What Is Dumbing Us Down?

CEO

At a party in rural Virginia, I listened as three military retirees carried on about the horrors of government and taxes, never stopping to think that every penny they earned came from government taxes. What is dumbing so many people down? This could be the question of our age, to answer before it’s too late.      

Don’t assume that smart people are excluded — far from it. Consider Elon Musk, so smart in Tesla, hardly so in Twitter. And how about Francis Fukuyama, educated at Harvard and Yale? As communism collapsed in Eastern Europe, he wrote to great acclaim about The End of History, meaning “the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Leaving aside history since then, how can any thinking person accept some political doctrine as conclusively utopian? Fukuyama’s claim should have been labelled “the end of thinking,” having done its bit to advance the end of human history.    

In much the same vein, Thomas Friedman has written in his New York Times column that the United States “always stood for universal values of freedom and human rights…” No Vietnam, no Iraq, no support for Pinochet in Chile, and so on. In other words, no memory of nasty America, just noble America. Selective memory dumbs us down, much as do anxiety, insecurity, anger, and narcissism.   

These days, instead of applying wisdom, we get groupthink, described so aptly by Benjamin Franklin two centuries ago: “If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking.” (Recall that the best and the brightest advised John F. Kennedy on Vietnam.) Circus showman P.T. Barnum proclaimed that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” except that now they seem to be made rather than born, with several possible explanations.  

Explanations 1 and 2: Social Pressures and Social Isolation 

Like rats in an overcrowded cage, the pressures of modern life, including the pace of change, can certainly be affecting our propensity to pause and think. Thoughtfulness is hardly encouraged in a society plagued with insecurity and anxiety.    

Exacerbating this is the decline of community in contemporary society. When we lived in kinship groups, tribes, and clans, we maintained strong social ties. Then we got organized by establishing institutions that make many of our decisions for us. These came at the expense of community ties, with the consequence that many of us now feel separated, isolated, and alone.   

And so we seek replacement affiliations — in a religious congregation, fan club, political party, whatever. Instead of deep bonding, these provide status by association. (“We played with passion!” said a soccer fan after his team lost a major game at the World Cup.) These are not communities so much as networks, with easy-come, easy-go relationships. (To understand the difference between a network and a community, ask your Facebook friends to help paint your house.)    

Groupthink may be present in communities, but conformity can be greater in these networks. To join a political party, for example, you must leave your judgment at the door: think liberal, or conservative, or populist, whatever, just not nuanced. The group will think for you. After all, it has its dogma, which reduces complexity to category — some incontrovertible truth laid down by some authority, with the express intention of dumbing people down. (“Take back control” with Brexit. “Make America great again” by voting for the ultimate con man.) From white supremacy to neoliberal economics, dogmas are the blinders that block peripheral vision, and thus open the floodgates to mass manipulation, whether to sell cold beer or vile politicians. Eventually, we can hardly distinguish stark reality from blatant lying. 

 Welcome to our mindless society, poisoned by its own fake facts.   

Explanations 3 and 4: Chemical and Electronic Intoxication 

We swim in toxic stews, chemical and electronic. Aside from the occasional hint in research, who knows what all the chemicals that we inhale, ingest, and absorb are doing to our brains, let alone our bodies. Are we being dumbed down simply by chemical intoxication?   

 Electronic toxins may be more intoxicating. That the multitude of emails and phone calls circulating around us is having no effect on our cognition is difficult to believe — unless, of course, it is having this effect. We know that the earlier technological “advances” had their unexpected consequences. What will we be finding out about this one  

More evident than the physiological effects of these electronic toxins are certain behavioral effects. If you wish to dumb someone down, interrupt them constantly, as do these weapons of mass distraction. The message behind their messages is to forego concentrating on anything. It’s been said that the final stage of slavery is when you no longer realize that you’re a slave. Do we realize the degree to which we have become slaves to the media messaging that disrupts our concentration while shunting aside anything of significance?    

Will our cherished electronic devices thus turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of our modern society? With images bombarding us like a flickering film, no wonder we have so much trouble seeing any big picture. Even when one does get through, it’s gone in a flash, like a subliminal ad. On to the next banality or outrage.    

Most tangibly, perhaps, this electronic onslaught can interfere with our sleep, as we go to bed with our minds still racing, or just get there late by overworking in our job. Sleep deprivation is known to cause erratic behavior and compromise cognitive functioning. This alone might explain much of the dumbing down.  

Explanation 5 (all of the above): Natural Separation   

There may be a common cause of all of this, suggested in an essay by Yuval Harari. “People estranged from their bodies, senses, and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented.” Could it be that the further we get from nature — from natural communities into frenetic networks, from fresh air into polluted cities, from clear focus to constant distraction — the more mindless we become? Is this why so many of us head back to nature whenever we can, where we feel free to think, away from all these assaults on our senses?   

Smartening Up 

If Harari is right, then we need to reconnect with nature, whenever and wherever we can, and also revive communityship, perhaps by living in smaller places and working in smaller organizations. Meanwhile we need to spurn the toxins that are thrust on us — commercial and political as well as chemical and electronic. And, of course, we can hit that little button on our devices for some temporary peace and quiet, which might be easier to do than we think, once we think.    

Now, more than ever, we must stop the dumbing down, to smarten up before we end human history altogether. 


Written by Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University.
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