Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 – but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

Keller also notes that the herd mentality takes over online; the anti-intellectuals become the metaphorical equivalent of an angry lynch mob when anyone either challenges one of the mob beliefs or posts anything outside the mob’s self-limiting set of values (emphasis added):

  • Social media rewards partisanship. It is the nature of the medium that like-minded people talk to one another and reinforce one another. It is easy to dismiss any aliens who challenge your prejudices. Unquestioned prejudices shrivel into slogans and labels.
  • Immediacy encourages snap judgments, and once you have voiced your judgment to the wide world it is more difficult to retreat from it. Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at Columbia University, has said he spends an average of three to five minutes composing every tweet he sends. But that goes against the Twitter grain, where I suspect most tweets take three to five seconds.
  • In a crowd – and the Internet is the ultimate crowd – there is a temptation to SHOUT to be heard. This is especially true when comments are unfiltered, and the crowd noise consists in large part of nips and jibes and sneers.
  • Anonymity – and much of social media still permits anonymity – is license to be vicious.

Keller blames this in part to the online universe that “skews young, educated and attentive to fashions.” Fashion, entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism – we’re directed towards trivia, towards the inconsequential, towards unquestioning and blatant consumerism. This results in intellectual complacency. People accept without questioning, believe without weighing the choices, join the pack because in a culture where convenience rules, real individualism is too hard work. Thinking takes too much time: it gets in the way of the immediacy of the online experience.

In part this is promoted via incessant marketing and advertising, but just as often it’s our own choice. Just look at the rising number of anti-intellectual, mindless “reality” TV shows available. Someone has to watch this endless parade of witless pap and the audience is growing. There’s no effort in changing the channel. Or in turning off the machine altogether. But the audience chooses to watch, even those who know that any ‘reality” portrayed is an illusion.

Dr. Jim Taylor wrote in a blog post,

Reality TV promotes the worst values and qualities in people-and disguises them all as entertainment. Reality TV has made the Seven Deadly Sins-pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth-attributes to be admired. Throw in selfishness, deceit, spite, and vengeance-all qualities seen routinely on reality TV-and you have the personification of the worst kind of person on Earth. Reality TV makes heroic decidedly unheroic values, characters, and behavior.

Why would popular culture want to communicate such destructive values, you may ask. The answer is, because our pop culture has no values; it’s amoral. It doesn’t care about us and it has no sense of social responsibility. Popular culture is concerned with only one thing: money, and it will do everything and sacrifice anything to achieve that end, including hurting the society it is meant to serve.

Pulp scandal sheetsBut don’t blame reality TV alone. Look at the magazines and the online sites that love to splash scandal all over their covers. Insipid and pointless stories tout divorces, cheating, weight gain, even a pseudo-celebrity’s cat as not only newsworthy, but as something we all should comment on. And many do.**

Just look at the front pages of many online newspapers. The war in Syria, the disaster at Fukushima, the effects of global climate change – they compete (usually poorly) with stories on some glitterati’s wardrobe malfunction, with the debate over royal baby names, or Millie Cyrus’s latest vapid pronouncement on the same space. The anti-intellectual is given pride of place on many so-called news sites. And people click those pseudo-stories before they bother with the latest tragedy in Syria.

Real news is too intellectual. It’s not fun. It doesn’t come with soft-core videos of nipple slips. It doesn’t involve a single Kardashian. It doesn’t have a catchy beat.

As Chris Hedges pointed out in his book, The Empire of Illusion,

Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason.

Wikipedia adds that anti-intellectualism is a social divider used to create barriers between groups based on one side’s better learning and education:

Anti-intellectualism usually is expressed through declarations of otherness — the intellectual is “not one of us” and may be dangerous, due to having little empathy for the common folk.

The anti-intellectual movement is also increasingly strident and adversarial towards those whose intellect they fear or distrust. As it says on the Simon Says blog, online these people have taken to increasingly anti-social, uncivil and downright nasty behaviour. It’s called bullying, but in many cases it’s a calculated assault:

Just like offline society, online social platforms have bullies and I think the term bully pulpit should be defined online as the harrasser’s pulpit. Many of us are more frequently encountering these modern social bullies, trolls and haters. I suspect these characters feel that they can misbehave online, because to some it feels less directly connected to reality. But, there is no excuse offline and online for bad behavior.

