The Scourge of Anti-Intellectualism in America

I was struck by a graphic that was posted on Facebook the other day, which was clearly a response to the well-intentioned people who point out spelling errors in the posts of others on social media outlets. The derisive term “Grammar Nazi” is now flung about with impunity (never mind that they confuse grammar with spelling. See? They can’t even get that right).

A simple typo is one thing and perhaps can be overlooked. After all, typos happen, but when someone has put effort in creating a graphic presentation—which they have designed and executed and evaluated—and it contains a gross misspelling, well that is quite another. It begs to be pointed out. It cries to be corrected. But when you do, you’re a “Grammar Nazi.” Instead of the person who made the error feeling like they were at best careless or at worst ignorant, it’s the person who points out the error who is at fault, like a child responding to criticism with, “Oh yeah? Well you’re fat.”

But this childish folderol is really symptomatic of a much larger issue, namely, the rampant anti-intellectualism in America today. This notion that, as Isaac Asimov put it, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

Anti-Intellectualism

In Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, he points out that the roots of anti-intellectualism are many and complex, but there are four causes that come to the forefront: democracy, egalitarianism, business, and evangelicalism.

The number one cause of anti-intellectualism is the double whammy of democracy and egalitarianism. The Jacksonian movement, Hofstadter proposes, arose from a suspicion of expertise and the belief that important government operations were so simple that an average citizen could perform them. Jackson was seen as a man of the people whose practical common sense trumped education or “book smarts.”

Bloody Andrew Jackson

In relating the Jacksonian movement to today’s anti-intellectualism, it’s worth noting that Jackson was an asshole. He was aggressive, fought in duels where he sometimes killed his opponents, expanded the spoils system (where a newly elected president gives government jobs to his supporters), supported slavery, and aggressively enforced the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the forced relocation of Native Americans by the tens of thousands. The tragic Trail of Tears was just a part of the whole cruel enterprise. The irony is that Jackson created the Democratic Party, but he is a poster boy for today’s political conservatives, the very core of the modern anti-intellectualism trend.

Hofstadter further proposes that business plays a role, where “wisdom of intuition” is more valued as natural and endowed by God than is rationality and learning, which is acquired and artificial. The first, they believe, is nimble, the second slow and lumbering.

And then there’s evangelicalism, which comes from the heart, rational mind be damned. When the Puritans came to America their ministers were held up as leaders, both in intellect and education, but that notion weakened over time as ministers gradually morphed into populist crusaders and bible thumping preachers. Hofstadter wrote, “In modern [American] culture the evangelical movement has been the most powerful carrier of this kind of religious anti-intellectualism."

Fear of Intelligence

The truth is that anti-intellectuals are threatened by intelligence, and it’s no wonder. Intellectuals think. They examine. They question. They consider things from several different perspectives. And that’s dangerous because you never know where thinking will lead or what belief systems will be shattered. It’s the same with political conservatism.

What is really alarming is that political conservatism—and by extension, anti-intellectualism—has been suggested to be a mild form of insanity (or not so mild a form depending on your point of view).

Political Conservatism is Insanity

A study published in Psychological Bulletin, Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski & Sulloway), states, “several psychological variables predicted political conservatism.” Those variables included dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity, closed-mindedness, low tolerance of uncertainty, low integrative complexity, fear of threat or loss, and low self-esteem, according to Dr. William Todd Schultz, professor of psychology at Pacific University.

Schultz calls the list “more than a little unsavory,” and says those variables denote someone “full of fear, with a poor sense of self, and a lack of mental dexterity.” He goes on to point out that tolerance of ambiguity is a very strong indicator of psychological maturity, but the study indicates that political conservatives are just the opposite. Not only do they demonstrate an intolerance of ambiguity, but also an inability to deal with complexity. To them everything is black or white, right or wrong. Shades of grey make them fearful, and it’s that fear that causes them to hate. Just listen to what they preach. Progressive liberals speak more to promise, hope and lifting up society as a whole.

So political conservatives, anti-intellectuals, and slingers of the “Grammar Nazi” epithet, your ignorance is not as good as my knowledge, or as once again Asimov put it: “Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”

Sources

Jost, J.T. et al., 2003. Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129(3), p.339-375. Available at: http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/0033-2909.129.3.339.

