by Peter Wells
Our classes in the British university where I was teaching Pre-sessional students (mainly Chinese) were cancelled for a Special Event. Instead of their normal lessons on academic English, our students were shepherded off to witness a series of presentations on ‘learning.’ Learning, they were told, was ‘Collaborative,’ ‘Creative,’ and ‘Self-directed,’ and depended upon ‘Taking Responsibility for one’s own learning,’ ‘Thinking Critically,’ ‘Problem-solving’ and ‘Taking the Initiative.’
While no one would dispute that these approaches are valuable in themselves, and relevant in some learning situations, they clearly exemplify stereotypical Western liberal values. I looked in vain in the prospectus that had drawn my students to attend our university for evidence that the syllabus included the imparting of these ideals. No, what they had paid for was instruction in the English language; specifically, training in academic writing.
To me this looked like a failure on our part to supply our customers with the goods they had paid for. More seriously, it looked like a neo-colonialist attempt to impose British cultural values upon a captive audience of rather vulnerable foreigners. I do not think that our lecturers, if they attended a conference in Beijing, would appreciate being obliged to attend a plenary session on Chinese Communism. I observed as much to a senior lecturer, in the politest possible manner.
His response was robust. Apparently, learning can take place only with the sort of educational approaches that have developed in our culture over the past generation or so. My suggestion that Chinese people seemed to be very good at learning things – better in some areas than Westerners – was met with a direct contradiction. Chinese people could not really learn at all. Nor, it turned out, as the conversation developed, could Indians, Arabs or Africans. They were not even able to think properly. In fact, only Western people could think, or learn anything worthwhile, the qualification being softened to include people of colour who were entirely Westernised, like, say, Barack Obama. To be fair, the bit about Obama was an inference on my part.
To cut to the chase, this did not sound very liberal, though the intellectual ideals in question are part of the modern liberal armoury. It sounded triumphalist, dogmatic, even, dare I say it, racist, because the learning styles being so aggressively promulgated are, overwhelmingly, espoused by white people. Evangelical Christians are often the target of obloquy from liberal quarters, especially when their enthusiasm takes on a hectoring quality, but the similarities between some ‘liberals’ and some Christians are striking. There are, it seems, evangelical liberals, and, I’m afraid, there are liberal bigots, or bigoted liberals.
This is amusingly demonstrated when you work in the English (EFL) departments of universities in non-English speaking countries, which are generally run by Westerners. You will often find yourself called upon to teach a subject called ‘Critical Thinking,’ which sounds like a great idea, until you realise that its sub-text is that Arabs should be less Islamic, and Japanese not so, er, Japanese. The aim is to undermine all their primitive superstitions about feet, food, God, and so on, so that they finish up sharing the universal scepticism that has brought so many blessings to our own society. It is extremely instructive to raise the issue of why these courses are considered more important than teaching English, for, if you do, you find that the pre-eminence of Critical Thinking is a matter which is not open to question.
The superciliousness of liberals is not confined to their dealings with people of other races, but extends to people in their own nations who do not share their views. Like most people, liberals do not always realise that their intellectual position is just that: a position, not a lofty and neutral pinnacle whence one can gain an Olympian conspectus of other positions (each of which, Christianity, Islam, Deism, Marxism, all of course think that they have the overview). To liberals, as to evangelical Christians or fundamentalist Muslims, other positions seem, well, stupid. Because they (the liberals) have, or think they have, all the tools guaranteed to generate correct opinions: intelligence, education, access to information, and a significant philosophical tradition.
And they may well be right, to a degree. Or ‘we,’ rather than ‘they,’ for I am of course one of them (of you, dear 3 Quarkers). I’m a 20th century liberal. I believe religious fundamentalists to be mistaken, as well as everybody else whose views on anything I disagree with. For how could I believe that I am at this instant wrong? I know I could be wrong; in fact, I must have been wrong sometimes, for I have changed my mind on several issues during my life, but, like everyone else, I now believe that what I now believe is true, and the contrary false. But I have begun to have an inkling that we all need to be somewhat relativist about our positions, rather than triumphalist, and that there may be something at a deeper level, perhaps to do with personal relationships, that is more important than propositions.
