Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S.
and how it is literally killing us
Written by: Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, Claire Mosteller, Emily Chen
Edited by: Hannah Seabright
Graphic by: Ian Farrell
Last Updated: 11/13/2020
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The concept of anti-intellectualism has changed and evolved over time, eluding one single definition. Historian Richard Hofstadter explains anti-intellectualism in his seminal book Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963) as “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”.
Our working definition of anti-intellectualism in the United States today is:
a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, authority of the intellectual “elite”, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.
Often, anti-intellectualism is misunderstood as the consequence of a lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge. However, this misses how anti-intellectualism has been wielded by those with power as a means to uphold the ideas and systems that benefit them, which is in large part why it’s continued to flourish over time. In this piece, we will:
Explain the three distinct types of anti-intellectualism and how each has manifested in the United States
Trace the history and evolution of anti-intellectualism in the United States as a method to protect the existing social, economic, and political power
Examine how the political and corporate sectors of the United States wield anti-intellectualism for their own benefit
Discuss the differences in constructive criticism versus anti-intellectualism
Analyze strategies commonly deployed alongside anti-intellectualism to distract or delegitimize arguments
Provide suggestions for how to combat anti-intellectualism and practice continuous learning in your own spheres of influence
Anti-intellectualism is a pervasive and popular mindset because it allows us to believe the things we desire, even with little or no supporting evidence. Simply advocating for more education is not enough; fully combating anti-intellectualism requires us to actively challenge our own assumptions with new perspectives and embrace the discomfort of recognizing how much we simply do not, and can not, know.
Table of Contents
A look at the history of anti-intellectualism and its different manifestations in our society
Examining the use anti-intellectualism to reinforce sociopolitical power structures
Understanding the purpose of criticisms of intellectualism in comparison to anti-intellectualism
Ways to combat anti-intellectualism in your own life, as well as tools to pinpoint anti-intellectualism in everyday conversation
What is Anti-Intellectualism?
We define American anti-intellectualism today as a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, authority of the intellectual “elite”, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.
While anti-intellectualism has eluded a single definition, we employ this description from the oft-cited Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1964): “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”.
In 1991, Professor Daniel Rigney built upon Hofstadter to name three distinct types of anti-intellectualism:
Religious anti-rationalism: rejection of reason, logic, and fact in favor of emotions, morals, and religious absolutes
Populist anti-elitism: rejection of elite institutions as well as those categorized within the social and/or intellectual "elite" (e.g., professors, old money politicians)
Unreflective instrumentalism: a belief that the pursuit of theory and knowledge is unnecessary unless it can be wielded for practical means (e.g., profit)
Anti-intellectualism is not, contrary to popular belief, due to a lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge. Rather, it distinguishes knowledge between intellect and intelligence, and heavily weighs the latter. As Hofstadter describes, intellect is about ideas, which is adaptive across many situations, while intelligence is ideas put to practical use. In his own words, “Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.”
Because the continued pursuit of intellectual knowledge necessitates a certain “discontent with dogmas” (Hofstadter), it often comes to clash with and challenge the widely accepted philosophies, societal structure, and power dynamics of its time. As a result, anti-intellectualism is evoked as a way to halt the acquisition of intellect that ceases to be “useful” for groups with power and privilege by painting them as irrelevant to daily life, or simply false. Writer Harold Rosenberg described this perceived threat as “turning answers into questions”, and Hofstadter posits it is the reason that support for anti-intellectualism has persisted over the course of history.
It is important to note that anti-intellectualism is not so much a school of thought, but rather a composite of related strategies to uphold certain ideas (and systems) put forward by those in power (e.g., creationism, the belief that the universe and living organisms originated from divine creation). As such, its tactics are not confined to only members of a certain group, although anti-intellectualism is often associated with America’s current ideological right, conservative thinkers, and religious followers.
Progressives and liberals who align themselves with intellectualism have also wielded anti-intellectualism to protect their own political power and social standing (including, ironically, perpetuating a non-existent correlation between intellect and class and a paternalistic approach to social change), which has contributed to intersectional divisions and even damaged its own movements.
