The Oval Office is up for grabs between Clinton and Trump, and I can’t remember the last time that I, living in a capitalist society, as a consumer, somehow ran out of options. If I can get my beer non-alcoholic and my ice cream fat-free, surely I can get my presidential candidate non-corporate and scandal-free, right?
How did we get here? Trump is a shameless liar with no experience in political office; while Clinton has too much of the wrong kind of experience — for example, promoting fracking and selling arms around the world. We are trapped between Scylla and Charybdis.
There are many reasons we are in this mess, but I will just focus on one: anti-intellectualism. I don’t mean that democracy is in shambles because we lack a certain standard of intellectual capacity. In fact, anti-intellectualism has very little to do with one’s intellect at all. Rather, it is an attitude that expresses one’s masked fundamentalism. We are not as liberal or progressive as we think.
Typically, “anti-intellectualism” refers to a disregard for facts, an unwillingness to engage in reasoned debate, or being under the sway of religious dogma — the interlocutor who dismisses a reasonable argument simply because it does not confirm their own particular worldview. However, I am interested in a different kind of anti-intellectualism. We live in a world where we rely more and more on artificial intelligence to do all sorts of thinking for us. It feels so natural, as if the AI were just an extension of our knowledge, but the boundary between our thoughts and what thinks for us has become blurred. You might even say that our thoughts are not our own, that we merely regurgitate what we find in various media that put information — and opinion — at our fingertips. We take whatever suits our self-interest and toss it into that shopping cart called our beliefs. Anti-intellectualism is the consequence of surrendering oneself to artificial intelligence.
Anti-intellectualism undermines both deliberation and diversity. It inhibits one’s capacity to engage in dialogue with others and breeds a territoriality about one’s beliefs and identity. It encourages one’s values and one’s self-interest to overlap and become non-negotiable, and that is fundamentalism.
“Freedom of speech”
Trump’s popularity has been built upon a “freedom of speech” platform that wages war against “political correctness” — the man speaks his mind, and people are drawn to this. However, “freedom of speech” in an age of anti-intellectualism has become nothing more than the freedom for sound to endlessly bounce around in an echo chamber. Instead of freedom of the press, the freedom to dissent, or to conscientiously object to injustice perpetrated by the powerful — concepts of accountability and open dialogue that guard against tyranny — freedom of speech today means something more like the freedom from guilt when speaking in a tyrannical and bigoted way. “I’m exercising my freedom of speech” sounds more and more like “I’m justifying my stubborn inability to empathize or engage in reasonable debate with a differing opinion.” Often it’s the shameless broadcasting of one’s tribal affinity. “Go Red Sox!” “Vote Trump!” Freedom of speech, in the context of advanced capitalism, has become the freedom to advertise one’s personal brand.
This “freedom of speech” floods the public sphere. Thanks to technology, we now have the means to produce information at a blistering rate. People tweet, post on Facebook, share and re-share around the clock. It is not only the media elite that broadcast the “news” anymore, it is literally everyone. We are the creators of what we simultaneously consume: ourselves.
Both presidential campaigns have taken advantage of this. Trump hijacks headlines and major news outlets’ tendency to report on spectacle, making relevant information harder to come by for the everyday voter. The Clinton campaign is great at politicking and disseminating troll-worthy taglines to divert attention away from real issues, as when Clinton tweeted: “@BernieSanders prioritized gun manufacturers’ rights over the parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook.” The Tweet is amusingly misleading — Sanders is actually on the progressive side of the gun control debate, while Clinton profits from arms sales to corrupt regimes elsewhere in the world — but it does its job. The Clinton campaign wants this little string of fewer than 140 characters to be reproduced and disseminated as far and wide as possible. They are taking advantage of the fact that we can’t help but share information that confirms our presuppositions, and social media makes it that much easier for us to do so. This perpetuation and consumption of information has become a form of addiction that keeps us fixated on spectacle without substance. The Clinton Tweet is emblematic of the fix we now need on a regular basis to take the edge off of having to put any actual work into understanding issues. It’s habituating us to think all we need are headlines (stories are often shared without being read) that conclusions no longer require premises.
Anti-intellectualism is when one’s ability to think becomes completely dependent upon something other than oneself. We conflate what thinks for us with our own thinking, while internalizing an illusion of autonomy. Some have become convinced Hillary is a champion of feminism, others that Trump is a great businessman and leader — by posting links that argue exactly that. But Google will produce just as many results arguing the other way. What “thinks for us” has traditionally been the institutions that are in the business of manufacturing information — the media, education — who also function to police and enforce norms, but in recent history, those who control the means of producing information are no longer a few corporate elites, they are all of us. I say “information,” and not knowledge. Knowledge has become rare, whereas information is ubiquitous. And that is the anti-intellectual context: an inundation of information that floods the public sphere, keeping people from the knowledge what would threaten the existing hegemony.
