The debate rolls on. Is the problem with Donald Trump that he’s a pretty terrible person, or is the problem not about Donald Trump at all – that there’s actually something rotten at the heart of America that he’s bringing out of the shadows?
Most of the attacks throughout this long election campaign have been directed at the candidate and not at the source of the unpleasant views to which he gives a face, the very root of his support. Critics steer clear of making a fundamental challenge for a variety of reasons, but a big part is guilt, middle-class guilt (if you’re in the UK), the guilt of those who are doing okay in the world.
They’ve been branded the ‘elite’ and told they don’t have a right to speak out because they’re not poor and they’ve not been dealt a tough hand in the game of life so they don’t understand the hard choices that shape this ‘authentic voice’ of the downtrodden. And because the privileged – the university-educated, doing okay – tend to care about these things, and honestly feel a little guilty at their privilege, they go along with this argument.
Yet the attack is not directed at an ‘elite’ which is simply rich – in fact, it’s often people who are very well off who are using ‘elite’ as a pejorative. No, ‘elite’ in this context means better educated, and the sub-text is: don’t come here with your facts, statistics and evidence – they might stop me voicing my deeply-held prejudices.
But there’s a warning here from the UK.
The attack on the educated was a fundamental part of the Brexit campaign by the Leave team who didn’t want facts getting in the way of their, shall we say, ’emotional’ appeals. But in light of their victory, that worldview has now become mainstream and it’s being used to unleash a great deal of nastiness – racism, violent attacks, suppression of facts and those who speak out in opposition to their agenda.
Racist attacks on citizens have soared since Brexit, hundreds reported all over the country, mostly in white working class communities. The Hard Right is now fighting hard to deny this as a myth, one started by those who wanted to stay in the EU, much like some of those shadowy people behind Trump claim many of the factual attacks on the candidate and his views are also myths. “Mostly debunked.”
Trump has unleashed the same wave of unpleasantness in America, coming from a similar source, and it’s not going to go away when he does.
You can’t change things by example. America elects a black president and racism increases. Elect a female president and the problems women face are likely to be exacerbated too. Because the unpleasantness that lies behind this is emotional and deeply-felt.
Some things are open to debate, and some things are just wrong. Tolerance should only go so far. Ignorance is not an excuse, and challenges need to be made. If they don’t, oft-repeated views stop being beyond the pale. They just become normal.
William Poundstone, the author of Head in the Cloud: Why Knowing Things Still Matters When Facts Are So Easy To Look Up, ran many surveys and interviewed a huge number of people. One dilemma he posed was: would you throw your pet off a cliff for a $1 million?
About 7% of people said yes. But the percentage was double that amount among the poorly educated. Poundstone said, in an article in The Observer, that his findings showed, “the less informed are either greedier or less kind to animals.” But it didn’t end there. Those who didn’t know the name of their elected representative were more likely to say it was okay for businesses to post fake online reviews under fake names. Those who can’t answer easy questions about dinosaurs have a poor grounding in science and can’t form good opinions about, say, vaccinations, even with Google to help them.
Poundstone says, “Knowledge is not wisdom, but it’s a pre-requisite for wisdom.”
If people aren’t told that they’re wrong, if they’re not pushed back at every turn, those unpleasant ideas take root and flourish. The danger for the ‘elite’ is that by allowing themselves to be silenced, they will allow a worldview that they long thought defeated to become mainstream.
Being educated is not wrong, it’s a boon to society, and with it comes a responsibility that it needs to be used, in public, against the accusations of ‘talking down’, to create a society we can all be proud of.