We are writing not to defend the type of intellectualism that promotes special privileges. We recognize our own privileges as an organization with the luxury of evaluating anti-intellectualism at length, and want to use this document to scrutinize the current gap between intellectualism and necessary social change -- in particular, the fight against the false binaries that have allowed anti-intellectualism to embed further in our politics and everyday relationships.
The Hypocrisy of Anti-Intellectualism
The great paradox of anti-intellectualism is that it often requires the holding of mutually exclusive positions. (Hence why we characterize it as related stratagems but not a cohesive ideology.)
First, anti-rationalism rejects science and emphasizes feelings and morals, which are based on lived experiences (and teachings built from lived experiences, e.g., the Bible).
However, when certain individuals’ lived experiences are incongruent with the dominant group’s ideals (e.g., trans individuals questioning the absolute correlation of sex assigned at birth with gender identity), these lived experiences are then rejected in the name of scientific proof (e.g., the characterization of trans individuals as having a “psychological disorder”).
When additional scientific evidence surfaces to complicate the issue (e.g., gender identity potentially being genetic), anti-elitism is triggered to discredit the scientists, researchers, and experts of the field (and often, their “true intentions” come under question).
Finally, when modern science cannot conclusively explain every aspect of the issue (e.g., gender identity is complex and not fully understood), unreflective instrumentalism pronounces existing nebulous research as useless, contradictory (which it very well may be) and unnecessary to continue pursuing. In effect, this segment of anti-intellectualism purports to take a “pragmatic” approach by only assigning worth to ideas “that actually matter”.
The Evolution of Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S.
In tracing its history, we can see that anti-intellectualism is no mistake, accident, or a result of individual or historical bias. While its form may change depending on circumstances of the time, anti-intellectualism is, as Hofstadter points out, fundamentally American.
Hofstadter traces the roots of anti-intellectualism to the evangelical Protestantism of America’s first European settlers and their subsequent influence on the American Dream idea. Since the eighteenth century, when evangelicalism emerged in contrast to the Catholic Church and Church of England, education became seen as antithetical to faith. As the influential evangelist preacher Dwight Moody said, “I do not read any book, unless it will help me to understand [the Bible].”
This particularly emotional form of evangelical Protestantism continued to breed religious anti-rationalism over the course of the next 200 years. It was further polarized upon Charles Darwin’s publishing of The Origin of Species (1859), which vehemently contradicted creationist ideologies. (In fact, the Butler Act of 1925 made it illegal to teach evolution in schools. This was not overturned until 1967.) This fundamentalist form of faith has endured to this day: in 2015, Pew Research Center found that nearly a quarter of Americans belong to white evangelical churches and 42% of Americans are creationists.
For our “Founding Fathers”, the fervor of evangelicalism mixed well with the ideals of egalitarianism and freedom in their “new” world. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both espoused the masculine ideals of the “self-made” man: a rugged industrialist who may have come to America with nothing, but through hard work, tenacity, and a little luck, could become a tycoon. He did not need an education to succeed, "because he made himself." In contrast, the Enlightened intellectuals were characterized as effeminate and ineffectual.
In America, intellect became lobbied as a marker of difference. Hofstadter takes Thomas Jefferson’s election as a clear example: Federalist leaders and the clergy mocked his intellect as one that “might entitle him to the Professorship of a college,” but also utterly incompatible with presidential and military duties. To be intellectual was to lack faith, morals, conviction, and the energy of action — everything religion and business are built upon.
This distrust of intellect was accentuated by the establishment of universities. Especially as liberal arts education deviated further and further from business activity and the cost of college stratified intellectualism into a class-based pursuit, working class individuals became increasingly alienated and antagonistic towards the intellectuals hiding behind “ivory towers” without producing anything “useful” for society.
Philosopher Allan Bloom (later, in the 1980s) went as far as to render the university a failed establishment: “Students in our best universities do not believe in anything … The great questions — God, freedom, and immortality...hardly touch the young. And the universities, which should encourage the quest for the clarification of such questions, are the very source of the doctrine which makes that quest appear futile.”