Hofstadter, R., 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Vintage. Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Anti-Intellectualism-American-Life-Richard-Hofstadter/dp/0394703170.

Jacoby, S., Sunday, February 17, 2008, The Dumbing Of America, Available at:http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/15/AR2008021502901.html

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Comments 32 comments

Sooner28 4 years ago

I enjoyed you tying in the Grammar Nazi logo with anti-intellectualism. I will never see it the same way again!

I wrote a hub called "Anti-Intellectualism Runs Rampant in the Republican Party," which makes the same point you made here. I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees it.

Liberals are guilty of anti-intellectualism also, but only when they act like conservatives :p.

Great hub.


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

I really enjoyed reading until I came to one part. I stopped reading because I assumed that since you were arguing in favor of intellectualism that you would use better words to describe a former president of the US than a donkey's anus exit. Voted, disappointed.

Good subject though. When you write a g-rated one, I will read it.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

Thanks, Sooner28. I appreciate the comment.

I see your point, Rodric.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Christoph......as long as we're offereing personal opinions here, I think you were fairly easy on ole Andrew. "Asshole," is an accurate description.

This hub and others of a similar nature, focusing on the same topic, are a gift. Thank you! They're a gift to those of us who detest the ongoing slaughter of our wonderful native tongue.

I know I'm considered rude by some, for boldly correcting a person I may be conversing with, who says, "He don't know about that." I will gladly accept the label of,"rude," if I can be assured I'm cleaning up the streets.

Please never give up this fight! UP ++ and sharing!


ChristinS profile image

ChristinS 4 years ago from Midwest

I enjoyed this hub very much and I agree that this country has definitely turned to demonizing those who are free thinkers or educated. It's always about who can come up with the better snarky comeback, rather than intelligent debate. I don't even think that exists in very many circles anymore. If you truly want to see a sad state of affairs, sign up for any college level English course. I took an "advanced" English course a couple of semesters ago and the younger kids in there with me were just this side of functionally illiterate. Most of them couldn't string together a cohesive thought in a sentence and I find that very frightening. I don't know if it's all the texting and sound bites etc. we engage in now, or if it is truly the dumbing down of the population. Great hub - voted up!


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

fpher48: Thanks. Yes I think I went easy on him too. I simply didn't want to get in it with him. If you're going to be offended by that word, well, there's nothing I can say to change his mind. But I wanted to put a bit of a shock there, and in a way, offer a peek into my true feelings, about the "Grammar Nazi" meme, anti-intellectionalism and politicians who are so closed minded that they would rather pull the country backwards than move forward. I have been very accepting of slang and many modern free adaptations of our language, but only when grammar and spelling are adhered too. Thanks again.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

ChristinS: I believe you regarding the young kids in English class. Our educational system keeps lowering it's standards to qualify for Federal money that's tied to test scores, that we're turning out hordes of very uneducated children. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.


Jewels profile image

Jewels 4 years ago from Australia

I do like that last quote by Asimov, but can't for the life of me guess why!

I'm coming out of the closet - my name is Jewels and I'm a spelling nazi. I can't help it. I've had this problem since my twenties. I blame my education then those crossword puzzles, and being a secretary - all those memos and letters sent out with perfect grammar and not one spelling mistake to be found - well not in the final draft, I am afterall not perfect.

I had to have therapy when the internet hit it's straps and the default spelling became American and not our beloved English. Yes I know America speaks English. But you know there were standards, root languages and all.

I will continue therapy. There is yet medication to cure me of this ill, I know our beloved pharmaceutical companies are working hard to help me. But until then, please excuse my corrective behavior.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

Ha! Hi Jewels! Well my mom would be proud. She did not tolerate grammar fools.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 4 years ago from Oakley, CA

Excellent points, all! I agree with you fully, and I, too, am often guilty of being a 'grammar/spelling Nazi.' Sometimes, in casual writing, between friends, texting, etc., it does not matter. But when an error changes the entire meaning of a sentence, (love your 'let's eat grandpa' example), then, it is vitally important, no matter the setting.

The errors or carelessness that gall me the most are those who misuse/confuse the, 'they're/their/there' trio. It does matter--get it right!

As for the person who had an issue with "Asshole," he is one of the intolerant ones of whom you speak, and proved it by his own reaction! Don't you just love it when you give someone enough rope..... :-D There are so many more, much ruder words that you could have used. "Asshole" IS 'g-rated,' these days!

