Wilful Ignorance And The Contempt Of Expertise

£350m lie

via Independent.co.uk

It’s been a troubling week in post-Brexit Britain. Racially-motivated hate crimes have risen 500%, with many incidents involving people who couldn’t be mistaken for Europeans, but, still, they were foreign, so it’s OK to pick on them. It’s as though those who have been keeping a lid on their xenophobia have been given approval to tell people (many of whom were born in the UK) to ‘go back where you came from’. Actually, if they’d used those words it might have seemed relatively polite. I can’t repeat many of the insults, they were obscene, and hopefully the law will deal with them.

The extent to which politicians are to blame for the sharp rise in hate crimes is debatable, but it certainly didn’t help when Nigel Farage of UKIP declared in an interview that if immigration isn’t curbed ‘then violence is the next step’.

Alongside the  rising anger on the streets is the emergence of an even more worrying trend. In truth, this one’s been around for a long while, but went into overdrive during the referendum campaign. The complete disregard for the ‘truth’ in presenting arguments for and against Brexit, coupled with a lack of contrition when found out, seems to be a tactic used by both The Donald and The Leavers equally. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can attest, truth is the first casualty when passions run high. But, most couples will say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it’, when trying to find a way forward. Politicians like Trump, Farage, Johnson and MEP Daniel Hannan have either shrugged their shoulders or have appeared utterly unrepentant when presented with their lies.

But perhaps the most worrying trend in recent months has been the outright revulsion for expertise.  In a referendum debate, Michael Gove (former Secretary of State for Education who therefore ought to know better) opined that ‘the people of Britain have had enough of experts’. It has to be said that Gove has previous on this: shortly after taking the job at the Department of Education, when told that business leaders wanted applicants with the so-called ‘C-skills’ (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking) was reported to have said ‘business leaders are talking out of their arses’. Whether that’s apocryphal or real, he subsequently dismissed a whole cadre of academic experts, who presented evidence to suggest his educational reforms might not work, as ‘the Blob’ and ‘enemies of promise’.

How can blatant lie-telling and a contempt for facts appear to not only go unpunished, but in Trump’s case actually improve ratings? Trump has revealed an uncomfortable, even depressing, reality in contemporary politics: a large portion of the electorate simply don’t care about the veracity of facts anymore. It was the economic experts who didn’t see the global financial crash coming, and if global warming was actually a thing, why is it so cold this summer? Don’t listen to experts, pander to your prejudices and your Facebook friends instead….

Above all, public figures are now required to be angry and absolute, above truthful, these days. A while ago playwright Tom Stoppard recorded a documentary called ‘Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know’ where he emphasised the importance of an internal dialectic, and self-doubt. Such balance of viewpoint seems almost quaint in comparison to the disregard for balance we are living with now.

For people who work in education, or with knowledge, it’s hard to know how to counter the anti-expertise virus that is being intentionally spread by Trump, Gove, and the others. President Obama and John Oliver have recently placed their faith in satire. In a recent speech he said: “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about”

Lambasting the wilful distortion of the now infamous claim that the UK sends the EU £350m per week, John Oliver took no prisoners, claiming that the red bus making this spurious claim should have read, “We actually send the EU £190 million a week, which as a proportion of our GDP makes sound fiscal sense. In fact considering some of the benefits we reap in return…oh, shit we’re running out of bus”.

One might hope, with Trump’s ratings plummeting, and both Gove and Johnson facing the end of their political ambitions, that such ridicule is working, and that, eventually, the truth will out. I hope that a popular desire to respect objective expertise might return too. As George Bush (another lover of experts) once famously said: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

But without wishing to overdramatise the current malaise, if you put these things together, we should not just laugh at ignorance, but also recognise that when it’s wilful (as in the case of Gove, who is an intellectual himself) then something more sinister might be afoot. Racial hatred on the streets, politicians warning of violence if their views aren’t listened to, and open contempt for expertise….when did we last see that? Oh yes, in 1930’s fascism. Let’s keep ridiculing ignorance, but watch out if they start burning books.

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