Stupidity, Philosophy, and the Press

By Hamerlinck, John | The Humanist, January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

Stupidity, Philosophy, and the Press


Hamerlinck, John, The Humanist


The next time you're watching television and you see some drunken, face painted, shirtless in subfreezing weather football fan, remember that, in our democracy, his vote has the same value as yours.

Or to come at the subject another way: these days, dumb is cool. Forrest Gump became a phenomenon of startling proportions. Jim Carrey is currently the hottest star in the movies. (The title of one recent film? Dumb and Dumber.) Beavis and Butthead are national pop heroes, while blithering radio and television talk show hosts have made them selves wealthy promoting a pernicious kind of pseudopopulist stupidity. From all this it can be seen that dumb is profitable, even patriotic. Unfortunately, dumb is also dangerous.

Perhaps it is time to reintroduce ourselves to the ideas of British philosopher Roger Bacon (1214-1294), who argued that ignorance had four causes: appeals to unsuited authority; the undue influence of custom; the opinions of the unlearned crowd; and displays of wisdom that simply covered up ignorance.

For some reason, reading Bacon makes me think of conservative media clown Rush Limbaugh, clearly the ultimate "unsuited authority" His reactionary style of conservatism is, by definition, based upon an "undue influence of custom" His self righteous, brag gadocio laced infotainment is certainly the shallow style over substance with which Bacon was concerned. When social commentary is reduced to jingoism and bad one liners, citizens have been cheated. Active participants in a democracy need and deserve more.

Roger Bacon is, of course, not to be confused with another famous thinker, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who is probably best known these days as the person who coined the phrase, "Knowledge is power" But if Francis Bacon was correct, the sorry state of democracy in this country is a reflection of the valUe we place on education. The folks at the grassroots have difficulty demonstrating their power and authority in this democracy because they lack the knowledge from which real power comes. Because we are not encouraged to be thinkers, we tend to adopt a dualistic view of the world. We want simple explanations to complex issues. We expect easy answers. Worst of all, we are willing to accept as knowledge the superficial analysis of a press which too often displays the intellectual capacity of a handful of drier lint.

Even the more responsible sectors of mainstream journalism (as opposed to the tabloid variety) perpetuate dualistic thinking. Because of self imposed time and space limitations and a desire not to offend advertisers, journalists seek to present news as if it were a movie trailer: they need a brief setup, some sound bites, and a hook to keep their viewers interested. …

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