Are We in the Midst of a ‘War on Stupid People’?

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Photo: Paramount Pictures

In a provocative recent essay in The Atlantic, David H. Freedman, the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — And How To Know When Not to Trust Them, argues that we are in the midst of a “War on Stupid People.” Whereas in the past, intelligence — for simplicity’s sake, Freedman defines this mostly as IQ scores, or SAT scores, with which IQ scores are correlated — wasn’t a major determining factor in who got what in society, he writes, today it is. “As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory,” he writes. “IQ wasn’t a big factor in whom you married, where you lived, or what others thought of you. The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along—bosses didn’t routinely expect college degrees, much less ask to see SAT scores.”

Freedman goes on to explain the ways the nation’s culture reflects what he sees as a newfound disrespect for the less intelligent, as well as how this fits into the United States’ problem with inequality. It’s a really interesting, challenging essay — but does it hold together? I have some thoughts.

Freedman doesn’t really establish that there’s a current “War on Stupid People,” because his examples are pretty thin. To be fair, Freedman never uses that term, and it may well have been an editor who slapped the headline on, but still: his case that there is something uniquely troubling about our current age’s attitude toward less intelligent people feels quite shaky.

For instance:

The 2010s, in contrast, are a terrible time to not be brainy. Those who consider themselves bright openly mock others for being less so. Even in this age of rampant concern over microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the nonsmart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s‑bomb: Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.

It’s popular entertainment, too. The so-called Darwin Awards celebrate incidents in which poor judgment and comprehension, among other supposedly genetic mental limitations, have led to gruesome and more or less self-inflicted fatalities. An evening of otherwise hate-speech-free TV-watching typically features at least one of a long list of humorous slurs on the unintelligent (“not the sharpest tool in the shed”; “a few fries short of a Happy Meal”; “dumber than a bag of hammers”; and so forth). Reddit regularly has threads on favorite ways to insult the stupid, and fun-stuff-to-do.com dedicates a page to the topic amid its party-decor ideas and drink recipes.

The most popular comedy on television is The Big Bang Theory, which follows a small gang of young scientists. Scorpion, which features a team of geniuses-turned-antiterrorists, is one of CBS’s top-rated shows. The genius detective Sherlock Holmes has two TV series and a blockbuster movie franchise featuring one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. “Every society through history has picked some trait that magnifies success for some,” says Robert Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University and an expert on assessing students’ traits. “We’ve picked academic skills.”

It’s hard to find a lot in here that feels new. The Darwin Awards are almost a quarter-century old. People have been calling people stupid forever; dumb characters, in various guises, have been a mainstay of culture since there has been culture. And when we call someone “stupid,” it isn’t quite the same sort of insult as calling them an ethnic slur — it tends to be in response to a belief they hold or a thing they did, so it’s a crude, mean, shorthand way of saying “How could you do/think that?”

As for TV ratings, let’s look at the current ones. Yes, Big Bang Theory is On There, as it always is — but so is Dancing With the Stars and The Voice. And as for Sternberg’s argument that we’re fixated on academic ability, I’ve heard people make the exact same argument, albeit in a scoldier way, for the way the current age elevates athletes to superhuman status (we just witnessed the highest-rated NBA game ever to air on ABC).

Maybe there’s other evidence out there that we live in a uniquely dumb-people-bashing age, but Freedman’s version of this argument just isn’t that convincing.

The public’s view of dumb people doesn’t really have much to do with inequality. Freedman’s article contains some good, thoughtful stuff about inequality in America and how to address it — he’s a big proponent of expanded early childhood education, which is great policy. But his article also seems to be trying to connect the rise of inequality in America with what he sees as shifting attitudes about the acceptability of ridiculing and looking down on dumb people. I think that would be a mistake.

America’s rather insane-by-developed-nations-standards strain of inequality is really, really complicated, but at its core it exists in large part because various powerful people have, over the years, made an iterative series of decisions about how society should be organized. Standing behind those powerful people, almost always, are rich ones influencing them. One of the best, most rigorous explanations of how rich people have juiced policy to make it more rich-person-friendly (which almost always means expanding inequality) comes from the political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s book Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. In morbid detail, they point to the very specific ways in which money has gotten directed and redirected to rich people rather than poor ones over the decades, creating the situation we’re currently in. That’s just one argument, though. Another argument is that inequality is where it is in the U.S. because the American citizen/worker lacks something … maybe grit, maybe education, maybe technological know-how. Some failing, on their part, is helping them fall behind. (These two arguments aren’t mutually exclusive — maybe policy decisions helped make it easier for them to fall behind, for example. But most people tend to stand firmly in one came or the other.)

Freedman’s argument, to me, creeps close to the idea that our views toward dumb people can at least partly explain recently widening inequality in America, which I think would be a mistake. Moral and cultural arguments for big, complicated societal facts don’t tend to have a great track record, and in this case it’s so overdetermined by so many other factors — big tax cuts for the wealthy, an endless series of state-level budget “crises” (air quotes because they can often be traced back to specific, short-sighted policies) that lead to cuts to things like, well, early-childhood education, and so on — that it’s weird to pluck out this or any other cultural factor as a big part of the story.

Sometimes, discriminating by intelligence might be the least-bad version of discrimination. Back in the 1950s, Freedman writes, “As one account of the era put it, hiring decisions were ‘based on a candidate having a critical skill or two and on soft factors such as eagerness, appearance, family background, and physical characteristics.’” In other words, while in some ways hiring back then mirrored hiring today — eagerness will likely always be ‘in’ — in other ways, it was discriminatory in ways we’d find pretty gross today. Back in the 1950s, it was much easier than it is today to not get hired because of your race, your ethnicity, your gender (not that this happens today).

One method for reducing this type of discrimination is … discriminating on the basis of intelligence instead. The tests New York City children take in order to gain access to the best schools in the hypercompetitive education market here are a good, appropriately complicated example. As Chris Hayes points out in his excellent Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, these tests have the effect of both reducing and reinforcing inequality. They reduce it because everyone takes those tests, and the numbers are the numbers — one day, you’re just another immigrant kid from India living in Forest Hills, the next you’re on track to attend a competitive school with a bunch of kids who will all be going to college. They reinforce it because clear patterns have emerged in terms of which kids come from the types of backgrounds where their parents and neighborhoods will best prepare them for the test — a benefit they haven’t earned, which defeats any simple talk of a “pure” meritocracy, here or anywhere else.

Maybe we should just randomly assign kids to different schools; if memory serves, Hayes at least flirts with an argument like that. But that would bring wails of protest from parents who insist that their kids, who would benefit from the rigor of attending a top school, are being denied that opportunity. To make a long story short: This is complicated. Whenever there’s only so much of a resource to go around — money, education, whatever else — things are always complicated. We should acknowledge, though, that in instances in which some sort of discrimination is inevitably going to take place, discriminating on the basis of intelligence might sometimes be the least-bad option.