Increasing awareness of distortion and deception in news media is accompanied by rising levels of anger about what amounts to an intelligence crisis in public communication. People with opposing views accuse each other of being useful idiots for the propaganda merchants, and failing to see the realities. Politicians are caricatured as idiots and clowns, glove puppets for oligarchs and corporate enterprises. This rhetorical trend may be a signal that we refuse to be taken for fools, but a growing obsession with the stupidity of others may itself be becoming a toxic influence.
There is no question that taking people for fools has indeed been central to the political strategy of neoliberal governments. ‘Public opinion is the work of men like us,’ as Friedrich Hayek said in his address to the founding meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947. Since then numerous heavily bank-rolled think tanks have been dedicated to finding ways of persuading electorates to vote for policies contrary to their interests, while media barons set out to sell the message in lurid images and language.
A backlash against this is long overdue, and politicians who play to the lowest common denominators of popular motivation – xenophobia, resentment, and financial anxiety – are prime targets. Pauline Hanson has been called ‘Australia’s most lauded political idiot’. On twitter, she’s dubbed ‘the Oxley Moron.’
There are rich pickings in the lexicon of stupidity. Much of it is derived from the imagery of the evolutionary throw-back. Cartoonists portray Tony Abbott as a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. Bernard Keane, political editor of Crikey, confessed in a tweet that he ‘once called Peter Dutton a drooling cretin.’
Infantilism is another form of retardation, and here caricaturists have had a field-day with President Trump. Giant inflatable Trump babies float above crowds of protesters, while the President’s communiques are received as dummy spits, temper trantrums, and ‘full nappy’ alerts. The suggestion is that he’s so intellectually challenged he can’t spell, can’t write and can barely speak coherently.
Given the ugliness of some of the views and policies pursued by these figures, isn’t this excusable – a necessary outlet for high levels of frustration and anxiety, and a deserved take-down for people who are unworthy of public office? But some cautions are also due. Stupidity and idiocy are central to the repertoire of insults most of us learn in childhood, and we tend to regress ourselves when we resort to it.
There is also some troubling cultural history behind most of the key words. In nineteenth and early twentieth century psychiatry, ‘moron,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile’ and ‘cretin’ were labels for levels of retardation in a system of classification based on an evolutionary interpretation of human development. We should beware of these terms.
To even think of referring to a child with a learning disability as an imbecile would now be seen as pernicious. Consigning human beings to an inferior category is a vile and dangerous practice, and in the history of racism, social Darwinism has a lot to answer for.
I’m skeptical of the tendency to police vocabulary at the level of the word. ‘Idiot’ is a term so widely used that it has now surely lost its more malign connotations. Context, tone, phrasing and association are the elements that really render an expression abusive.
Some words, though, are more loaded than others, partly because of their tendency to attract clusters of other terms and images that can make up a dangerous pattern of abuse. This syndrome has become starkly evident in the case of British politician Diane Abbott. Abbott, the shadow Home Secretary, is a socialist. She has a strong media profile, as a regular guest on BBC current affairs programs, but is hardly a populist. She runs no controversial campaigns, and has no rabid following. Born in London, of Jamaican parents, she was the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons.
She is frequently the target of abusive language in the press and on social media
Following a recent appearance on the BBC panel program Question Time, she lodged a formal complaint about prejudicial treatment, which included an allegation that presenter Fiona Bruce had made unscripted remarks in the pre-broadcast warm-up that were demeaning and liable to stir up racist attitudes.
The recording of the episode released on YouTube has drawn some 2,000 comments, nearly half of which are about Diane Abbott, and the majority of those are hostile. They run the gamut of the stupidity lexicon, calling her ‘a blithering idiot,’ ‘utterly retarded and obnoxious,’ ‘thick as mince,’ ‘dumber than a box of rocks,’ with ‘the IQ of a pickled walnut.’ But that’s only the run-of-the-mill insults. At the next level we get: ‘Half-wit Diane not fit to clean the local toilets’; ‘I-see-Pink-Heffalumps-all-day-long Stupid’; ‘Fatabbot the moron’; ‘has early stage dementia.’
Then there is an escalation to overt forms of racial vilification. She is described as ‘a bloated cockroach’ and ‘Abbotopomus.’ ‘Should have known that the 71 point average Jamaican IQ would come to the fore for Abbot in the end,’ says one contributor. ‘Diane Abbot has the same IQ as a chimpanzee,’ says another. There are also various remarks too obscene to be reported here.
Diane Abbott is a Cambridge graduate. In the 1970s she worked for the Home Office, where she was selected for an accelerated career track, going on to an appointment as Race Relations Officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties. She went into politics in 1982 as a member of the Westminster City Council and was elected to parliament in 1987. She won 75% of the vote in her electorate at the 2017 election.
Abuse has a life of its own in public culture. It obeys no rules about appropriate levels and targets. If public intelligence is in crisis, this obsession with stupidity will do nothing to restore it. It’s time to think again about what intelligence is, and how to cultivate it.
Jane Goodall is an Emeritus Professor with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. She writes regularly for Inside Story.