Is stupid really stupid

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.

Compacted doctrines

One reason to have a blog, of course, silly to pretend otherwise, is shameless self-promotion. Or, to put it another, slightly more edifying way, to try to ensure that the things one has to say are made accessible and available in new ways. Like other Universities, the OU has an online repository for research publications – it’s great, it’s called ORO, Open Research Online. But they can be a bit sniffy about including publications that do not meet strict criteria of what counts as research. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years writing Dictionary and Encyclopedia entries, and these don’t get on ORO. 

It’s an interesting experience, being forced to write short, concise, didactic summaries on  topics like deconstruction, or fair trade, or foundationalism. I have mentioned before that I wrote a bunch of entries for the latest edition of The Dictionary of Human Geography. One reason this was an interesting experience is because it brings home how things you write are likely to be read in fundamentally different ways from how you might have intended. This is, of course, true of any writing, but the thing about the pieces I did for the Dictionary, I now realise, is that I wrote them as a group, just because I was working on them all at the same time, even though they were on seemingly disparate topics. But I wasn’t necessarily writing the entries for ‘adjacent’ topics. So in my head, at least, there is a riff running across these pieces that reflects something I was thinking about back then (I wrote my entries at the end of 2005, but they weren’t published ’til 2009). Of course, this is emphatically not how these entries will be read, because of the nature of the book they are published in – nobody reads one of these multi-author Dictionaries by tracking the contributions of particular authors (do they?). My entries contain strong links to related entries which I didn’t write, of course, and which might well not align exactly with the ‘line’ I thought I was trying to express on a particular issue. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that here they are, all in a line, for anyone inclined to read them like that – these are the pre-published versions I initially submitted. There is a little entry on the Cultural Turn, then longer ones on Essentialism, Foundationalism and Deconstruction which sort of play off each other I think – the first two of these were really difficult to write, not so much because they are difficult topics, more because I realised how poorly defined they generally are in geography, serving really as terms of abuse. And these two are my favourites. Another cluster links Culture, Ideology, Media, and Rhetoric (I would really have quite liked to have been offered the Discourse and Representation entries too, just to nail home the point). Democracy and Theory are a bit more free-standing, I suppose, but still kind of overlapping with these.

I’m going to post these as downloads on the ‘Things to Read’ page too, and will add some other ‘occasional’ pieces as and when I have the time.