The Other: Science as enemy
Anti-intellectualism has sorely troubled me. I look for root causes, principles, forces at work, in order to try to understand what really propels us. For a long time, I have failed to identify what makes so many of us afraid of the intelligence of others.
Sometimes answers are found in unexpectedly familiar places. We all know how the mob loves a demon. Demagogues have always exploited our fears in this way, but in order to do so they need to nominate a candidate, a scapegoat, a group or faction that can easily be seen, identified, caricatured or parodied, mocked or vilified. Skin colour is helpful in this respect, since a man with different colour skin requires no interrogation, no artful exposure. Here is a man with black skin. He is therefore the other. Easy for the mob, since thinking isn’t required. Same with language. He talks funny, therefore he is different. He is foreign: the perfect embodiment of our fears. (Handy too when they can’t speak our language – saves a lot of time having to listen futile defences when denying they are different is clearly pointless).
Some other demons demand a bit more work before they can be satisfactorily burned, drowned, marginalised or excommunicated. Religion is not worn on the sleeve, doesn’t reveal itself to the naked eye. This difficulty is overcome with a variety of methods, nearly all of which involve torture: the inquisition was just another variant of techniques developed in the ancient world. It is handy that skin colour, ethnicity, dress and religion can so easily be conflated, because this is a time-saver when it comes to disenfranchising, for example, Muslims.
Political affiliations are the most difficult on which to shine the light of systematic alienation. McCarthy had a good stab at it, Stalin made a fine job of murdering 25 million people because of it, but the collateral damage is always considerable. Some make it easy, wearing their ostracism with pride, enjoying their sense of exclusion in the manner of Groucho Marx, in that they wouldn’t want to be part of any society that would have them as a member. But in all, the easiest way to spot the political dissident is through careful and close surveillance of each other: there is something particularly depressing about the effectiveness of the Stasi, a grass roots network of venal informers forever peeping between the curtains of their prejudice.
All the characterisations of anxiety I have outlined still exist, still prevail to some extent, the scale and transparency dependent on culture and geography. I think it is also true that these demonizations, these ‘others’, are timeless. They can be found throughout history, a consistent set of targets. This may not be the case with intelligence. In European history before the middle ages, there was little insidious challenge by the intelligentsia to the authority of hereditary rulers, be they dynastic, hereditary, representatives of the divine or figureheads of military authority. When I talk about insidious, I mean religion. Before the advent of Christianity as a political force, the only challenge for power was through warfare between tribes, states or nations, or revolt from within – uprisings, assassinations and the like. Consequently, intelligence could rarely be a threat to power; instead, it was a complement to it. Intelligence was fostered and revered, for the learning, for the analysis, for the wisdom and foresight, for weapons and machines of war, for civic improvement, to accomplish grandiose schemes and monuments that glorified the sponsors.
When organised, trans-national religion transcended its spiritual remit and started to acquire political leverage, the role of intelligence changed. It could still be harnessed in the service of the church, but the enquiring mind cannot be constrained only to the approved channels of enquiry. It is the nature of intelligence to question temporal authority because its basis relies on a fundamental acceptance of doctrine. The enquiring mind cannot help but enquire after the validity of such authority. By making such enquiries, there must be an inevitable backlash, where authority is used in an attempt to limit intelligence, to persuade, cajole or force intelligence to obey the limits set by theocracies. The very nature of theocratic power comes from unquestioning obedience, complicity and submission – exactly as Christianity teaches in the guise of religious coherence – but these strictures are anathema to the enquiring mind.
So a power struggle begins, somewhat on mistaken grounds. Intellectuals seek the freedom to ask any question that occurs. Religion seeks to proscribe that freedom, allowing only lines of enquiry it considers no threat to the established doctrine. Yet the intelligent do not question doctrine in order to undermine it – not at first perhaps – merely to understand what is real and what is expedient, where authority lies, and where it is aggregated under pretences that, to an intellectual, seem false. And when the enquiry engages the most contentious subject of all – the nature and existence of God – the response is the brutal intimidation and punishment of Inquisition.
Now the powerful are caught in a mighty paradox. They constantly seek the inventiveness of the intelligent, while simultaneously being afraid of the power of the restless mind, not for the threat they can identify, but the threat they cannot. It isn’t possible to predict the course intelligence will follow – that’s one of its most intriguing attributes – but since the course is unknown, any putative destination can create anxiety sufficient to induce condemnation and persecution even as the intelligent make great and meaningful contributions. This is the war between religion and science, where science becomes ‘the other’ and intelligence its agent of subversion.
Science is unique as a symbol of our fears, because in all other cases, it is people that suffer for their cause. Science gives us something else, something abstract in which to invest our channelled hatred: books – the symbol of knowledge, of intelligence. Book burning (or scroll burning) is a favourite pastime of the mob. It isn’t illegal, and the only moral condemnation comes from those who either read or write books, which merely demonstrates guilt by association; objectors are guilty of being intelligent by dint of their objections. Everything the mob detests (and usually doesn’t understand) originates with intelligent people: military strategy, political or economic theories, science, ideologies, philosophies, art, culture, even cuisine – the best of what man does requires intelligence to appreciate, so therefore it is easy to bundle the best of what we do or think, and consign it to one elitist slough of indulgence and irrelevance, a province occupied by those who are automatically excluded from joining the mob because they know too much.
This is, for example, how China came to estrange its entire intelligentsia in a ‘cultural revolution’, setting them to work in the fields in order to bring them down to the same level as everyone else. There is an assumption of arrogance, but this is akin to what therapists call projection: the mob, given the opportunity, can easily imagine themselves being arrogant were they suitably gifted, so it isn’t unreasonable for them to assume this character must be implicit amongst those who are suitably endowed. Mob logic, if one could call it that, which when applied produces the kind of pyrrhic victory the Chinese enjoyed when they discovered they had nobody left with the brains to run the country, educate the people or plan for the future.
Science then is an ideal candidate for the nu-Other. We live in a world moving so fast we struggle to keep up. A world in which benefits and disadvantages are visited on us so quickly we are always reactive, rarely proactive. A world comprised of nations and economies so inextricably woven together in the name of profit that no government really runs its own country any more. A world where some people are so angry they blow up other people even as they blow up themselves. A world in which many people starve while others inflict obesity on themselves and their offspring. A world of polarised opinion, of violence and deceit, where no leaders can be trusted. A world running out of energy and threatening the very climate of the planet as we do so.
In this world, in this age of anxiety, we need a really big demon in which to invest our incomprehension. A race or religion simply isn’t good enough. We need to blame something vast, something global, something nobody can understand (the concomitant fear of which makes it all the more potent), something we can all get our teeth into like intellectual cannibals. Science and the intelligence that drives it is the perfect ‘other’ of our time. The more we fear it, the more we despise and denigrate it, persecute its practitioners and demean their findings, the happier we will feel.
That’s the theory, anyway.