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On stupidity and the excesses of wokeness

One of the first laws of human existence, or at least of existence in class societies (determined by anti-human institutions that mold human behavior), is that the world consists mostly of idiots. Or, more precisely, of people much more prone to idiocy than is desirable. (To say someone is "an idiot" or "unintelligent" or even "irrational" is inadmissibly reifying, since it treats the person as a static entity, an unchanging thing—irrational, always and forever; just plain stupid, period. The defensible content of the statement is that the person has acted irrationally or stupidly, or in that moment has been unintelligent. Even "stupid" or "irrational" people sometimes act intelligently and rationally.) The subject of unintelligence or irrationality—two concepts that, strictly speaking, should be distinguished from each other—doesn't get as much attention as it deserves, given the astonishing prevalence of stupidity and irrationality throughout history. How can it be explained? Why are so many people so dumb, in so many ways? What are the social, institutional, political, psychological, and biological causes? Years ago I jotted down some thoughts on the matter that I sometimes link to on this blog, but much more can be said.

Politically, for example, the right wing is virtually defined by stupidity, ignorance, bigotry, and, among the higher-ups, sheer lust for power for its own sake (even if it means destroying civilization in the process, tearing apart nature and everything pertaining to social welfare), but the left is lamentably moronic as well. A large proportion of the left's stupidity is, as usual, a result simply of indoctrination, groupthink, and conformism, tendencies that in fact go a long way toward explaining the ubiquity of stupidity/irrationality throughout history. People want to fit in—with whichever group is their preferred one—so they voluntarily and even enthusiastically submit to the ideologies or "discourses" that allow them to fit in, not sufficiently questioning them in the light of reason. The consequence is that you get billions of Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. even in the modern world that should have left religion behind long ago. Or you get the formerly widespread belief in, say, the divine right of kings. People accept what they've been taught because they see others around them accepting it. Or you get the contemporary left's hyper-woke ideologies that serve, in large part, to marginalize leftists and alienate everyone else. These people have chosen to identify with certain groups, they've read the literature of these groups and imbibed the modes of interaction, and they've accepted it all simply on account of their self-identification (with these groups) and the values that sustain that identification.

I'll give you a trivial example, from my email inbox yesterday. I was amused to see a thread of messages on an academic listserv that were responding to this seemingly innocuous email from, let's say, Jennifer:

Good Morning,

Hope all is well. [Redacted] is in need of a few good men to assist with loading food into the pantry today, Thursday, April 7th from 12noon – 2pm in room 235. Any assistance will be greatly appreciated.

Thank you.

Seems innocent to me. A light-hearted reference to a Tom Cruise movie, etc. But a few minutes later we get, from (say) Lindsay:

Hi Jennifer. Strength does not have a sex or gender. Thank you.

Yes, the woke police were on the job. Thank god someone was there to correct the thoughtcrime! Later we read from a third person (let's say Anna):

Good afternoon All,

I am happy that [redacted] needs assistance in stocking the pantry so that we can provide nourishment for as many students and their families as possible. If anyone is able and willing, please stop by 235 to help.

Thank you Lindsay, for reminding us to be thoughtful in our interactions, both in word and deed. We must all work to un-, re- and learn interpersonal habits. If something is said or done that appears to perpetuate behavior or language we seek to change in efforts to build our inclusive and equitable community, we can be gracious and kind in pointing it out or asking for it to be addressed.

For example, I’ve been addressing this language in smaller spaces as it occurs: we must all remember not to address large crowds as “ladies and gentlemen” or “you guys”, as doing so excludes individuals who do not identify as either. Instead, use inclusive language, such as, “all, everyone, or folks”, for example. [...]

I was curious to see how far the wokeness would be taken, so I kept reading, from a fourth person:

*able-bodied volunteers. There, I fixed it for you!

Later we see another email:

Good afternoon Anna, I really admire how you jump right in to de-escalate a situation!

Yes, the "situation" between Jennifer and Lindsay was...threatening to escalate? Luckily Anna was there to help. Moments later we get a mea culpa from Jennifer:

I sincerely apologize to anyone that took offense to the [redacted] department need for assistance. Thank you Anna for the reminder and it will be taken into consideration if the need should arise again. It was not my intention to exclude or suggest women are not strong and for that I sincerely apologize.