For this reason, I now have a self-imposed moratorium on calling, or even thinking, people stupid even when, from my limited point of view, they are (e.g. they don’t, or can’t, read books). I’ve realised they don’t like it (for I don’t like it either). And, though excoriating people I think are mistaken might make me feel good momentarily, it doesn’t make them change their minds, or appear to make anyone around more inclined to agree with me. In fact, it makes them angry. And one wonders whether there is some connection between that anger and some of the cataclysmic events that we have seen in our politics recently. Much has been said about the economic problem of people who have been ‘left behind’ by globalism, but I wonder if the triumph of populists owes something, even a lot, to the impression that a certain type of intellectual seems to have been calling one a dolt (at least by implication) ever since one struggled with parts of speech and long division at school. There is a story which may be apocryphal, but which is instructive even if invented: that Donald Trump was inspired to make a bid for the presidency as a result of a public jibe made against him by Barack Obama.
There is an even more dangerous strategy than deploying insults such as ‘silly’ or ‘stupid,’ against those with whom we do not agree. It has become a commonplace that when, in describing a shocking crime, we have exhausted such terms as ‘brutal,’ ‘cruel,’ horrific,’ ‘cowardly,’ and so on, the next step up is to resort to the word ‘sick’ which means, of course, not physically unwell, but mentally ill. One example out of many is Teresa May’s response to the March 22 2017 London terrorist attack, after which she described the attacker as “sick and depraved.” This is actually a very strange move, for, normally, evidence that criminals are mentally ill is held to exonerate them to a degree, not to make their crimes more blameworthy.
What is happening is that we are growing accustomed to using words, in political arguments, not to explain, clarify or persuade, but to injure and demean. The aim is to reduce the self-esteem of our opponents and their standing in the community: not to convince, as in an argument, but to weaken and incapacitate, as in a war. Trump, for example, is regularly diagnosed as narcissistic, paranoid, delusional, psychotic. The aim of these accusations in thinly veiled. There is no intention of providing a serious medical diagnosis, followed by a prescription for healing. On the contrary, this sort of language is more reminiscent of the taunts school bullies bawl at an unpopular child: “You, you’re crackers. You’re a nutcase!”
Educated liberals must surely be aware that mental health problems should be treated as an illness, and that no stigma should be attached to them, any more than to asthma or migraines. If their children were suffering from mental illness, that is undoubtedly the line that they would take. Yet we frequently find them cynically exploiting the stigma that is attached to mental health problems in order to attack a person whose political views they disagree with. This is deeply offensive to the many innocent people properly diagnosed as suffering from these problems. Likewise the use of words like ‘cretinous,’ ‘moronic,’ ‘half-witted’ to describe ‘Brexiteers’ (those who wanted Britain to leave the European Union), by ‘Remainers,’ is offensive to those people who have genuine learning difficulties, and to their families.
In Act 4 sc. ii of Macbeth, Macduff’s son is quizzing his mother about Scotland’s criminal code:
Son: What is a traitor?
Mother: Why, one that swears and lies.
Son: And be all traitors that do so?
Mother: Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hanged.
Son: And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?
Mother: Every one.
Son: Who must hang them?
Mother: Why, the honest men.
Son: Then the liars and swearers are fools, for there are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang up them.
Well, we, the world’s liberals, are, I think, the ‘honest men’ (and women), but it seems that in some countries at least, the swearers and liars have suddenly realised that our power was only smoke and mirrors, and have decided to ‘beat’ us and ‘hang us up’. History has re-started, and not entirely in the way we would have preferred. Why? It’s the ‘Stupid,’ stupid!
I would venture to suggest, my friends, that one of the causes of this debacle may have been our tendency, in recent decades, to overuse the word ‘stupid,’ or its synonyms, in our public discourse.