Azhar Ibrahim Alwee wrote in a paper  his definition that speaks volumes about the online trend:

Anti-intellectualism is an adverse social phenomenon characterized by belittlement, rejection and undervaluing any human attempts at reflection, creativity, social philosophizing, and an intellectual deliberation about man’s life, including addressing the problems of human life and its adjustment in society and nature.

Belittlement, rejection and undervaluing: common and recurring themes among the anti-intellectualists. Professor Olsen wrote that,

That leads us to another force behind the new anti-intellectualism: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know — it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place.  Americans go to websites and attend lectures only when they want to hear information that reinforces what they already (think they) know.  Only a small minority of people are any longer willing to learn from people with whom they disagree.   There is little motivation to learn.  Call this anti-rationalism, often exhibited by certain religious groups that reject Reason and embrace Faith as the only way to knowledge.

We can easily substitute any nation’s name for America here, Canada included. Arrogant anti-intellectualism is the new elitism here as well as in our neighbour’s domain. And ironically, the anti-intellectuals who thunder down disapproval on anyone whose voice confuses or frightens them call the intellectuals the “elite.”****

Susan Jacoby wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, 2008:

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism… Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality.

Indeed, we have passed that time, but I wonder who will lead that discussion and who will join in. The problem is that those we most need to engage are those most entrenched in their ideologies and fervent anti-intellectualism, those least likely to change, those most likely to rebuff any effort that smacks of ‘elite” intellectualism.

* In his 1964 book, Revolt of the Masses, Jose Ortega y Gassett wrote:

… the mass believes that it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the cafe. I doubt whether there have been other periods of history in which the multitude has come to govern more directly than in our own. That is why I speak of hyperdemocracy.
The same thing is happening in other orders, particularly in the intellectual. I may be mistaken, but the present-day writer, when he takes his pen in hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head. If the individuals who make up the mass believed themselves specially qualified, it would be a case merely of personal error, not a sociological subversion. The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.

As Alwee adds,

Similarly, Ortega’s… critical denouncement of the pervasiveness of the mass-man mentality is another factor for us to link it to the phenomenon of anti-intellectualism. The mass-man mentality is a psychological attitude that affects one’s thinking and valuation, in which his/her mediocre taste is made the standard authority or reference, while at the same time, abhorred against all forms of attempt towards excellence or refinement and revision.

** Breaking news: Kim Kardashian’s Cat Mercy Dies At Four Months Old. Hollywood Life, Dec. 2012. The Kardashians are among many celebutantes known for being famous for being famous, without actually contributing to anything worth discussing. The pseudo-events of their lives are used by some populist media to distract audiences from real concerns and issues of the day.

*** Of course, the penchant for sharing pictures of mis-attributed quotations decorated with pictures of kittens, puppies or angels on Facebook is itself anti-intellectualism, therefore popular among the anti-rational crowd.

**** Blogging about any topic not in the narrow populist, anti-intellectual scope will get you denounced as an “elite” too.

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  1. abbottaerospace

    For this article to make any sense you have to define what is ‘intellectualism’ in this context. For example – you give the example of anti-wind farm being anti-intellectual. It depends – if you consider inefficient, unreliable, expensive power to be ‘pro-intellectual’ then you are right.

    I try to get to the source data before I form an opinion. The raw data (culled from various european and north american sources) shows that per kwh wind energy is between 5-10 times more expensive than coal or gas generated electricity. There is a strong economic argument against wind power – because of the additional expense that economic argument is also an environmental argument against it – we have to generate more wealth in order to be able to afford to subsidise wind power – wealth production (in the eyes of most environmentalists) consumes resources and is a de-facto environmental ‘bad’. Wind power has great PR though – but you have to avoid consideration of the bird deaths, the use of previously green field sites for industrial use, the expense and additional drain on the productive sectors of the economy and the very real noise pollution effects on local communities
    I would posit that to favor PR over data is the very anti-rationality that you seem to dislike.