Phew, HR situation averted. But the issue isn't settled yet, because an hour later we see this message from yet another staffer or professor:

Thank you everyone for your thoughtful contributions and your dedication to making [this college] an institution that welcomes everyone - including students, staff and faculty.

We are all learning how to work with each other in thoughtful, compassionate ways. No one is perfect at this (speaking as a lifelong learner here).

In this spirit of sharing and learning, I'd like to add to this important conversation. "Able-bodiedness" can be used as code for "normal" in a way that is potentially harmful, painful, and exclusionary of some people with disabilities.

If the concern is that people have physical strength to volunteer, it probably makes more sense to say that the tasks will require lifting 25 (or however many pounds) rather than disqualifying people with disabilities who may be perfectly able to lift that amount or more.

And, they might even be really fun to work with!

It turns out that the term "able-bodied" is offensive too. Before long, we won't be able to talk anymore. The expression "how are you?" is offensive to people who think it's too nosy and prefer to just say "hello." And so on, and so on (to quote Slavoj Žižek).

By the way, men are, in fact, physically stronger on average than women, so it was perfectly reasonable for Jennifer to ask for male volunteers. Maybe heavy boxes had to be lifted. (I know I just committed a fascist thoughtcrime by saying men are usually stronger than women.)

This email exchange is merely amusing, but it's a microcosm of a veritable epidemic of woke stupidity among the left and liberal-left. I'm not saying everything "woke" is unnecessary or ridiculous; in many contexts, woke interventions are valuable. But the whole discourse just goes so far that it ultimately becomes its own form of "left-wing" "fascism." It would be nice if the highly woke could be relied on to use their common sense about when to intervene and when that would just be petty and alienating, but evidently a lot of them have been indoctrinated out of common sense and are happy to take wokeness to its reductio ad absurdum, again and again. Policing every single word people use, making a laughingstock of the left.

It reminds me of part of a Dissent interview with Barbara Ehrenreich in 2019:

Such is the power of ideological thinking, which typically amounts, in some respects, to stupid/irrational thinking. Closed-minded, inflexible, unempathetic, inhumane thinking. The disturbing prevalence of such thinking suggests to me that most people simply lack a sufficiently rational (and intelligent) cast of mind, the capacity of intellectual self-defense against the pressures of socialization and indoctrination. It's an unfortunate fact about humanity, which is among the ingredients that have made possible fascism, Nazism, everyday bureaucratic inhumanity, and all manner of stupidities and cruelties. Very few people, actually, are significantly immune to such pressures—I can only think of one, the hyper-rational and hyper-individualistic Chomsky[1]—but most are very, very far from being immune.

As I've remarked elsewhere on this blog, stupidity/irrationality often amounts to little more than value-laden thinking, as opposed to logical, evidence-based, skeptical thinking. Lindsay didn't like the words "a few good men," with their implication that men are better at lifting things than women (which, on average, they are), so she had to send out a stupid, irrelevant email about how women are strong too. Feminists don't like jokes they consider "sexist," so in the middle of comedy shows they stupidly blurt out heckling objections or tweet about how some comedian has made a joke that's, "like, so misogynistic, like it's so not okay!" Get over yourself. Religious people don't like the idea that there is no God, so they ignore the hundreds of reasons to be an atheist. A third of the country likes Donald Trump, so it stupidly and slavishly waves away all rational objections to that monstrous buffoon. Values, values, values—people can't see past their values, refuse to consider anything contrary to their values (or the ideas, objects, people, and ways of being they value). They can't step outside themselves enough to consider objections, contrary evidence, chains of reasoning, opposing perspectives that may well be more justifiable than their own. They're heavily immersed in their own subjectivity, a subjectivity that doesn't sufficiently incorporate others (for such incorporation is a quality of both intelligence and rationality). Thus you get a world that teems with ludicrous ideas and people, an awe-inspiring freak show of every conceivable form of stupidity, irrationality, and insanity—all because people are trapped in their own petty little subjectivities walled by rigid personal values, windowless monads, prison cells that let in, at most, mere cracks of light.

