Just how stupid?

I admit it: all too often, I look at the generally low level of intelligence displayed in the entertainment, the political parties, the religious tendencies, and the blind consumerism in the US and harbor serious doubts about how many people in this country are capable of critical thought. It’s not exactly something to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy.

Yet, there’s a caveat in this. I also give more credit for intelligent thought than is shown by many within our society – there is a noticeable tendency to think or imply that everyone else (you know, them) is too stupid to make simple decisions. This appears in a wide variety of places, but I think it’s better illustrated with some examples.

Every time that youth in this country find something compelling and interesting, a plethora of moral crusaders manage to derive some impending doom from such interests, almost always with the idea that children are vapid and impressionable, to the point of being brainwashed. Most people are familiar with such claims about “rock n’ roll” back when it was first becoming popular, while in my youth it was the “satanic influences” of Dungeons & Dragons or backwards song lyrics. Recently, Harry Potter and the sexism of comic books have been targets of such crusades.

I hasten to add that this is hardly limited to youth, either; churches are notorious for promoting the idea that no one can make simple decisions without referring to their own particular rulebook, and we routinely see attempts to pass legislature aimed at controlling free expression and even established science. When the nice young men come to your door to ask if you’re saved, there isn’t the faintest recognition that you’ve not only heard all of their horseshit before, you’re far more aware of the rampant flaws therein (and perhaps even the bits about humility.) But that’s a milder example, compared to the crusading evangelicals that push for marriage restriction laws and block access to abortion clinics, who somehow believe that safe sex education is inadequate but their message of abstinence, elucidated within comic pamphlets, is far superior.

It also takes no effort to find politicians who act to save people from themselves, most often in close connection with some religious hotbutton, but not always – witness the ban on the sale of very large soft drinks in New York City. To be sure, there might be ulterior motives in many such efforts, yet this doesn’t change the fact that the professed motivation infers the inability of the general public to make smart decisions – that’s what they consider the selling point. And then there are the bizarre aspects of tribalism, where any one sports team, any state, or even the actions of this country are undeniably superior to all others, able to be found in the comments section of nearly any forum.

The attitude that underlies all of this is that other people do not possess the sense of those championing such causes. In essence, the general public needs the guidance of these brilliant minds. Egotism plays a large role in many of these, naturally enough, and might underlie all manifestations, but curiously, it does not often act to motivate people towards making themselves well-informed and objective, only to believe that this is self-evident and requires no special efforts.

Pearls Before Swine: Setting unrealistic intelligence expectations for crocodiles since 2000
Pearls Before Swine: Setting unrealistic intelligence expectations for crocodiles since 2000
Yes, the irony of this is appreciable, especially when we look back at the past examples. The country did not dissolve into chaos when the Beatles became popular, and role-playing gamers did not unleash satan upon the world by saying, “I cast a summoning spell” – even with the assistance of arcane dice rolls, as hard as that may be to believe. Much of such attitudes relies on absurdly feeble armchair psychology, and the belief that children, for instance, cannot recognize the unreality of cartoons. The very ignorance that underlies such assumptions is intriguing: someone that cannot recognize absurd premises is assuming the responsibility of protecting others from ignorance.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts now that tackled the idea of sexism in comic books and video games – but the underlying problem with addressing this is, there’s no evidence to establish that anyone is influenced in the slightest by such depictions. Such media are fantasy; they’re well known to be unrealistic, because that’s the whole point of fantasy. One could just as easily claim that video games promote epic quests, and that comic books cause children to believe that criminals wear funny suits. Yet we are continually bombarded with the idea that violence in media is a bad influence, despite the facts that crime stats have been dropping as media gets more violent. And even that isn’t a pertinent correlation; crime has much more involved influences than what someone sees on TV.