The capitalist context
As capitalist consumers, we are experts in accumulation. We purchase all sorts of things, simultaneously constructing our self-identity. Corporations profit from our never-ending drive to express ourselves. We seduce ourselves into believing the self that is constructed via purchases is an autonomous individual because it was constructed from free-market choices. This accumulation is narcissistic rather than empathic: we tend to have more interest in the trends that reflect our own interests than we do in those that affect others. This tunnel vision also prevents us from considering how acting on our own interests could negatively affect others.
Of course accumulation does not only pertain to material goods. We buy into the different ideas and moral agendas. The way we consume and accumulate the bits of information and ideas that we mistake as knowledge is indistinguishable from how we consume and accumulate material goods. During presidential election years this phenomenon is even more pronounced.
Suddenly, everyone’s a self-appointed expert in politics because it’s time to cash in on their invested identities. Most people vote relative to their own interests. But what influential forces are manufacturing these interests?
How many of us use only one search engine (Google) to do everything from online shopping to reading about the news? Google is an artificial intelligence behemoth that has the power to influence what we find on our searches; and not all searches are created equal, they do come in a top-down list after all. And then there’s the accusation against Google manipulating searches in favor of Clinton. Again, the way in which we accumulate a sense of self-identity via consumerism tends to fortify, inform, and manipulate “our” interests into aligning with corporate and/or two-party political interests. All this is heightened during a presidential election year when a mind-boggling amount of money is invested into campaigning (for both candidates and issues).
In a capitalist context, everything can become commodified. We celebrate and encourage pluralism and diversity, but we have no clue how to relate to them in a way that does not involve commodification — of others or ourselves. We can sign our Tweets and posts #blacklivesmatter or #bringbackourgirls but if all we’re doing is amplifying and spreading a hashtag, we should not fool ourselves into believing we are fueling any real social change. Instead, we’re simply promoting our own brand… and signaling to the media that these topics are marketable. Anti-intellectualism reinforces one’s sense of political identity, which simultaneously decreases one’s capacity to engage in dialogue with others or with the complexity of a situation.
An empty pluralism
Postmodern pluralism, with its emphasis on the proliferation of worldviews, simultaneously breeds an indifference to the views of others. The celebration of diversity has empowered individuals to pursue their own forms of self-expression. However, this freedom of self-expression has regressed into a narcissistic form of individualism where one dismisses worldviews that do not conform to one’s own. It is great that we have all sorts of disparate movements aimed at progressing social justice issues, but can these disparate movements break free from tribal tendencies and see justice from a an intersubjective and ethical stance? Movements and protests today are very different from what they were in prior decades. Today, much of the work of raising awareness is done online and with the aid of social media. In an attempt to stay “trending” and relevant, movements can’t help but take part in the capitalist rituals of commodification (of issues), consumption (of confirming information) and accumulation (of likes and retweets). As a consequence of anti-intellectualism, social movements begin to merely confirm their own biases, while dismissing other worldviews.
The dismissal of all competing worldviews then introduces the possibility for a demagogic figure like Trump. Trump says ridiculous things, in all seriousness, and totally discounts criticism. Trump is anti-intellectualism personified. He is his own artificial intelligence — the only “facts” that are necessary are his own. He realizes, and I think we are all coming to grips with this dark reality, that he fills a need felt by American voters. To be clear, Trump does not represent an anarchical ideology, or the absolute absence of any guiding principles. There is a guiding logic to his madness, and he traces it back to himself. He is his own man, proud in his self-made brand and identity. Something, for better or worse, nearly anyone can either relate or aspire to.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to parse the difference between what advertises itself as progressively American and what contains traces of fundamentalism. Today, many of us are unable to engage in serious political debate because of the tunnel vision we have developed, or because we have been seduced by certain narratives which we only seek to confirm.
At the DNC, president Obama asked the American people to join him in rejecting cynicism and fear by electing Clinton. This sentiment was deeply anti-intellectual. It is not an obvious choice to vote for and support Clinton simply because Trump is the alternative. The argument for Clinton “because Trump” is not adequate and ironically expresses Trumpism in its performance. “Because Trump” — is this not Trump’s standard justification for all his words and deeds? In the end, perhaps fundamentalism wins no matter what.
As witnessed at both national conventions, infotainment has become a ubiquitous political force; our dependency on AI to inform and make our decisions seems total. Our strategically manicured social media feeds give us a steady diet of our own self-serving values. Narcissus had a pool; if only he had had the internet! We’ve surrounded ourselves everywhere with our mirrored likenesses, transfixed on spectacle without substance, on headlines without stories, on conclusions without premises, on information without understanding — all of which merely serves to confirm the passively accepted beliefs we’ve inherited… from ourselves. We are the ones powering artificial intelligence. Unfortunately for Trump, he is not as self-made as he’d like to think; he’s the product of our anti-intellectualism. But then again, as he’d likely respond: “Says who?”
Daniel Chen is a professional photographer and former graduate student in philosophy at the Institute of Philosophy in Leuven.