I have noticed a tendency. I don’t know how long it has been happening. Perhaps it has been going on forever and I haven’t noticed it. I have seen it before now, but I am seeing it with increasing and recurring frequency. I see it in the political sphere a lot, the journalistic sphere quite a lot and the church a fair amount too. I am talking about the tendency to assume stupidity in anyone with whom we disagree.
It is very common now to assume politicians with whom we might have deeply held disagreements and sincere (possibly even very important) differences are necessarily thick. Or, if not thick, deeply unserious. Rather than insisting such people are wrong, maybe even dangerously so and showing both how and why, we just suggest they are dumb. They don’t think what we do, so they must be stupid. They don’t agree with me because they must be unintelligent. They are not in my camp so they can’t really be considered credible.
Again, in the world of journalism, we get much the same. If a journalist agrees with me, they are serious and worth hearing. If a journalist happens to present information I don’t like, they must be stupid or not very serious. Rather than just putting matters down to disagreement, we insist they are hacks. They must be a bit dim. They are not really credible, just “polemicists” or “rent-a-gobs”. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t. But it seems to be the knee-jerk reaction to everyone these days. If you don’t affirm what I already think, you must be dim-witted, thick, in the pay of someone or some other ad-hominem so that I can write you off without reference to anything you say.
Of course, all journalists and politicians have angles. They will hold views and, whilst certainly not all of the time, will present information that best supports their position or in such a way as their predetermined stance is not undermined. But let’s not pretend that we don’t all do that from time to time. We all hold positions we believe to be true about a whole raft of things and interpret information in light of those things. It is in the nature of believing anything at all. Nobody is a vacuum into which information is simply deposited and perfectly rational, analytical, unbiased and non-prejudicial explanations of those facts pops out.
Sadly, I have also noted this tendency in the church. Anyone with whom we disagree must be a total idiot. Christians calling other Christians a waste of space, a joke, off their nut because they disagree over some point of theology or doctrine. Sometimes, those comments are ridiculously overblown when it turns out they are being written off because of a difference over some tertiary level point of arcane theology. But even if they are over incredibly serious matters of vital gospel importance, to suggest that somebody takes the view they do because they’re stupid or thick is often just untrue. Those who take such positions may well be very bright indeed.
Ironically, I think the quickness with which we shout thickness obscures are much starker reality. If we dismiss people as idiots so we don’t have to engage them, we can’t be surprised when others engage them, find them quite thoughtful and intelligent, and so dismiss us because we cannot apparently see it is so. We are the ones who look unintelligent when we do that because we clearly cannot tell the difference between disagreement and stupidity. Hardly the sign of an intelligent and analytical mind.
But there is a worse reality here too. If we simply dismiss everyone we disagree with as utterly stupid, especially when they are not, we will engage them (if we even bother to engage at all) on entirely the wrong terms. If anything, if such people are actually very intelligent but as seriously and damagingly wrong as we claim, we are trivialising how dangerous they are by dismissing them as fools and dolts. What if they aren’t stupid and they know exactly what they are doing? Doesn’t that make matters much worse? They are actually bright enough to enact the damaging things they want to say and do. Doesn’t that require a better response than calling them names and writing them off as thickos?
More to the point, it speaks to a deep arrogance in ourselves. If everyone who disagrees with me is stupid, I must be incredibly intelligent. I am, indeed, the arbiter of cleverness. I am the measure. That is a ridiculously high level of authority to put on your own thoughts and ideas. It is a very high views of your own opinions. You might well be right about something. But you’re not right because it is what you think. You are right because you have the evidence and reasons to support what you think. Other people are not wrong because they disagree with you. They are wrong because they do not have the evidence or reasons to support their position. But we should at least give people the charity of assuming they might have some reasons for their position. Then, hearing them out. Then, rather than just calling them names, presenting counterpoints and arguments to address them.
Are there unintelligent people in the world? Of course there are. But it surely can’t be the case that the only intelligent people always happens to agree with us. I am minded to think Western Christians are sometimes particularly prone to this because we believe a truth that the overwhelming majority of our culture rejects. Because we hold to beliefs that are not mainstream but seem so evidently true to us, we are prone to buying into other beliefs and views that are not mainstream but seem obvious to us as well. And we can be tempted to insist that others who simply don’t see what we see are blinded by their own unwillingness to acknowledge the facts. Which can sometimes seem a bit thick and stupid. The trouble is, just because we are used to standing against the tide of overwhelming majority opinion in one area doesn’t mean the overwhelming majority are wrong in every area. One minority view being true does not make all minority views true. Just because somebody believe something different, even mainstream, doesn’t make them stupid. Indeed, it doesn’t even necessarily make them wrong!