George Monbiot had a wretched little piece in yesterday’s Guardian, based on a paper in a psychology journal, Bright minds and dark attitudes, which purports to establish that there is a link between cognitive ability, right-wing attitudes, and prejudice. Monbiot took this as the basis for a general argument about how right-wing politics is a medium for stoking and sustaining general levels of stupidity (in so doing, he risks running together various things – the paper he cites is about cognitive abilities, about intelligence – not about people merely not knowing, but about some people not having the capacity to know stuff; and the reference point is prejudice, and a broader set of criteria basically derived from good old fashioned ‘authoritarian personality’ type arguments, but Monbiot extends this to attitudes to policy questions such as tax and spend, not supported at all by the paper).
Now, Monbiot has always seemed to me to be the perfect epitome of a certain style of google-based journalism – that sort of newspaper commentary piece where you can almost see the traces of the google searches that the column is pasted together from. In this case, poor George gives a great deal of credence to a style of psychological research that, if you look at the paper, raises all sorts of methodological and conceptual worries – anyone for a little bit of ‘abstract empiricism’?
Of course, Monbiot’s piece might be self-refuting – it’s an example of crass stupidity, but from the left, which seems to undermine the claim that stupid = right-wing. On the other hand, it might inadvertently confirm its own claim – it’s a basically reactionary argument, based on a set of stupid suppositions and idiotic reasoning, not really an argument belonging to anything meaningfully ‘left’ at all, if that is to include basic precepts of democracy.
Anyway, I take the Monbiot piece to be one example of a broader strand of contemporary self-proclaimed Left ‘know-it-all-ism’ – epitomised perhaps by Ditchkins-style ‘new atheism’, but much broader no doubt. It’s a strand of thought that seems unable to imagine politics as having any other basis than knowledge – good, accurate, rational, critical, knowledge; or bad, manipulated, veiled, ignorance. Left thought suffers terribly from this way of imagining politics – as being all about ‘ideology’, basically, too much of the bad sort, and not enough of the good sort, often wrapped up in cmplex theories of subjectivity or, in this case, research about cognitive abilities and intelligence.
Which is not to say that issues of truth and knowledge are not important to how we think about politics – a new book on Truth and Democracy, via the ever informative Political Theory blog, collects various essays together on this issue; it touches on broader debates about the epistemic value of democratic politics. At some level, the sort of position articulated by Monbiot, but shared I think rather more broadly, which seeks to explain the other side’s political successes by reference not just to the lack of knowledge of some constituencies, but by reference to their credulity, their gullibility, or in this case, their innate lack of cognitive ability, is deeply undemocratic at its very core.
Just thought I’d get that off my chest before going to bed.