    I hate to burst a little portion of your bubble but it looks like ‘intellectual’ really means whatever you believe or consider to be correct. And anyone who chooses to disagree with you is part of some crazy fundamentalist ‘elite’

    I like the “Belittlement, rejection and undervaluing: common and recurring themes among the anti-intellectualists” line – this is exactly what the current crop of corrupt left wing oligarchs who run the government and universities do to anyone who dares to challenge them on the current fashionable creeds of environmentalism, multiculturalism and wealth redistribution.

    Projecting your values onto those who challenge you (as you see with the current crop of ‘democrats’ in the US denying their history and projecting their own past on the republicans, calling them KKK, confederates and segregationalists) is a very efficient to way to make all rational people think less of you.

    Mounting a defense of the current crop of anti-intellectual elites by calling those who challenge them ‘anti-intellectual elites’ is surprising – you owe yourself more than doing the elites dirty work for them.

  2. Edward G. Bunkertoad

    Great piece Ian, with some interesting points. There is certainly a widespread mistrust of science in the modern world (perhaps I should be more specific and say the modern western world). I find this hard to understand, but I think you are at least scratching the surface with your words. The mistrust of science is hugely irrational and hypocritical. For example, the individual from the Facebook extract above (scoffing at the idea that elements are formed by fusion within stars) probably got into a car that very same day and hurled himself down a highway at 120km/h, relying on the principles of physics to keep him safe. I guess not believing in that particular piece of physics (newtonian mechanics) would be very inconvenient wouldn’t it? Imagine not trusting an elevator or an aircraft. Quality of life might be affected….can’t have that can we? Its easier for the ‘anti-intellectual’ to pretend that atomic physics is bunkum because he doesn’t feel he needs to rely on it on a day to day basis. Except we all do rely on it of course. But if you can’t see it then there is no need to understand it eh? Or even to accept it as real.

    While I recognise the growing ‘anti-intellectual’ movement, I’m not entirely sure what the causes are. I’m not sure I put it down solely to the world-wide-web and popular culture. Perhaps something else is going on. Will have to give it some thought.

  3. Robert McLarty

    Interesting post Ian, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say the internet is creating a world of dummies as you put it. Dummies were around long before the internet. Obviously your post is a poke at the local bloggers, which made got me thinking. In your post, what if the words “Internet”, “Facebook”, “Twitter” “technology” etc…were replaced by the words “printing press” or “book”….? an example:

    “The printing press has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort”.

    That’s a powerful statement.


    “The Printing Press has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment.”


    • Thanks, Robert, but it’s not a local comment and I’m not sure why you say that.

      It comes from long interest in the role of technology in our social and cultural lives (that reaches back to the late 1970s when I bought my first computer). That is in part the topic of my next book: how technology affects governance and public policy. I’ve been researching and reading about that the past year.

      Some of the comments and quotes here are also expanded from the text of a speech on social media and governance I wrote for an upcoming conference.

      It’s also part of my continuing interest in cults, pseudoscience and the anti-science movements. I’ve posted about them many times in the past.

      While the internet didn’t create these, it has facilitated their easy and rapid spread. They find a more willing audience online than they had before it. Why that is continues to bemuse me.

      You are correct that every advance in communication technology has created a wave of change and disruption. I have been reading about the impact of Gutenberg’s invention the last few months, and about the early history of printing and how it changed the west irrevocably. Fascinating stuff.

      Several things to keep in mind is that when it was invented, there was no lingua franca like English is today, and literacy was generally low outside the upper classes or religious orders, so the reach of the printed word among the general public was initially less. The press improved literacy (itself on the rise because the first public schools were opened shortly after), so its effect blossomed as these moved in tandem.

      Also, despite the growth in printing, the actual method of writing didn’t change until the late 19th century, when the typewriter was invented. So the number of people actually writing was small compared to the number of books being printed.

      To make a response to any comment, or book, in writing took an enormous effort and a lot more time than it takes today. Today everyone can type with almost no effort. Immediacy encourages snap judgments, and a reduction of critical thinking.

      Never before in history have the conditions and cultures intersected in such a way as they have today, so the situation is unique in history. The rise of the leisure class, the rise of the consumer society, the connectivity, the decay of previously strong moral authorities like the church, the rapid growth of the fundamentalist counterculture, the enabling technology and a cultural sense of entitlement, the global shift in power and industry, the polarization of politics… it has all exploded.

      Hence my post and my interest in how technology intersects our lives and how it’s changing.our cultures.

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