Voted up, interesting, useful, and shared. Should be mandatory reading for all politicians!


HSchneider 4 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

You are right, Christoph. Anti-intellectualism, anti-science, and anti-knowledge is rampant in our country and especially in the GOP. They do it for political expediency. This is a horrible trend and threatens to put us behind the rest of the world as the technological revolution proliferates. Excellent Hub.


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 4 years ago from Western NC

From one intellectual to another: bravo. Great points. I latched on to this read because I have often wondered about the same theme that is going on in the US. I have to wonder if there are those that want to bring back the Lords and the Serfs.


Steve Orion profile image

Steve Orion 4 years ago from Tampa, Florida

Sooner28, thanks for sharing this Hub, and Christoph, thanks for writing it! The point could be made by some conservatives that all conservatives could be called anti-intellectual, inherently, though it would be a difficult one to make. I say that because when you look at the typical positions they take (gay rights, religion, global warming/energy, foreign relations and the like), they seem to fit rather damn easily under the category of the Who-Gives-A-Damn-About-Facts worldview.

Good points under a topic that really needs to be discussed!


Mark Knowles profile image

Mark Knowles 4 years ago

It is really not that hard to fathom. The dumber the sheeple, the easier they are to manipulate. I had not realised how many others were noticing the trend. Good hub.


Rodric29 profile image

Rodric29 4 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Christoph, you are a real trooper. My comment about the disconcerting word was a method to see if you are true to your words in the hub. As an intellectual, you saw the comment in the context in which it was intended. You could have taken that time to rebuke me and tell me to avoid your hubs being that you have many more following you than I have following.

With correct and proper spelling and grammar also is irreproachable context. We also degrade the English language by making common and uncouth words popular. If we lack the mastery of the lexicon to include historically colloquial rubbish the we do a disservice to culture and society. Editing is my worst fault. I publish, then edit most times.

Your have won me as a fan. Voted up and shared. Thank you for your hubs.


junkseller profile image

junkseller 4 years ago from Michigan

Epethet^


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

The scourge of anti-intellectualism is rampant. You've made an interesting observation about the trend in our communication. It's sad that people think it doesn't matter when they don't capitalize words like "i" because it is, after all, too much work to press that shift key. Today there are so many different ways to communicate and we're getting worse at it instead of better.

I found the comment by ChristinS to be quite enlightening. In a freshman English class she found "Most of them couldn't string together a cohesive thought in a sentence". It's sad.


geoffco23 profile image

geoffco23 4 years ago from Mansfield, UK

Read this today, and was suitably horrified: http://www.reddit.com/r/politics/comments/vo26x/te...


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 4 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Wonderful hub, Christoph. Like a security blanket for me, yet as I was reading it I felt I wanted to offer to hold your jacket while you were being stoned. But then I read the comments (including the gentlemanly retraction) and was thrilled to read how many people agree with you.

I felt uplifted, by that... I still do.


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 4 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

Well done, Chris. Dr. Schultz' "psychological variances" constitutes the best description of today's right wing Republicans that I've seen. They are clearly driven by fear born out of ignorance.


mkott profile image

mkott 4 years ago from Reno, Nevada

Great Hub. I am glad to find out I am not the only one that has noticed the trend, especially among the GOP.


colorsuz profile image

colorsuz 4 years ago from Ann Arbor, MI

As stressful as ambiguity can be at times, it is inevitable. We can control our own actions, but not much else. Embrace the chaos! Sometimes things will work out the way we desire, and other times they won't. I am guilty of analyzing things to high hell, but at the end of the day it's a waste of energy. I can talk and think about something as much as I want to but it isn't going to get me anywhere. I can create excuses and explanations that turn a simple situation into an 1000 piece jigsaw. With a little patience things will pan out the way they are supposed to pan out. Ignorance isn't the answer; it's a cop-out, allowing people to bypass a character flaw within themselves. The ability to accept the mysteries of human beings and life in general is one with which we will always be at odds. We want to understand and find purpose, but this is no reason for self-delusion. Confusion can be frustrating, but living a lie is defeatist. The truth WILL set us free if we are patient enough to wait for it and allow the forces at work to "do their thing".


