How to stupidise people

 

What makes people stupid in "educated" societies? We suggest a few factors...

On this page:
• Either/Or controversies >
• Multi-valued orientation >
• Meta-territorial >
• Dead-level abstracting >
• Politics and advertising >
• Useless Definitions >
• Circular reasoning >
• Connotations & weak inferences >
• Verbal autointoxication >
• Emoturbation >
• Media example of Either/Or controversy >

Either/Or controversies

"Controversy equalizes fools and wise men…and the fools know it."
(Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Fools thrive when controversies arise over false dichotomies. In other words, when multiple-choice issues get reduced to "either/or" questions. For example:

"What can be done about Evil Dictator X?" (Multiple choice)
"It's either military action or nothing" (Either/or)

Reducing multi-valued issues to two-valued (either/or, yes/no, right/wrong, etc) controversies has the effect of stimulating territorial ("us" vs "them") instincts and emotional identification with a "side". At this point most people begin to look stupidised.

Multi-valued orientation

If someone says: "you won't find truth in the media", you might feel tempted to agree or disagree outright (two-valued orientation). An arguably more intelligent approach involves a multi-valued rating of the statement. Say between 0% and 100%, depending on the percentage of media content judged as untruthful. For example: "I'd say that statement was correct in 20% of cases".

Meta-territorial

Many people seem so conditioned to see issues in territorial (two-valued) terms, that any other approach looks like a threat to them. A multi-valued approach to international problems thus seems "soft" or "appeasing" ("bad" traits which favour the side of "evil"). Any criticism of a fundamentalist's "good versus evil" dogma will seem (to the fundalmentalist) like the Devil's work.

Dead-level abstracting

We can't communicate well without a degree of abstracting/generalising. However, a type of generalising known as "dead-level abstracting" (so named by Wendell Johnson) can have a stupidising effect. This happens when you get stuck at one level of abstraction. The following statement (taken from a UK alt-media site) seems a good example:

"…institutionalised media corruption means that power is freed to manipulate the public to suit whatever cynical ends it chooses. This is the secret of elite control in an ostensibly 'democratic' society."

This consists of nothing but high-level abstractions. It boils down to: "Media corruption means control of the public". The words "elite", "power", etc, add nothing specific. Stupidisation occurs when people read into such statements anything but high-level abstraction. (Note that such statements seem written in such a way as to make them appear more specific/factual).

At the other end of the spectrum one finds simple reports of sensory perceptions – the lowest level of verbal abstracting. For example, gossip containing reports of what somebody said:

"She said I should mind my own business. I said you're one to talk. She said at least I'm being honest. I said are you calling me a liar you dirty bitch…"

It takes a higher level of abstracting than this to conclude: "So we exchanged insults and got nowhere – it was a waste of time". Constantly mixing high and low levels of abstraction prevents IQs from plummeting.

Politics and advertising

Politicians use "high" dead-level abstracting to avoid specific criticisms and to stifle probing debate. For example:

"I make no excuse for our tough stance in the struggle to protect our nation's way of life from those who would threaten it". (The words "tough" and "struggle" don't sound abstract. But what, in this context, beyond highly abstract judgements, could they denote?)

Advertisers use dead-level abstracting to associate nothing but abstract qualities to brand names (eg: "Abbey – because life's complicated enough"). The brand names connote abstract qualities; the ads often denote nothing factual/specific about the products being sold. Experience "Coke: the real thing", not fizzy water with added sugar and chemicals. ("The real thing" doesn't sound abstract. Don't expect high-level abstractions to sound abstract).

[Click here for examples of media generalisations]

Useless Definitions

The person who wrote "the secret of elite control" (see above) might argue that a brief definition of "elite" would clarify his meaning. But definitions operate at levels of abstraction at least as high as the terms they define. A dictionary definition of "dog" says: "carnivorous quadruped". A bigger dictionary might add "of canine genus". Look up "canine", and you get "dog".

