How Ideology Makes Us Stupid

the dunceEver since the presidential election, there’s been a steady buzz about intelligence in government. We’ve heard that George W. Bush was, in pure IQ terms, surprisingly smart. We’ve also been warned that smart people make the worst leaders. And we’ve been left to wonder whether the alleged braininess of our present administration is substantial, or a clever facade covering a lack of ideas. 

All of those revelations and speculations are, in my estimation, pointless, but they do collectively hint at a point worth considering. We’re living in a time when intelligence is as reviled as it is praised. And if you trace back these lines of argument about intelligence, like those above, what you find is that they lead straight to ideological foxholes. 

Here are a few examples. The Left is fond of saying that the Right is a force of anti-intellectualism (a term made popular by Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life”).  The Right strikes back by saying the worst decision makers are usually brilliant leftists (conservative columnist Thomas Sowell recently made this argument, citing FDR and Johnson’s brain trusts as examples). The Left points to not-very-bright candidates like Sarah Palin as examples of the Right’s dedication to dullness. The Right points to Barack Obama as an example of a polished, intellectual liberal with no experience and poor decision-making skills.   

And on and on this tit for tat goes. The proverbial alien visiting earth for the first time might listen to this dichotomous dispute and conclude that humans can’t seem to decide whether this thing called “intelligence” is good or bad. 

Therein lives the real issue: we’re so devoted to ideology that we’ve come to believe that this argument over intelligence actually has merit. This is nothing but an ideological chimera, and it’s making idiots of us all. 

In reality, intelligence is not the line of demarcation between good and bad leadership, or fit and unfit candidates, or any other significant pro and con. In and of itself, intelligence is merely a capacity. It’s a battery. And while batteries come in different sizes and strengths, they do nothing by themselves. The Left and Right both have their share of powerful batteries, and neither is short on the low-voltage variety. Intelligence isn’t the issue at all; ideology is, so let’s turn the light there. 

The problem is that we think our ideology reflects logical, unbiased thinking about the world. But what ideology actually reflects is a need for a “shared reality” with others—a shared view of the world that provides a degree of contentment and stability, and a justification for beliefs.  (For more on this, take a look at “Shared Reality, System Justification, and the Relational Basis of Ideological Beliefs” PDF here).  In effect, it’s another form of self-deception, and a means to live comfortably with our biases.

True ideologues have a difficult time operating outside of their designated categories, and a harder time giving up their ploys. It’s easier, for example, to claim that Obama is the latest in a line of smart failures—crippled by an intelligence that impairs his judgment—than to admit that this criticism is really an effective populist takedown. It resonates within the shared reality network the idealogue occupies.

Another example — the Left characterizing Bush as stupid, a claim we now know wasn’t true at all. Bush’s IQ is roughly the same as that of world renowned physicist, Richard Feynman (between 120-125). By holding onto the “Republicans elect idiots” argument, the Left sunk itself deeper in the populist quicksand that’s now devouring Obama’s approval rating. The ploy blade cuts both ways.  

One result of ideological characterization is to obscure the issues–but worse, it makes it easy for people to wallow in ignorance. If you’re comfortable in a category, then what’s the incentive to leave it?  Media is structured to deliver what people want, and delivering ideology has a reinforcing effect. The Rush Limbaugh’s of the world make a living from reinforcing ideological categorization. Every time I hear someone start a sentence with “Rush says…” I listen for the tone of contentment in his or her voice.      

Ideology, by enforcing a dualistic myopia, is what makes us stupid, regardless of intelligence.  When you can’t break free from your categories, when you can’t admit that your criticisms are rooted in presuppositions, and when you revel in your one-sidedness—then IQ points can’t help you. You’re stupid by choice.


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