There’s also a huge problem with people that do not understand what sexism is, and believe that every manifestation of sexuality, most especially of females, counts as sexism – you will hear the word “exploitation” in such circumstances at least three times as often as in all others combined. It’s unfortunate that so many choose to champion a cause that they fail to understand, much like those that felt the Large Hadron Collider would create a black hole (or a strangelet) that would devour the world. But behavior studies have aptly demonstrated that a) men and women view sex differently, and b) this does not mean men are wrong. Yes, men respond to, and in fact seek, certain body shapes in women, much more so than women seek in men. Homo sapiens is actually on the subtler side of sexual dimorphism, compared to the differences in size and behavior often found in arthropods and fish. We do not consider the peacock to be exploited by the peahen who selects her mate based on the flamboyancy of his tail, but accept this as a curious manifestation of selection pressures. And the comic book editors and artists, as well as the movie producers and so on, are not exploiting anybody by featuring voluptuous women – well, this might not be true; they could be exploiting men by using such simplistic methods to gain their attention.

I have no doubts that last bit could send a lot of people over the edge – men are never exploited! How could they be? They run everything, they’re bigger and stronger and more capable… and so on. If you’re quick, you picked up on the real sexism that underlies so many responses in our culture, in the assumption that women become victims so easily. And that men cannot differentiate between a comic book and real-world interactions.

Sexism is the belief that gender is responsible for an irrational, unsupportable deficit, or requires a special response not justified by physical differences. Women and men receiving different pay for the exact same job duties? Yes, that’s sexism (and kindly note that I did not specify which gender received lower pay – this distinction is again lost on too many people.) Women depicted in any form of media with emphasis on their figure? Sorry, that doesn’t count – it’s simply recognizing the difference men and women have in their standards of desirability, and is not different from men being depicted as square-jawed and children as cute or precocious; stereotypes abound in media, because the point is to garner a reaction without the amount of time it takes to establish a personality, attitude, whatever. It could just as easily be pointed out that men are always depicted as the stupid ones in the relationship, driving the plot of nearly every sitcom since The Honeymooners. And if you want to see stereotypes, watch how overweight people are depicted…

The ‘chicken or egg’ issue also arises here, in that many people think that stereotypes and media depictions have fostered particular attitudes within cultures, never realizing that it most likely is the other way around – media that isn’t popular doesn’t receive attention, so the goal is to appeal to as many people as possible, which means media more often follows culture, rather than influencing it. But this doesn’t explain why so many people seem to find themselves on a higher plain than everyone else, able to enlighten and direct those not gifted with their own special breed of intelligence.

As mentioned above, it’s probably ego, the aspect of our behavior that makes us compete against others virtually all of the time. Being seen as smarter than other people is a point in our favor, and this may mean we’re likely to seize onto any factor, however weak, that could be used to indicate this. I originally thought that this idea didn’t contrast well against the typical insecurity we have over appearance – that’s almost the opposite of ego – but appearance is immediately evident, while intelligence needs to be demonstrated, so it’s open for any examples that can be found. Then there may be two parental traits that pop in for an appearance as well: teaching/mentoring and protecting children, with ‘children’ occasionally just meaning those younger than us. It’s not hard to find examples of adults that feel everyone younger is more na├»ve than they, even when they fully believed they had everything under control when that age themselves.

But, lest I fall victim to gross hypocrisy in regards to Armchair Psych 101, this is only speculation. To determine the accuracy of this, and any other idea about the influence of media or pastimes on our behavior, it’s going to take a lot more than someone believing it’s a logical progression – it requires detailed studies with large efforts made to eliminate the thousands of other influences we have in our daily lives. But almost certainly, the belief that any crusading individual is more capable of perceiving the influences or problems that will victimize the ‘general public’ is a significant bias all its own, and largely unwarranted. While we might decry the abysmal lack of intellectuality in much of our media, and the subterranean level of discourse in politics and such, this isn’t any indication that Homo sapiens, with a few exceptions, is functionally incompetent and needs protection from itself. And unsurprisingly, such an attitude is likely to be perceived not as benevolent guidance, but as pompous arrogance.

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