There's an extreme of lucid, diaphanous consciousness and an extreme of opaque, self-immersed consciousness. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, closer to one end or the other. Non-human animals have an ultra-opaque consciousness, barely incorporating other beings at all (barely self-aware, self-critical); people like Chomsky, incorporating an incredible abundance of perspectives and facts, are at the other extreme. A huge proportion of people are, it seems, disturbingly close to the animal end of the spectrum.

Since I've referred to the excesses of wokeness, it makes sense to end this post on an anti-woke note, by briefly defending the terrible left-wing heresy called "class reductionism." (Cue the hisses, boos, and outraged shrieks.) What an atrocious heresy, which has had such ignominious exponents as....Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, for starters. Marxism, after all, is pretty much all about so-called class reductionism—class struggle, class solidarity, the principle of class conflict as being the most important factor in explaining social dynamics. It's a mystery to me how self-styled Marxists can inveigh against class reductionism—whatever that term means—but, again, stupidity pervades the left.

First of all, "class reductionists" like Adolph Reed Jr. are perfectly aware that issues of race, gender, sexuality, and so on are important and to some degree independent of class. They can't be wholly solved through an exclusively class-based politics. So all the rabid denouncers of class reductionism are, almost entirely, tilting at windmills. It's a classic straw-man fallacy. But there is indeed a disagreement between the camps: genuine Marxists are convinced that class solidarity offers the greatest hope and the largest social base for emancipatory and expansive social change, whereas their woke, postmodernist (identity-politics-obsessed) critics prefer, in effect, a fractured left in which each little group pursues its own agenda—Black people, immigrants, feminists, the LGBTQ community, etc.—perhaps trying to form alliances when they can. Such a politics can certainly produce gains for each group, but meanwhile, the society-wide problems of working conditions, income distribution, housing, health care, education, unemployment, livable cities, environmental destruction, imperialism, militarism, and nonexistent democracy—problems that affect huge proportions of people in these groups—remain largely unaddressed. Instead we get, say, campaigns around police brutality that have almost no success at eliminating police brutality—which, after all, is a somewhat minor issue (however horrendous it is) compared to the ones I just listed. All those problems have to be addressed through a class politics, an alliance of people of all colors in the (immense) working class against a predatory elite.[2] When you build such a movement of overwhelming numbers, you have much more success at addressing fundamental issues than a fragmented race-based or gender-based or sexuality-based politics can have.

Marxist intellectuals have written sophisticated academic articles—like this one:

The Class Path to Racial Liberation
Download PDF • 454KB

—in defense of a class-based politics over a race-based one—pointing out, for instance, that race-blind interventions in public policy (such as income redistribution) can substantially reduce racial inequality—but in truth you need only a little bit of intelligence and rationality to see the vast superiority of a strategy that targets class rather than race. "Class" = a much larger social base; solutions to fundamental social ills; potentially an egalitarian society; and plentiful opportunities to combat racial and other prejudices as all sorts of people work together in political and labor organizations. "Race" = divisiveness and fragmentation; frequent deepening of racial prejudice among whites who resent all this focus on the problems of Blacks; political ineffectiveness (as seen by the failures of Black Lives Matter); relative disregard of universal and foundational social ills; and an agenda that, to a large degree, wants little more than for minorities to be treated like heterosexual whites—most of whom capitalism treats horribly. What a grand agenda! Identity politics, especially taken on its own in abstraction from a class strategy, is a retreat from the revolutionary, universalist visions of an older left. (And remember, the older left was far from insensitive to the grievances of minorities. The Communist Party in the 1930s really got the civil rights movement started, on the basis largely of class demands on behalf of Blacks. And unions in the AFL-CIO were important funders of the civil rights movement.)

Unfortunately, in order to see these truths, you have to be....somewhat intelligent. Which means—to return to the cynical theme that began this post—only a minority of the intellectual class is able to see them.


[1] If you—like others—think my (frequently reiterated) admiration of Chomsky is excessive, just read his works in linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, history, and of course politics. Go and read his voluminous output, to see what I'm talking about. There's no one like him.

[2] Actually, even the scourge of police brutality can only be solved through a class (albeit race-inflected) politics. Such brutality affects all races, after all.



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