The rise of the Efficiency Movement from the 1890’s through the 1930’s (sometimes also referred to as Taylorism due to the influences of Frederick W. Taylor) also reinforced the hard distinction between intellect and practical business. In Taylor’s quest to improve economic efficiency and labor productivity, he arbitrarily separated people between who could go on to be managers versus general workers. The former is a thinker, the latter is a doer. In his own words: “one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron [a worker] is that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he...resembles in his mental make up the ox.”
By the 1960s, this divide between intellect and intelligence had evolved into a culture war between the New Left and the first wave of neoconservatism, which Irving Kristol claimed in the 1970s as “a reaction against the Left's nihilistic revolt against conventional morality and religion” (Wolfson 2004). He and other neoconservatives criticized the Women’s Liberation, Civil Rights, and anti-war movements as not only “personal grievances” but antithetical to American patriotism — an idea that exists even today. In the spirit of anti-rationalism, neoconservatives rallied behind the state as “setting the moral-religious compass for society, and indeed for the world.”
Kristol also supported corporate rights over government-sanctioned social support systems, laying the foundations for corporate anti-intellectualism. In his view, capitalism was attacked by a new class of intellectuals (defined as everyone from scientists and teachers to journalists, psychologists, and social workers) who “wanted powers and privileges to shape our civilization” (often by giving it to the government) instead of allowing it “to reside in the free market.” He argued that corporate businessmen built their social standing with their own efforts and deserved to reap its benefits, building on the idea of meritocracy which still persists in the U.S. today.
These movements also coincided with the postmodernist assault on science. Led by Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn in the 1960s-1970s, postmodernists argued that “if science is not a gradual process of accumulation of knowledge, but rather subject to sudden ‘revolution’” that overwhelm outdated theories...how can one trust scientific knowledge?” (Kuntz 2012)
Taken to the extreme, if knowledge and “truth” are relative, and can only be located in the political or social context in which they were written, science is no longer an objective structure to guide our decision-making. This idea of “multiple ways of knowing” has effectively reduced science to opinions — or today, alternative facts — and has allowed political and capitalist agendas to weaponize science for their own agendas, while continuing to call into question the validity of the scientific method itself. According to a2019 Pew report, only 27% of Republicans have confidence in scientists in comparison to 43% of Democrats. As science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote in the 1980s:
“The strain of anti-intellectualism has been...nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”
Today, these threads are still unravelling. Americans’ distrust of intellect, experts, and science have been encouraged even further with the democratization of information on the internet, especially as social media creates undue confidence in one’s knowledge. As Dane Clausen explains, this false confidence also speeds up today’s world: “Commoditized information naturally tends to reflect the assumptions and interests of those who produce it, and its producers are not driven to...promote critical reflection.” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Media).
While there are many valid ways to critique intellectualism and its proxies (e.g., university education), the ongoing use of anti-intellectualism in our society is led by other agendas. Jay DeSart finds evidence that anti-intellectualism is, in part, driven by a sense of powerlessness. This contextualizes much of the anti-intellectualism language we read from Bloom, Kristol, and other cultural icons like Fahrenheit 451 — a nostalgia for times of easier control, knowing that knowledge and facts can be made into weapons by the masses. At its core, anti-intellectualism is a reaction to new changes that threaten our existing claims to knowledge, privilege, and access to power.
Sociopolitical Effects of Anti-Intellectualism
With its roots in the very ideals of being American, anti-intellectualism has shaped the societal structures we experience today. Especially for politicians, corporations, and religious institutions, anti-intellectualism has become the default weapon to fuse patriotism, American identity, and support for their own agendas.
Anti-Intellectualism and Politics
Anti-intellectualism has shown itself to be a successful strategy for appealing to key voter segments. President Eisenhower first popularized the use of anti-intellectual rhetoric during his campaign, describing intellectuals as men who “take more words than necessary to tell more than he knows” and publicly worrying that no one except “business failures, college professors, and New Deal lawyers” (Lim 2008) would take jobs in Washington D.C. (For all his “affinity for the common man” image, however, Eisenhower had previously been the President of Columbia University.)
