Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
So what, if anything, do we do about this counter-intellectual groundswell? Our liberal ideals are misunderstood by a significant part of the population as representative of an international malaise, which we didn’t consciously make and which, in fact, all people in the industrialised world have contributed to and indeed even benefitted from. While recognising how this is unfair for us, it’s also important to recognise that this has not happened without reason. On top of that, as those most self-reflective in society, we’re probably in the best position to actually do something about it. However, what we do must be very carefully considered. We risk deepening the association between us and the overreach of the intellect, which will only lead to greater opposition. This concern must be central to any action aiming for the heart of the problem.
First, we mustn’t stop standing up for ourselves, and others who are unable to do so for themselves. We are the guardians of something very precious, the idea that every human born, regardless of circumstance or social preferences, should have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. It is a concept opposed by many factors in the natural world. Now, in an unfriendly paradigm, is when the strength of this idea and the extent of our belief in it are tested (Alan Moore has proposed a “survival of the fittest” of concepts, of which this is a perfect example). We know, feel it in our bones, that social equality is the fundamental building block of any civilisation worthy of the name. This is the time to let people know that, be it with protest, social dissidence or simply in conversation.
It’s also important to stand up because, while we have a situation where a substantial part of the population would carelessly throw the proverbial baby of social equality out with the bathwater of intellectual overreach, there are those (especially in the current U.S. administration) for who there are far more focussed, sinister motives at work than in the general populace. These would seem to centre around returning power to its supposed rightful owners. The backlash against the overreach of the intellect has the potential to be used as a tool for the instituting of oligarchy on a previously unknown scale.
Be mindful though. How we protest, dissent and converse is of the utmost importance. For example, attacking with facts is the perfect way to increase our association with intellectual overreach (this is different from defending against false facts, where we need to ask for evidence until it’s produced or it’s obvious that there is none). If you’re writing a placard for a rally, put how you feel on it - an expression of solidarity or fear - rather than a statistic or clever policy refutation. Instead of talking about how a solution proposed by the administration won’t work because it’s illogical, phrase the impracticality in emotional terms. I don’t want to be too prescriptive beyond basic guidelines here, as embracing the intellect-disarming creative process and developing intuitive, personal solutions is the ideal. Suffice it to say that we should become experts at disarming the view of us as solely driven by rationality. (Perhaps our greatest weapons in this regard are humour and an outright embracing of the irrational - let’s add a sprinkling of self-deprecation and pure nonsense to our protests, an element of fun)
The distance it puts between us and intellectual overreach is why the protest at Standing Rock is such an important symbol of our resistance. It is the native people of America, whose belief system is pre-rational, who are standing up against the corporate system using non-logical reasoning (though there are logical reasons for resisting the DAPL too). By showing solidarity with those who believe in a literal conscious being called Mother Earth, we transcend representing only the intellect and open ourselves up to identification with a more holistic way of looking at the world of which we are a part. The same is true of the so-called Muslim Ban. That protests at airports were an occasion for displays of compassion, and that the emotional turmoil caused was the focus of our ire (rather than, say, the inappropriate use of power or diplomatic repercussions) is a sign that we’re on the right track.
As intellectually-oriented individuals, our instinct is to lead with that intelligence. We have to fight smart in a different sense though, by putting our other intelligences on public display, as genuinely as we can. We’re going to win this one with soft skills, not rational argument.
Secondly, we need to fight for longterm reform, particularly of the education system. The intellectual bias it currently reflects is the breeding ground for so many problems. That schools are usually run like businesses, and are therefore beholden to the overarching expectations of the corporate system as a whole, is the main obstacle. Parents can begin the change by putting the immediate emotional needs of their children first, above even longterm employability concerns (I’m aware that social pressure makes this easier said than done, bear in mind the unhealthy place that this pressure stems from though). The ongoing battle about the place of scientific fact versus religion in the classroom has to be replaced with making students aware of the difference between reason and belief, and the appropriate application of both, because neither is beyond negative influence.
A science and academia less dogmatic and more open to mystery would greatly influence the world to be less intellectual at the expense of other intelligences. As would politicians, CEOs, bankers and doctors open to looking at their respective worlds in alternative, more holistic ways. However, for the time being, society-wide reform depends largely on my third point.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult, we need to weed the intellectual biases out of our culture by noticing them in ourselves. I’m not suggesting we beat ourselves up over them, after all they were unconsciously ingrained in and may always be a part of us. But we need to shine the light of awareness on them, which is not an easy task.