Definitions don't help much to clarify high-level abstractions. Whenever you suspect someone of stupidising you with words (intentionally or not), demand specific examples, names/dates, reports of sensory data, verifiable facts – lower-level abstractions. Then, if necessary, demand definitions – to see if the specifics fit (by definition) the abstractions.

Circular reasoning

"High" dead-level abstracting often entails circular logic. Here's an example (from a UK alt-media forum):

"Although the Guardian is ostensibly a truth-loving newspaper, the reality is that it continually suppresses truth, as it's essentially part of power, whose main function is truth-suppression".

Circular reasoning provides nothing but self-confirming abstractions: "X suppresses truth because it's part of Y, which suppresses truth". And how do we know that X is part of Y? "Er… because X suppresses truth". (Some good examples of circular reasoning in classical economic theory are given in an extract from The Tyranny of Words by Stuart Chase).

Connotations & weak inferences

The term "conspiracy theory" doesn't denote crackpot theories. It merely has the connotation of "crackpot" to those who infer that only crackpots have theories about conspiracies.

We can take the connotations/inferences further. George Bush theorised about a secret plot between Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Some might call that a "conspiracy theory" (a theory about a conspiracy). But since the media assures us that Bush is no crackpot, we can infer that what took place between Osama and Saddam was no "conspiracy" (it was merely a "plot to attack America" – not half as wacko a claim, you see).

See how far you can get with connotations, inferences and circular reasoning? You can spin out whole newspaper columns – even books – just by building one inference on top of another. And if you cleverly add in some "high" dead-level abstracting, nobody can refute you with verifiable facts – because your claims operate at a level of abstraction above mere facts. Welcome to the rewarding world of stupidising PR, political speech-writing and media punditry.

Verbal autointoxication

Mix together the ingredients described on this page, and you get a stupidising cocktail – convoluted verbal virtual realities resting on little that resembles verifiable fact. Such cocktails often carry the label "news".

For example, a report by the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, on the official "ending" of the Iraq war (when the statue of Saddam toppled, in April 2003). Notice that Marr's "report" contains few (if any) verifiable facts – it consists almost entirely of connotations, weak inferences, speculations, two-valued (eg right/wrong) controversy and dead-level abstracting:

"[At Downing Street] the main mood is of unbridled relief… it draws a line under what, before the war, had been a period of – well, a faint air of pointlessness, almost, was hanging over Downing Street. There were all these slightly tawdry arguments and scandals. That is now history.

"Mr Blair is well aware that all his critics out there in the party and beyond aren't going to thank him (because they're only human) for being right when they've been wrong. And he knows that there might be trouble ahead, as I said. But I think this is very, very important for him. It gives him a new freedom and a new self-confidence.

"He confronted many critics. I don't think anybody, after this, is going to be able to say of Tony Blair that he's somebody who is driven by the drift of public opinion or focus groups or opinion polls. He took all of those on. He said that they would be able to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right. And it would be entirely ungracious, even for his critics, not to acknowledge that tonight he stands as a larger man and a stronger prime minister as a result." (Andrew Marr, BBC1 10pm news, April 9, 2003)

Emoturbation

Watch the news coverage after any big disaster to see shameless, full-frontal emoturbating. It's a good idea to carefully distinguish the understandable emotions of victims from those of the professional (and amateur) emoturbators. There seems to be a spectrum from sympathy and empathy to neurotic wallowing and calculated Blair-style acting.

Usual message conveyed: "Something must be done – not in proportion to the relatively small risk of the tragedy reoccurring any time soon – but in proportion to the truly momentous scale of my emotional arousal".

Media example of Either/Or controversy

The US media watchdog, FAIR, noted the media's either/or presentation on the issue of going to war following 9/11:

"... it's likely that many people asked to choose whether or not to go to war had never seen an alternative to war articulated in a mainstream outlet."

FAIR quote source >



 
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