While Eisenhower may not have been the first president to hold anti-intellectual sentiments, he demarcated a shift in the political rhetoric of America’s ideological right (current day Republicans). Anti-intellectualism became a common fixture in the subsequent campaigns of Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump, to convey a stance of strong leadership without the need to rely on experts.
This is not to say Democratic presidents did not also employ anti-intellectualism — President Lyndon B. Johnson said, “self-styled intellectuals... are more concerned with the trivia and the superficial than they are with the things that have really built America.” As Susan Jacoby points out, “our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just ‘folks,’ a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980.”
What started as an appeal to the everyman, rooted in an (often valid) critique of the wealthy and elite-educated, has now morphed into a weapon to politicize fundamentally non-partisan issues. The use of anti-intellectualism allows politicians to position their opponents and their viewpoints as elitist and/or anti-American, bolster their own credibility on various topics (despite a lack of supporting evidence), and polarize certain issues like climate change so severely, that any sympathy towards the other side results in political ejection.
The very real consequences of anti-intellectualism being used for political posturing are particularly evident today with the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. After repeatedly declaring “the experts are terrible,” President Trump and his top policy makers have waged an ongoing campaign to vilify COVID expert Dr. Anthony Fauci (to the point of receiving death threats and being the target of an online conspiracy theory) and dismissed the reality and severity of the virus.
The alignment of COVID cautiousness with a violation of freedom and the liberal identity has fueled many to flout public health requirements, including wearing a mask, socially distancing, and minimizing large group interactions. As a result, COVID-related deaths in the U.S. are still rising and have hit a grim milestone of 500,000 deaths, in stark contrast to countries that took early and consistent precautions such as Taiwan and New Zealand.
Trump has also taken full advantage of fostering divisiveness to deny and delay necessary social change, such as combating systemic racism. By pitting the existence of racism against the idea of American greatness and exceptionalism, the Trump administration has created new rationales for why the U.S. is not “inherently unfair and racist…[but a country that] possesses a distinct identity and noble traditions that must be fiercely defended, not challenged.” (LA Times)
Whenever this facade of American exceptionalism is challenged, the strategy of anti-intellectualism is to characterize the people demanding change as a threat to America itself, rather than focusing on the underlying issues undermining American values of equality and liberty. In response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, Trump renounced the “protesters as ‘evil’ representatives of a ‘new far-left fascism’ whose ultimate goal is ‘the end of America’” (Washington Post), harkening back to the clash of the Civil Rights era movements and neoconservatives as well as the anti-intellectualism that bred McCarthyism. McCarthyism originated in the 1950s from its namesake, Senator Joe McCarthy whose “shrieking denunciations and fear-mongering” by way of anti-intellectual vocabulary bred fear and suspicion during a time of heightened fear about communism in the U.S.
Anti-Intellectualism & Corporations
Corporations also utilize anti-intellectualism to maintain control. America’s current mode of capitalism is predicated on exploitation, and the corporate sector knows that championing anti-intellectualism — especially anti-rationalism — is effective in maintaining a distracted and poorly informed population that is less likely to challenge pro-corporate, pro-wealthy public policy (even when it comes at their expense).
A prominent example of this is the ongoing refusal of corporations (and government officials backed by executives of these corporations) to invest in clean energy and large-scale policy changes to reverse the effects of climate change. Pro-coal companies and coalitions consistently deploy anti-rationalism to ignore overwhelming scientific evidence that a pivot to wind or solar energy has many environmental and economic benefits, while denying climate change exists, or is as serious as scientists warn.
For example, the Rocky Mountain Coal Mining Institute (sponsored by Murray Energy Corporation, the largest privately owned coal company in the U.S.) will cite coal’s abundance and affordability despite conflicting evidence that “existing coal is increasingly more expensive than cleaner alternatives” and operating costs of almost 75% of coal-fired power plants in the country surpass comparable wind or solar power plants. (Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy report).
As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway write in Merchants of Doubt:
"Rightwing think tanks, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate interests that are intent on discrediting science have employed a strategy first used by the tobacco industry to try to confuse the public about the dangers of smoking.