The best place to start is with a recognition that there is such a thing as having a sense of intellectual privilege. Society is so heavily geared towards producing identification with the intellect that those of us who pass benchmarks recognising intellectual achievement (and you can guarantee that there are suitably complex systems of recognition!) are given a sense of self-worth that often outstrips actual practical applicability. Our opinions become worth more, we are entitled to be taken more seriously. This is why it has been so important for women and minority groups to be represented in such systems. But why is an intellectual response more important - worthy of recognition - than an emotional one, or an intuitive or physical one? Surely, this depends on overall context. Sometimes an intellectual response is downright inappropriate. Whenever intellectually validated people are judgemental, of others or themselves, for being non-rational, the dysfunctional overreach I have been talking about is perpetuated. Can any of us genuinely say that we don’t make such judgements? These are what we most need to be working on. (Personally, I believe that a great deal of the mental anguish that is currently effecting our society in the form of depression is a product of people’s criticalness of their own natural non-rational impulses)
Let me give you a couple of examples of the subtleness of intellectual privilege. The term ‘post-truth’ has gone as far in public acceptance as to be named the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year 2016. Yet consider the bias that it reflects. The truth that it refers to, particularly as a part of the phrase ‘post-truth politics’, is intellectual truth. To return to my previous example of the poor caucasian feeling abandoned by their government - there’s truth in that feeling too, regardless of counterbalancing rational considerations. Dance and abstract art reflect truth when done well. The word that the Oxford Dictionary would’ve chosen to enshrine if we lived in a culture without intellectual privilege would be ‘post-fact’.
Secondly, one of the more comedically-intentioned jabs at the U.S. president has been the assertion that he cannot actually read. On the surface this is just a bit of hypothetical fun at the president’s expense, but consider this: What if a liberal candidate were running for election, with cogent policies and strong grassroots support, but couldn’t read? Perhaps because of a learning disorder, or origins in poverty. This candidate is honest about their illiteracy, can even joke about it, and is able to operate effectively regardless. Yes, we would be less likely to poke fun in this instance because of our liberal bias, and the honesty, but the point that I want to make is that there is no correlation between literacy and efficacy as a leader. The current U.S. president deserves ridicule because of his actions and insensitivity. To think that illiteracy, a basic intellectual achievement, is a damning factor, is an expression of intellectual privilege. There were effective, intelligent leaders long before written language.
You may be thinking that these examples are insignificant. But anyone who has suffered discrimination knows that it is in such micro-aggressions that systemic prejudice actually lies. Overt expressions of intolerance - burning crosses, gay and trans bashings - are easily labelled and condemned. It’s the looks given on public transport, unquestioned stereotypes coming up in conversation and portrayals (or lack thereof) in media that are the most insidious, and are the true expression of a society’s biases. We are quick to respond to expressions of racial, gender and sexual discrimination, but how we respond to the one that’s at the heart of our way of identifying is the real test of our mettle.
So like all senses of privilege, the intellectual one is subtle and subconscious. It takes work to even notice it. That’s what we have to aim to do though. But how? A mindfulness practice such as meditation or breathing exercise can be very helpful here. These aid in the noticing of judgemental tendencies by rendering the thought patterns more clear, a foot in the door that allows us to start asking why we have negative reactions. Responsible use of a psychedelic, with the intention of learning about oneself, can have powerful results. There is another way more widely accessible than these though, which also parallels my recommendations for how we protest publicly. We need to actively explore our non-rational intelligences. This could mean regularly dancing to favourite music, or taking up a musical instrument. It could mean exploring a family religious tradition, or taking up a new spiritual belief. Spending more time with loved ones and friends, getting to know them more intimately, counts too. I’ve personally benefitted a great deal from practicing improvised theatre, in which over-analysing is actually a handicap. Be creative in your choices and you’ll find yourself responding to desires long ignored. Anything which relaxes the hold that the qualities and values of the intellect have on us personally can be useful. Every non-rational impulse recognised as valid makes a contribution to the amelioration of society as a whole, and through the resulting contrast to the perception of social justice as more than just an extension of intellectual overreach.
Activities that challenge the supremacy of the intellect - which, for us, because of our identification with it, is essentially our conscious mind - are going to produce internal friction and resistance though. So don’t think this is an easy solution that I’m proposing. “This is stupid!”, “There’s no improvement!”, “What’s the point?” are all thoughts that actually show we’re heading in the right direction. This is what intellectual privilege being challenged on its home ground sounds like. Make the level of discomfort you feel the metric by which you judge how successfully an activity is working for you. There is no objective or plan, these being intellectual considerations. Learn to enjoy being out of control, or doing something just for its own sake. It is an internal activism that is required, in order to create equality between the intelligences (an idea expressed as Deep Democracy in Process Oriented Psychology).
To summarise, the obvious advantages of having a rational social equality at the heart of interactions in our pluralistic society has been overshadowed by the excessive application of the tool of rationality, the intellect. In a pluralistic culture without such an intelligence bias, social equality wouldn’t be a liberal cause, it would be common sense! As things are now though, it is impossible to force this eminently practical ideal. The majority has to be on board of its own volition.
The solution to this problem cannot come from the intellect, though it may play a part in the process, and recognising all of this in intellectual terms (the goal of this document) is helpful.
I’ve highlighted the strengths, weaknesses, functioning and enemies of the intellect here, but what this is really about is perfecting this particular intelligence. Rather than some abstract omnipotence as symbolised by Sherlock Holmes-type characters, what this really means is training the intellect to be able to recognise and accept intelligences outside of itself, and work with them harmoniously - to perfect itself by transcending itself. From the perspective of this article, it’s difficult to image a more worthy challenge for the intellectually-oriented individual.