Winning Hearts, But Not Minds
Despite an unprecedented access to information and means of acquiring knowledge, it appears that, as a society, we have chosen to rapidly descend into an era of anti-intellectualism. The ongoing change is drastic and cultural implications are extremely serious.
People today often perceive an invitation to a conversation about serious topics as a form of brain torture. Such actions seemingly saturate one’s brain too much—unlike superficial and meaningless conversations contributing to nothing other than its own perpetuation—and must be avoided. Contemporary homo novus of 2017 knows that his/her knowledge is determined by how he/she feels about a topic of discussion, rather than the ability to articulate and defend concepts. (S)he is also confident that the experience of past generations has little influence in regard to future decisions, hence its value is insignificant.
In this context, comprehensive cultural geographic and historical knowledge, together with critical and analytical thinking, are among the first casualties. Writing in 1999, late economist Julian Simon noted:
One of the few negative general trends in a world where most things are getting better is our greater propensity to disregard history with each successive decade and improvement in communications, along with an increase in the volume of printed material available. For example, the average age of articles cited in scientific research nowadays is less than it was in earlier times, simply because there are more articles being written by more scientists. This means that great work of the past gets forgotten sooner in favor of trivial recent work.
Exposure to “the great work of the past” allows us to comprehend the evolution of issues, how they got to evolve into what they are now. Ignoring them would be like waiting to enroll in elementary school until the age of eighteen, combining a mature age with immature thinking. Yet this is exactly the current trend in our society.
Immature thinking revolves around how a person feels about an issue, rather than what he/she knows about it. Public discourses about inherently geographic issues like climate change, global demographic conditions (e.g., overpopulation topics), geopolitics, military interventions, aid distribution, and socioeconomic trends now increasingly revolve around emotions. As such, public policy based upon emotions-based reasoning is becoming the norm. We have arrived at a point where discussions begin (and end) with statements previously reserved only for residents of conflict regions around the world: “I may not know anything about this topic, but I will tell you why you’re wrong.”
Figure 1. When driving down the road, like in West Virginia’s countryside depicted here, is it better to evaluate which road to take based on how we feel or what we know? (Photograph by the author.)
The Issue with Original Thought
Regurgitating facts without comprehending concepts is like consuming a gallon of water despite not feeling thirsty—analytical absence. For example, a discussion about geography of overpopulation hardly ever touches on a simple question—can we define the term and concept of overpopulation? Is it too many people in one place, i.e., high population density? In that case Monaco is the most overpopulated place in the world. Is it a malnourishment of the local population, because there is not enough food? In that case the American college students, who eat plenty but of low quality food, fit rather well in that category. Or, perhaps, overpopulation is just a term conveniently used in order to generate particular emotions? No term other than its cousin, climate change, has been twisted and politicized more than overpopulation.
Within a sphere of public discourse—and for that matter public education—the definition and application of important concepts and terms cannot be ignored for sake of superficiality in that discourse, i.e., “lowering the bar.” But who wants educated citizens with original thoughts in their minds if their thoughts question established public opinion, policies, and most importantly, funding? Not those who are on the receiving side. It is not in their interest to change the status quo.
Geographer C.F. Gritzner defined overpopulation as “A condition in which the culture of a defined population and area is unable to adequately provide the basic needs of that population as determined by its own perceptions and standards.” Note how Gritzner emphasizes “by its own perceptions and standards,” rather than someone else’s perceptions and standards.
I may feel that a village in Africa is overpopulated, because of my cultural perceptions and socioeconomic standards, but that does not mean the locals share my views at all. One may also feel that our government needs to use taxpayer’s money and help the villagers via one’s own favorite non-profit organization that combats overpopulation in Africa.
For the Greater Good…
French politician, Georges Clemenceau, once said that “There is no passion like that of a functionary for his function.” Self-preservation and expansion are the only two guiding lights for a bureaucratic machine. A Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official, for example, articulating his Agency’s success in the war on drugs in the United States will do it with passion, and then ask for more funding. Despite the “war” (and a negative overall impact on our society) lasting for nearly fifty years, that is. His intentions are good.
Functionaries benefit the most when a lethargic populace fails to evaluate public policies’ outcomes and focuses on intentions. Outcomes are objective and measurable; intentions, on the other hand, are subjective and passionate. Outcomes lead to accountability; intentions only require passionate feelings for potential success. War on drugs, war on overpopulation, preemptive war to prevent war against (insert a country of your choosing here) are looked upon with passionate feelings for potential success.
Intentions revolve around morality; outcomes revolve around performance and legality. Functionaries dislike the latter part. They prefer a populace obsessed with emotions-driven superficial aspects of public policies. When people vote for something based on emotional attachment to it, they are least likely to admit the failure of public policies and demand changes, which prolongs the problem.
…of the Greater Number
Considering the current conditions in our society, and lack of exposure to and interest in the “great works of the past,” we can conclude that the process of anti-intellectual transformation has been rather successful thus far. It has never been easier to manipulate the “needs of that population as determined by its own perceptions and standards,” into the needs of a population as determined by someone else’s perception and standards. The “wars” continue.
Perhaps the cultural pendulum will swing back some time in the future and make a correction. At least our brains will not be exposed to, and tortured with, meaningful conversations until such a transformation happens. That is, if you consider it to be a societal benefit.