'Doubt is our product,' read an infamous memo written by a tobacco industry executive in 1969, 'since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public.'"
The tobacco industry’s dedication to anti-intellectualism can still be seen today. For example, popular e-cigarette Juul was marketed as a safer, non-addictive alternative to cigarettes. Representatives of its parent company, Altria, claimed Juul products were effective ways for smokers to quit, when in reality the nicotine concentration in Juul products is higher than most tobacco products and other e-cigarette brands.
It is unsurprising that corporations cling to rejection of logic and science to uphold their own margins and keep the status quo of accumulating wealth for shareholders at the expense of workers. What is particularly dangerous about the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism, however, is that those most hurt by this corporate power play internalize these sentiments and continue to perpetuate and enforce unjust systems.
This can be witnessed in the unreflective instrumentalism of the restaurant industry. The traditional brigade structure of kitchen - a system of hierarchy centered around a rigid chain of command, influenced by the Efficiency Movement and the military - combined with problematic tipping practices rooted in racism and rising real estate costs have contributed to an overtly unsustainable business model for decades.
Yet instead of reformulating the system by educating the public on the true costs of operations and advocating for better and more transparent wages, restaurant owners (and their mid-level leadership) have moved to exploiting unpaid labor (e.g., stagiaires, or trainees) and the most vulnerable populations (e.g., formerly incarcerated and undocumented workers) as well as working relentlessly to increase efficiency and output at the cost of mental and physical health.
The cost of this indoctrination in “the way things are” is high. Kitchen workers are taught to never question their superiors, to not receive credit for their contributions, to not waste time experimenting unless it contributes to the bottom line, and to work endlessly to keep the inherently flawed restaurant above water. The recent example of Los Angeles’s famed Sqirl is a poignant demonstration of the results of rigid authority that begets employee abuse. (Relatedly, a 2017 Unilever Food Solutions survey found 74% percent of chefs are sleep deprived to the point of exhaustion, 63% of chefs feel depressed, and more than half feel pushed to the breaking point.) You can read an analysis on the health impacts of the brigade system here.)
Criticism of Intellectualism vs. Anti-Intellectualism
Anti-intellectualism is often guised as a critique of authority or pointless theory, but it is a far cry from useful criticism of either. Here, we distinguish between constructive criticism and anti-intellectualism by analyzing the purpose of the critique and who and what it is meant to benefit. Whereas constructive criticism adds to a conversation by advocating for certain analyses or futures, anti-intellectualism aims to undermine and diminish any analyses or discourse that runs counter to its original position.
Under populist anti-elitism, for example, education reform advocates often highlight the biases embedded into Ivy league education due to the historical exclusion of Black Americans and institutional tendencies toward academic isolation. The critique is well deserved; the university (as well as the “liberal intellectual elite”) has historically perpetuated a correlation between class and intellect, claiming the university as the primary site of knowledge production at the exclusion of the working class.
However, the purpose of these criticisms is not to overturn public sentiment on the importance of education, “elite” or otherwise, but instead to emphasize the limits of our current systems and advocate for more equitable access to academic institutions. In fact, these movements aim to rectify the very social inequities that bred and encouraged American anti-intellectualism in the 20th and 21st centuries. They also aim to reveal the ways that American anti-intellectualism entered the university, such as how universities are increasingly run like businesses.
Similarly, professionals challenging the intellectual standards within their industry or discipline — such as those decolonizing psychotherapy & psychiatry — by pointing out the historical lack of BIPOC and female, non-binary, and trans consideration in formulating research and standards are not doing so to discredit their field of work. Instead, they aim to explain how deficits in inclusivity have contributed to real-world problems, such as misdiagnosed (or undiagnosed) autism and ADHD in girls and women, or unnecessary racial re-traumatization during counseling, and to improve the rigor and applicability of future work.
As Adam Waters and E.J. Dionne Jr. points out in Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?:
"Anti-intellectualism is often a symptom of a larger problem: many of those engaged in academic and policy work have lost a sense of obligation to connect what they do to the daily struggles of ordinary people."
