Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Was What Happened on November 8 Stupidity? Unfortunately Not.

Many progressive thinkers such as myself were stunned at what seemed like the utter stupidity that led to the election of Donald Trump. But then I realized it was not stupidity at all. It was typical human intelligence. The key word is human.

Intelligence did not evolve so that animals in the hominin lineage could understand the world better or keep facts straight in their minds. Those are two of the functions of intelligence but not the most important. The most important benefit of intelligence, during human evolution, was so that some individuals could bend the facts, warp reality, and create delusions that would trick other individuals into following, supporting, or helping them. That is, the major function of human intelligence has always been to gain individual advantages, whether by using the truth or by using lies. (A good liar has to be very intelligent.) Not what is best for a country or the world, but the individual. Trump acted in a supremely effective fashion to gain advantages for himself.

Though it makes me sick to think about it, I must admit that Donald Trump seems to have the genius of knowing how to manipulate people. He knew exactly how to evoke a resonant sympathy with what is in the hearts of most people: racism, sexism, and general hatred. All of his words were in the service of these purposes. He knows that human intelligence does not primarily care about facts, but rather beliefs and impressions. When he mocked disabled people, he was evoking the old childhood memories of bullies on the playground.  He played our brains like the keys of an organ. In this way he was able to completely deflect attention away from the evil things he has done. He did not appeal to our love of humankind or our logical understanding of the equality of races; instead he stirred up hatred of anyone who is different from him. He got his followers chanting “Make America Hate Again” (oops, sorry for the slip) without ever specifying which Yesteryear America he was talking about. The Great Depression? The Confederacy? The wars of extermination against Native Americans? Trump disabled, in his followers, the very ability to ask or even recognize the existence of such questions.

Democrats just don’t get this. Every time, over and over, Democrats cite facts as if they matter. Well, apparently they don’t.

For me, the problem is that Trump has used the rest of us as raw material for his own individual expansion of power. But maybe the solution is also individual. What do I do now? Maybe all I can do is pay attention to and enjoy the direct responsibilities that I have, rather than to try to fix the world or to even nudge it a little away from catastrophe. And who knows? Maybe in my writing and teaching I will end up changing the minds of some people—not to get them to share my political opinions (which I cannot do at a public university) but to start using their brains in a more empathetic and logical fashion. I got up this morning and taught two classes. I was really depressed but I managed to make those two classes some of the best I have ever taught. I even invented, on the spot, a new activity for student involvement in learning about how nerve transmissions work. Maybe some of my readers and students will start noticing that there is more to the world than just their deep visceral hatreds and prejudices. And I can do this no matter who is president.

There might be a kind of truthful and pure intelligence that evolved somewhere in the universe in some species; but that place is not Earth and that species is not Homo sapiens.

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