Historically, the United States has been marked by a deep anti-intellectual tradition. Joseph McCarthy attacked “pinheaded intellectuals.” Spiro Agnew lampooned “effete intellectual snobs.” Our society invented derogatory terms like “egghead” and still speaks dismissively of “professors in their ivory towers” who are out of touch with “the real world.” I shudder to think of how many children of my generation were actively discouraged from reading or studying in favor of doing things “popular kids” were doing.
However, the worm is turning, and in our day, it is apparently in vogue to mock publicly those whose intelligence cannot keep up with the highly educated. When British sociologist Michael Young coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was an Orwellian bad dream of a future he hoped never to see. Well, it’s here, and today, the intellectually gifted have too-often installed the meritocracy of the brainy as the yardstick measuring human worth. It’s open season on anyone lacking superior I.Q.
In his article, “The War on Stupid People,” author David Freedman describes our publicly sanctioned climate of mockery:
“Even in this age of microaggressions and victimization, we maintain open season on the non-smart. People who’d swerve off a cliff rather than use a pejorative for race, religion, physical appearance, or disability are all too happy to drop the s-bomb. Indeed, degrading others for being “stupid” has become nearly automatic in all forms of disagreement.”
These practices are reflected not only in popular books and videos such as the Darwin Awards, People-of-Wal-Mart websites, and Reddit lists of ways to insult the stupid, but in popular speech: “not the sharpest knife in the drawer … elevator doesn’t go to the top floor … dumb as a sack of hammers.” Even as I write these words, I lament at how easily a list of these slogans comes to my mind. I have used all too many of them, aimed at too many people, far too casually.
Pastor Gregory Boyd deepened my conviction about this by terming it “mental gossip,” cataloguing how easy it is, in the name of “people watching,” to fall into a casual and easy mockery of those deemed to be intellectually (and therefore humanly) inferior. His solution? To catch himself in the process of mental gossip, to repent, and to focus instead on praying a blessing on the other person as an image-bearer of God. It’s a muscle I need to exercise far more regularly. As do most of us.
Forget research that demonstrates that high intelligence is not necessarily correlated with job performance or life satisfaction, and that “soft interpersonal skills,” “social awareness,” and “emotional intelligence” are better predictors of success. Followers of Jesus must refuse to mock others (i.e., those in a different political party or denominational stripe from our own) as inferior because it is completely antithetical to the manner of the One we follow. It is OK for disciples to address incomplete, poor or dangerous ideas as stupid. But it is never OK to decide that a person is of lower worth based on their I.Q.
This is a place where, when our culture goes low, we have to go high.