As they write, what was once a “rich and interactive relationship between intellectuals and unions, which ran robust education and discussion programs with workers” has become the “Ivory Tower,” mystified from the working class as a result of academic jargon, economic barriers, and bureaucratic hurdles.
Anti-intellectualism takes an extreme approach by advocating for the elimination or rejection of education (particularly humanities education) and scientific study and discourse, rather than calling for a revision of its priorities. However, the improvement of intellectual applications is not mutually exclusive to pursuit of intellect itself — that is a false binary created with ulterior motives. As Water and Dionne Jr. writes, “What must be preserved is the right to dissent.”
Anti-intellectualism is a pervasive and popular mindset because it allows us to believe the things we want, even with little, uncertain, or no supporting evidence. Especially when it comes to sensitive topics like the epigenetics of trauma or abortion, anti-intellectualism manifests on both sides in response to what are seen as additive or detracting new studies. (As many have rightfully pointed out, topics like these are often a combination of science and morals, which makes matters ever more complicated.)
Simply advocating for more education is not enough, as academic institutions can also deploy anti-intellectualism tactics. Fully combating anti-intellectualism requires us to actively and consistently challenge ourselves with questions and points of view that may make us extremely uncomfortable.
This section first breaks down common strategies of anti-intellectualism, so we can be better equipped to not only recognize it but also interrogate our own means of conversation. We then offer some action steps to practice uprooting anti-intellectualism from our analyzing (and rationalizing) process. Together, we hope this encourages all of us to allow ourselves to be in a state of flux and change, always looking to grow while knowing doing so can be difficult.
Common Strategies of Anti-Intellectualism
The strategies most commonly deployed alongside anti-intellectualism are logical fallacies, often serving to distract or delegitimize arguments on irrelevant grounds. Below is a small sampling of these strategies, which very easily blend into one another.
As defined by Merriam Webster, whataboutism is “not merely the changing of a subject ("What about the economy?") to deflect away from an earlier subject...it’s a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.”
Also known as tu quoque, whataboutism is commonly used to conflate unrelated issues, or deem anecdotal evidence as conclusive. In both instances, evidence and deep expertise falls to the wayside. For example, some may point out, “What about Beyonce and Jay Z? They are very successful, so clearly the system isn’t ‘rigged’ against Black Americans.” Not only does this obscure systemic oppression by using two token exceptions, it puts the onus back on the other person to offer additional arguments, without any real defense.
Whataboutism also uses hypocrisy to overshadow other imminent issues. In February 2017, Bill O’Reilly called Putin a “killer” and questioned Trump’s support in the Russian government. Trump responded by saying: “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” In this, Trump creates false equivalencies, suggesting that if America has erred before, Russia’s actions are not “that bad”. His whataboutism leans into ad hominem attacks and disregards the human rights abuses O’Reilly initially pointed out.
That is, intentionally maintaining a firm stance — often upheld by values, intuition, emotions, or anecdotal evidence — and selectively disregarding any contrary evidence. While implicit and unconscious biases certainly may play a role, willful ignorance is described here as a conscious and calculated choice.
For example, anti-vaccine groups often latch onto the idea of “ambiguity aversion” by claiming that because science has been unable to prove that vaccines are 100% safe, they distrust the vaccines completely. This contrarianism ignores not only the well-documented global success of various vaccines but also the fact that no medical treatment is held to a 100% safe standard. Moreover, many anti-vaccine groups employ images of a manipulative government in masks, going door-to-door to force vaccines on kids, despite having no evidence of this happening. While trust in government is a valid concern, anti-intellectualism devolves important issues like medical safety and herd immunity into unproductive debates of opinions.
Also known as “begging the question,” circular arguments rely on the assumption that what one is trying to prove is true.
Many times, circular logic can be found in the context of rights; having a right implies other people’s obligation to allow you to exercise said right. For example, “Our Second Amendment rights are absolute, so gun control laws are illegal.” This ignores the fact that background checks and other forms of “control” have long existed.