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

While I am no intellectual and can't spell worth s#&t, I worry about the single mindedness of certain people who jump on an idea without thinking it through or without reading up on the whole story. Jumping on some simple minded bandwagon, posting some idiotic declaration on Facebook (I see so many of these) is just easier and somehow, more exciting. People crave that self righteous excitement because they watch too much TV. (Voted up and tweeted)


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

I'm a pretty bad speller myself, Delores. And you're definitely right about people jumping on a story. I am constantly pointing out to friends on Facebook when they're passing on incorrect information or a hoax, which they don't seem to appreciate.


Jewels profile image

Jewels 4 years ago from Australia

Further to Dolores Monet's above comment, Mr Reilly: Do you think the masses jumped on the simple minded bandwagon with their interpretation of the second amendment and missed it's real understanding?


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 4 years ago from St. Louis Author

Most definitely. First, it was a different world back then. Truth was, very few people actually owned guns. the framers of the Constitution did not intend that individuals should amass artillery suitable for armed forces. Also it is conveniently overlooked that the 2nd amendment states "right to bear arms as part of a well-trained militia," a militia that can be called on by the government when in need. These people today are not part of any "well-trained militia," nor do we need to call on them (at least not on their weapons) to defend our country.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 4 years ago from East Coast, United States

Christoph, yes, just as I said - they love to chop off part of a sentence and use what sounds good to them. The world has changed in ways that the founding fathers could not even conceive.


MissJamieD profile image

MissJamieD 3 years ago from Minnes-O-ta

You always pick the best subjects and your intellect makes them even better:) Haven't been on HP for awhile, I've missed your work. Can't wait to get back to reading your hubs again.


Sanxuary 3 years ago

In the end its just another form of manipulation and a word game performed by mentally ill people such as sociopaths and others. Whatever works to pass their agenda is the game they always play. We love neat little boxes to put things to detract from our insanity and they are filled with legitimate things to hide it. The vision of hypocrisy such as hiding evil while claiming to support good things.


Christoph Reilly profile image

Christoph Reilly 3 years ago from St. Louis Author

MissJamieD thanks for your kind comment. Don't know how I failed to comment back then. Nice to see you!

Sanxuary - Right.


Jason R. Manning profile image

Jason R. Manning 2 years ago from Sacramento, California

This is just plain sad, you turn a serious grammar and communication issue into a politically party issue. How interesting that you pin improper grammar and anti-intellectualism at the footstep of Conservatives. Obviously you have never heard Joseph Biden speak let alone someone like Jesse Jackson. I was wishing to agree with you, but you cannot see past your own core agenda of smearing belief systems over actually realizing this phenomenon is idea blind. Anyone who works in the real world and exchanges emails at the corporate or government level would daily see misuse of grammar or vocabulary. You’ve also never spent any length of time in an online college course; one would commit suicide if they we’re an English major. Nevertheless, as a growing Libertarian, I had to hold my nose and comment that the problem you speak of is real, but your target is far off the mark. Cheers.


Twilight Lawns profile image

Twilight Lawns 19 months ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

Hello Christopher,

I, as you may have remembered, am a Grammar Nazi, but not through intolerance, nor spite, but because I love our shared language, and hate to see it being murdered (or at least, bludgeoned) by those who pretend to know better. There are some, and I include Hubbers (I still hate that term), who think themselves capable writers, yet don’t seem to realise that there are rules to be followed.

I am the master of the typo, and anyone who has received a comment from me will be quick to agree with that statement, but the simplest errors may occur, but I hope and pray that I don’t whack an apostrophe where it shouldn’t be or make frighteningly obvious misuses of homophones.

I have a friend who maintains that he is a poet, and yet he insits that there is no difference between its and it’s. He has been known to sign of a letter with “Your’s truly” and argues that “till” is and abbreviation of “until” and therefore should be written as ‘till or ’til.

Thanks for a splendid article, and let me say here and now; since coming onto HubPages, I have been not a little surprised and pleased to discover that, on your side of The Pond, our language seems to be written better; to understood more completely, to be used more correctly. There is hope, but I shudder at the errors perpetrated over here.

Looking back, I see that it has been over four years since I offered my first bit of scribbling for HubPages, and you, Christopher were the first to comment. Even after all this time, I still smile with enjoyment, and not a little pride at you kind and uplifting remarks.

Thank you.

Ian

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