences, and their moral sense simply indicates the degree to which unreason has been allowed to prevail in our culture. As I’ve noted before, our school systems have abandoned teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think, stunting their ability to engage in constructive criticism along the way.
I have no real hope that the liberal commentary Rensin’s post caused will provoke any further, more substantial self-criticism, let alone presage any meaningful dialogue between conservatives and liberals. To an extent, I prefer people who take principled stands, even when I find certain of their principles wrong if not morally deficient; it’s more morally courageous than to let oneself be blown about by the changing winds of intellectual fashion. To paraphrase Chesterton, the only real purpose of opening one’s mind is to shut it again on something solid.
But Rensin, Drum, and Ponnuru have simply agreed that liberal smugness is annoying. That’s not the same as to admit that intelligence is nothing to be smug about. Or that to be smarter as a group is not the same as to be right on any topic. That admission may take a while longer. Like a generation or so.