Circular arguments have long been employed to bolster anti-Blackness. For example, the accusation that Black Americans have been incarcerated for drug use at higher rates than white Americans because of a “Black culture of poverty” — which in turn, is demonstrated by said drug use. Of course, this disregards consistent evidence since the 1970s that white Americans have higher overall substance abuse rates as well as the reality of unequal sentencing between Black and white Americans.
These occur by reducing, generalizing, or mischaracterizing the opposing argument into something that can be easily overturned.
Arguments both for and against Universal Basic Income (UBI) are often straw man arguments that simplify our economy’s complexity. Critics, for example, deem UBI to be an expensive drain on our society’s resources. However, these arguments often assume that UBI will merely be an addendum to our current situation and budget. Moreover, others claim that UBI, like welfare, would create a disincentive to work, though small-scale studies of UBI alternatives have shown the contrary. (Of course, even these studies do not show definitive proof that UBI can work nationally, which raises similar issues as the anti-vaccine argument — to avoid even trying because there is 100% proof of success.)
Strawman arguments latch onto and generalize the parts of an argument that benefit one’s own claims, rather than painting a full picture. The conversation around the dangers of open borders and immigration is a similar one. (Read more about U.S. immigration laws here from our Understanding Structural Racism series.)
Slippery Slope / False Causality
Slippery slopes assume a succession of events without direct evidence that this course of events will happen, often landing in a place that seems wholly undesirable to all parties.
For example, as Confederate statues are taken down, Trump has said: “This week it’s Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson's coming down. I wonder; is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” This slippery slope stirs fear by suggesting that all important statues will suddenly be taken down, but ignores the actual purpose for removing racially-motivated statues that champion the Confederacy.
Appeal to Authority
This is less of a strategy of anti-intellectualism in discourse and interpersonal interactions, but rather a way to grow anti-intellectualism among people. Paradoxically, many anti-intellectual movements are often led by authoritative figures that demand acceptance without question.
Anthropologist Carolyn Rouse notices this in her interactions with Trump supporters in California: “it was clear to me that Trump’s personality mattered more than his policies. [They] were angry … they wanted someone who was as angry as they were, who would fix things.” Especially in the age of social media, anti-intellectualism grows by planting charismatic figures in charge that people will believe in due to pre-existing biases.
Rejecting Anti-Intellectualism and Practicing Continuous Change
1. Personally, normalize and accept the idea of not knowing everything and embrace the idea that you should always be learning and growing. If you are able to be excited by the potential of acquiring new knowledge, the existence of different, even contrarian, knowledge can be exciting and interesting.
2. Find comfort in changing your mind when new, sound information is made available to you. Dismiss the notion of being wrong as hurtful to your character or social standing; instead, recognize this as adaptive learning so you can make better-informed decisions in the future. (Related, question scenarios or ideas you accept as mutually exclusive, and ask yourself if that is actually the case.)
3. Read often, and broadly, on subjects that may not specifically pertain to you or your work. (For example, it’s important for white Americans to read about Black, Latinx, and Asian American history and race relations.) While doing so, evaluate the arguments presented by the works you are consuming — do they employ any of the common strategies of anti-intellectualism? How do you determine if this writer is worthy of your trust?
4. Initiate difficult conversations with family, friends, and peers. Ask clarifying questions both to the person(s) you are talking with and yourself in order to better understand why they hold the position they do. Monitor how your emotions may be playing into your interpretation of the conversation. (This can be seen as an extension of inquiry based learning.)
5. Find practical applications to “theoretical” ideas, such as evolution, in order to demonstrate its influence and applicability to daily life. For example, understanding and explaining how the concept of evolution affects scientists’ approach to medicine, like the yearly flu vaccine or cancer research.
6. At a grassroots level, community members can recognize, reject, and demand more rational public policies that are based on empirical evidence while also challenging policymakers to try out new hypothetical scenarios (e.g., UBI). In order to combat the ongoing tide of anti-intellectualism, we must not also lean into its tendency of becoming an intellectual pursuit that does not consider real-world consequences — it is imperative we continue to constructively criticize existing and future public policies.
Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (2018) by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts