Ignorance: Today’s Trendy Political Insult

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

If there’s one word that makes the knife drag deeper between the political divide nowadays it’signorance” — what has become an increasingly popular allegation. President Trump has on numerous occasions been paired with the word “stupid” in headlines and voters on both sides of the aisle have become quite accustomed to accusing the other of simply blind idiocy.

Across the board, the word instinctively makes people bristle, heating up political frustration. In addition, its resulting defensive import emotionally drives people to further barricade their beliefs. Needless to say, it’s a good example of an inflammatory word. But those that utilize it — sprinkling it throughout their tweets, daily conversations, and internal commentary — slowly lose any sense of there being anything less than appropriate with habitually tossing out the barb that is “ignorance”.

Frankly, it’s not a good idea to encourage the use of this word. And my reasons for this are less tangled up with propriety than they are with the consequences of the reductionist attitude that using this word so often entails. The accusation of ignorance is so overused that it’s ironically making its underlying supposition stand out as more questionable — that underlying supposition being that half of the nation (irrespective of which side you stand on) is fundamentally stupid. For some, the sheer absurdity of this claim has dawned on their consciences and they have begun to wonder how we got here in the first place.

Which is a great question. . .

Now, let it be known that the temptation to label one’s opponents as incorrigibly dumb is a pretty basic vice throughout the history of humanity. However, we also have to recognize that by plenty of historical accounts, political polarization has been on the rise. Talk to anybody of a certain age and they’ll say that things have gotten worse, that things used to be more civil. It’s true that nostalgia can work its magic by overlaying the past with a false glow but in this case the old-timers are right: The gap has widened.

And there’s consequences to this spread in regards to not only how we communicate with each other, but also how we understand each other. The tame idea once baked into the bedrock of American culture that “everyone has different perspectives” is found in fewer and fewer traces.

There’s an important point worth mentioning here: The superficially tolerant adage of “everyone has a different perspective” shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement of relativist truth — a concern that many people have today. In reality, political stances are less tied up with philosophical “truth” as much as they simply reflect a person’s preference for how the world would work.

Thus, people, particularly in the freedom-scented air of America, are more than welcome to make independent decisions about their preferred way that the world would function. And we have to remember that people are free to hold these opinions and they’re just as free to defend these ideas.

There’s another disclaimer worth insuring here: Being permissive of the different perspectives of others shouldn’t be conflated with the notion of compromise. You shouldn’t have to (or feel pressured to) dilute ideals that you believe in to serve a supposedly higher ideal of a “middle ground”. All you have to do is understand that people have their reasons for believing what they believe (though you’re totally free to think they are wrong!) and so long as both of you are civil, there’s not much to worry about.

But it’s precisely this stipulation of civility that many feel has been steadily eroding in recent years. When it’s in place it helps to keep people on common ground — importantly, not because those people have made political compromises per se — but because they’ve all unspokenly agreed to serve a higher authority of generalized courtesy. They’ve agreed to keep politics from bleeding into all of their interactions with people.

So if the reasoning, “oh, they just have a different perspective” has been dropped, what’s come to replace it? Interestingly, a new ethos of intelligence and morals has arrived on the scene. That is to say, people that we politically disagree with are rather quick to receive criticisms of stupidity and/or immorality. But just how justified are people in making such bold claims? And why has this political reaction become so strong a trend, so entrenched with the way that we deal with our fellow citizens?

1. It Feels Good

One of the most basic reasons why we call our political opponents stupid is so elementary that it’s sure to take us back to our childhoods, where we might’ve bickered with siblings, say: We call our adversaries ignorant because it feels good! It’s a power move that derives most of its clout from the fact that the term inspires a visceral emotional reaction in people — that is its intended effect. In reality, there is no argument in an accusation of stupidity, the word invokes only the bruising effect of a deliberately-chosen barb of the English language. In addition, calling others stupid handily validates our own opinions. The stinging allegation can even act like a distraction for anybody trying to honestly criticize our own opinions and beliefs People go running off to address this wound and an actual political discussion never ends up happening.

2. It’s Easier

Picking up off of the previous point, if you call someone stupid, you aren’t obligated to understand them. (Which can be quite a draw.) What ends up occurring is that you make a snap judgment that is designed to attack rather than to inquire (or even to challenge). This cuts out a lot of the work that inevitably comes with figuring out where another person is coming from and why they believe what they do. This also cuts out a lot of the work associated with seeing your own beliefs tested for their merit. . . which would be the natural result of exposing yourself to the political outlooks of others. In a hasty, subconscious attempt to avoid this, slapping the label “ignorant” on the other side has become a rather convenient and attractive means towards this end.

3. Politics attracts certain people and repels others

By most recent statistical measures, the more politically active a person is, the less tolerant they tend to be of opposing views. This logically implies that the most dogmatic of us has the heaviest hand in shaping the political landscape that we all find ourselves housed in. And to be fair, the people that speak out about politics in today’s environment are usually people not afraid of confrontation. Consequently, the rougher it looks out there, the more less-confrontational people step away entirely from politics, exhausted and intimidated as they are. This creates a feedback loop whose self-reinforcing effect is something akin to Darwin’s natural selection until all you got left are the ones most primed for a fight (which, if I can bravely speculate here, increases the likelihood that you’re going to hear provocative insults of stupidity flying back and forth).

