i dream of being possible

maybe one day we'll stop assuming kids (and others) are stupid

Yes. I’m still thinking about that study showing that ‘kids these days’ can’t tell the difference between real and fake news. In part because I have more to say, but today’s topic extends beyond just kids and fake news. Listening to someone the other day call trump supporters ‘stupid’ because they voted for him and the reactions to the study… I just. At some point it would be really nice if we all stopped assuming students/kids/ppl we don’t like are stupid. There are many problems with this (beyond basic ableism). The valuation of a human’s worth based on intelligence has a long and violent history. I’ve talked about this before when I criticise the notion of ‘rationality’ but this is the flipside of that discussion. So… let’s talk about why assuming other people are stupid (or ignorant) is fucked up.

For me, the most basic thing that this does is strip the other person of their agency. And, as such, also strips them of their humanity. The connection between intelligence and agency is deeply rooted in things like racism and misogyny. The US decided that the Philippines (and Puerto Rico and Guam) should become colonies because we (just speaking of the PH now) we were like children and incapable of self-rule. We weren’t smart or civilized enough for that. So their plan was to colonize the Philippines and ‘teach’ us. Which, to be fair to them, they did do this and then they left. Except that this… ideological colonization lives on today.

On a less macro level, when we say that, for example, students are ‘stupid’ because they have trouble identifying fake news as fake, we take them as dupes who need to be taught how to be critical. When, say, poor white working class people vote for someone like trump (who is most assuredly not their friend), many on the left likewise say that they are just stupid and ignorant and don’t know that they are voting against their interests. This leads to a heavy emphasis on ‘educating’ the poor white working class. Seeing a pattern here?

Librarians especially are vulnerable to this sort of thing (although sometimes not quite as bad as professional educators). We feel it is our duty to provide information literacy so that people can do things like assess the credibility of a source. So that people can find the information we store up for their use. Information literacy is one of the core library activities these days. Which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since we very much do live in a complex information environment wherein certain skills are quite useful.

But again, the actual problem is the inherent paternalistic attitude that a lot of people take towards these activities. The attitude that anyone who doesn’t meet whatever arbitrary standards you have is ‘stupid’. This is about agency and truly recognizing and respecting that other people have it. The people who voted for trump made a decision to do so. I’m sure it seemed like the best option they had at the time. Or maybe they did it on a whim. But it is their right to do so as agents and as people. When we point to those people (particularly those who are regretting their decision) and say, ‘they’re stupid’ we eliminate their agency in the decision. We tend to assume that such people were tricked by the media or whatever. That they believed lies told by a well-known liar. And that they did so because they weren’t as smart as we were and unable to do really make their own decision because they are just too fucking stupid.

Whether or not you like the decisions other people make, they deserve enough respect and regard for all of us to acknowledge that it was their decision to make. In political discussions this is particularly rampant (ie, assuming stupidity and the stripping of agency). We have all kinds of sayings and metaphors for this: sheeple, lemmings, red pills, and so on.

There is also a scary (and I’m guessing unintended) ethical consequence to this attitude. One of the reasons why children tend not to be punished in the same way that adults are, is that they have actual developmental reasons for not necessarily understanding the consequences of their actions. In other words: we tend not to view a child who hits another child as just as morally culpable as an adult who hits another person. We have good reason for this (and age isn’t the only thing we factor when considering ethical responsibility). But when we point to political opponents and say that they are just too stupid to know better, we are also pre-emptively absolving them of ethical responsibility for the decisions they’ve made and their consequences.

Take the trump voter who now regrets doing so. I’ve seen some of the stories and they tend to follow a certain narrative wherein people had reasons for believing that trump was sincere on some point or another only for trump, post-election, to prove himself a liar. That’s fine and all. We all make mistakes based on incorrect information or faulty assumptions. It happens. But we are still ethically responsible for the decision and for its consequences. It doesn’t matter that trump voter x believed he was really going to do something about government corruption but is instead filling his team with awful people. The fact is that they voted for him and are ethically on the hook for everything that happens under trump’s presidency.1

In the case of the students and fake news, in my last post I referenced a Pew study that shows that young people are, overall, more critical of news organizations than any other age demographic. So with that in mind, how do we understand all the responses to the fake news study that were ‘we need to teach these kids critical thinking’? Seems to me that they have no trouble being critical. This is one of the other reasons why assuming a lack of intelligence is a shitbag thing to do. As I wrote in that post, the fake news problem is one manufactured by the news and tech organizations that many of us use. See what the problem is here?

Attributing this problem to a lack of intelligence (or education) means that we mis-identify what the actual problem is. This leaves us unable to pursue any real action to remedy the situation. Plonk those kids down in an info lit class where we give them rubrics for discerning credibility on news sources. By the time we’ve become organized enough to do this, the coders and advertisers at facebook have already developed a new advertising product that renders the rubric irrelevant. And so it goes. We never catch up because we simply do not have the resources to keep up with a company devoting millions of dollars to selling better advertising, much less all the tech and news companies.

On the flipside of ethical responsibility, one of the things I’ve said many times about keeping an eye on the systems/institutional level of analysis is that it does ease the burden a little. In a context like the last US presidential election where so many of the ‘credible’ and ‘trusted’ news orgs (liberal and conservative alike) essentially gave trump a free platform for his campaign, it isn’t hard to understand how a person could truly believe in what he says. Only to realize post-election that it was all lies. Yes, that person is ethically responsible but it isn’t solely their responsibility. That ethical burden is shared by all the news organizations that created a context where getting good, reliable information about the election and the candidates was very difficult. In other words, by creating a situation wherein trump seemed like the best candidate, they share the ethical responsibility for everything that happens as a consequence of his win.

In case anyone is wondering how I’ve managed to remain a believer in the fundamental goodness of people and how I maintain a certain level of compassion for people despite my experiences and how fucking bitter I am about so many things these days, it is this perspective of mine that allows me to retain it. Because looking towards the systems and institutions in which we make decisions, helps me see everyone as actual humans with agency. With all the frailty of humanity. It helps me understand how circumstance and context constricts our ability to make good decisions.

Perhaps the easiest example of this is the ‘there is no ethical consumption in capitalism’ axiom. What this asserts is that all consumer behaviour and choices within a capitalism system are inherently exploitative and oppressive. Why? Because this is the way that capitalism functions and how it plays out in real world institutions and in our lives. As such, the fact that everyone I know (including myself) does something unethical everytime we buy something doesn’t factor into how I perceive them as a human being. It doesn’t impact their value in my eyes2.

  1. I hope my bias here is clear. I obviously think that trump is a shitbag. However, for the person who did try and watch the election coverage and who lives in a conservative area, whose family is all voting republican (and always have), trump is a rational decision. This is, again, why I think it is a mistake to call such a person ‘stupid’. They aren’t stupid, they made the decision they felt was right and for reasons that are very similar to how a lot of people vote. Just because I don’t agree with their conclusion/decision, doesn’t make it irrational or stupid. Doesn’t make them irrational or stupid. 

  2. There are limits to this, of course, because while there is no ethical consumption some choices are less wrong than others.