4. Group identity is reinforced

At its base level, calling someone stupid infuses the perpetrating group with energy. It fluffs up people’s sense of moral authority and has the effect of binding them closer together. Of course, such bold intellectual posturing on the part of a group makes people less likely to honestly evaluate their own individual opinions. Think back to when you were a kid and you participated in some kind of game or scheme where some kids were “on your side” and the rest were “enemies”. You quickly learned that saying bad things about the “enemy” was conducive to the strength of the group identity. The same sociological effect is true of political identity, which is part of the reason why the “ignorance insult” has become such a tempting compulsion.

5. What once was “different” has now become “wrong”

Perhaps the combativeness of today is a result of a feverish attempt on the part of both parties to show that they are the “right” one. However, the more they do that, the more the other party digs their heels in! The result is not only a cultural debate on what constitutes the “truth” itself, but a more cutthroat environment wherein political ideologies are no longer competing to be the more attractive one, but rather, are competing to seize and conquer the evasive territory of absolute truth. It’s a very zero-sum setup. And so American political ideologies have morphed from being less a chosen way of life to being combative belief systems that seek to lay claim to absolute truth, morality, and intelligence — which necessarily implies that the other side gets none of these things. And that’s hard to do — because in trying to lay dominion on these things, the other side can’t be just “different” — they have to be completely wrong.

6. We assume we are more erudite than we actually are

The popular invocations of “right” and “wrong” in political discourse undergirds another erroneous belief we tend to have: That we’re oh-so-educated about politics and our adversaries are not. Here’s the truth: No one of us is so elegantly dispassionate and objective that we base our political outlooks on facts alone. Sure, some of us might make more of a pointed effort to seek out facts or we might have a personality that simply is more naturally interested in them. But we all hold certain ideas that we have a gut reaction to: Conservatives value self-reliance because they have a gut reaction towards government invasiveness (in addition to reasoned beliefs and rational defenses, of course) while liberals value social safety nets because they have a gut reaction towards something like redistributive fairness (again, in addition to their own reasoned beliefs and rational defenses).

Consider also that political belief is highly correlated with one’s personality, i.e. one’s emotional proclivities. (Conservatives are more conscientious while liberals score higher in openness.) Basically, asserting that the other side is “ignorant” can be taken to be a little presumptuous. If anything, who made you the paragon of intellectual authority? At its core, it’s a bit of a needlessly bold claim that frankly, has a bit of cringe factor associated with its brazenness.

There is also something striking about the relationship between education and “political literacy” worth mentioning here. Essentially, research has shown that the more formal education a person has, the less likely they are to report an accurate estimate of what the other side believes. According to the More in Common Project in 2019, “Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.” (Worthwhile to note is that this particular effect holds with Democrats but not with Republicans.)

7. Donald Trump

No discussion of the language of ‘ignorance’ or ‘stupidity’ being on the rise would be complete without broaching one of the most contentious political figures of our time: President Trump. His controversial persona makes plenty of people’s hair stand on end and he has been a favorite target of the political left for the aforementioned terms. What makes Trump unique is the intensity of the love-him-or-hate-him reactions that he inspires.

Over the last number of years, he has inflamed the disgust of the Left like no other. Predictably, this caused his supporters to retaliate in equal measure. Many are quick to blame Trump for deepening the political divide, but that might be too premature an explanation. More accurately, the ascendance of Trump is a symptom of the forces that had been brewing long before he entered the campaign circuit back in 2015 — most notably, populist discontent.

Granted, Trump is more a fighter than he is a diplomat. He is provocative. He inspired such strong emotional revulsion in the Left to the degree that he was labeled all sorts of names that made “ignorant” sound rather tame in comparison. And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the smug surety of the Left that Trump would never secure the election back in 2016. It was precisely this underestimation, lack of understanding and reviling of Trump voters as, well, impossibly stupid that turned out to be one giant mistake for their camp.

In any case, half the country hates the president so much that everything that comes out of his mouth is by default, apt to be dismissed — as fundamentally not for them, say. Thus, the nurturance of common American values becomes even more a thing of the past; people stick to their partisan bubbles and tend not to think there is anything outside of them worth cultivating anymore. These kinds of attitudes are a breeding ground for misperception, fostering the likelihood that someone will deploy the “ignorant” phrase and feel relatively unbothered about doing so.

All this said, the temptation to weaponize “stupidity” as our primary political insult is strong but in truth, it does none of us any good. It’s far less likely that people are fundamentally stupid than it is that they’ve become defensive over a worldview that their opponents don’t care enough to understand.

Ultimately, it’s far easier to think the other side did everything wrong, but we mustn’t forget that the other side does not exist in a vacuum. Sometimes, it helps to look in the mirror, even if the prevailing forces urge us to attack rather than to inquire.

And I get it, resisting the compulsion to think the other side is stupid is hard — we all want to do it at some point. But it’s clearly not making anyone happier nor is it solving any problems and these reasons alone, just maybe, might be enough to make us stop and think whether everyone’s just stupid or everyone’s just misunderstood and lashing out accordingly.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

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