Anti-Intellectualism Exists for a Reason – but Not a Good One

People do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, says author Margaret Atwood, especially the ones they find most comforting. What appears obvious and enlightening to atheists like Richard Dawkins, for example, it isn’t so straightforward for those whose identity and community is hinged on a certain set of beliefs. One person's liberation is another's nightmare.

It’s a very human quality to avoid things that are inconvenient or unappealing. Our days are vastly improved if we know to avoid the store with the long queues, to steer clear of dairy or gluten if it makes us sick, and to not order the whole roast duck if its head, still attached, is too much of a reminder. At some point, though, it’s necessary to confront uncomfortable truths – especially when a failure to do so affects the quality of human life (and all life) in a broader context. At that juncture, our avoidance moves beyond self-preservation and enters into exactly the opposite.

This mindset is what fuels anti-intellectualism, says Atwood, and it always has. When Galileo supported and expanded Copernicus’ heliocentric model of our solar system, he was punished by the church (Copernicus died too quickly to be reprimanded). Charles Darwin came under fire when he suggested we weren’t created but that we evolved. When new ideas interrupt what's comfortable, many will reject and discredit it simply to not have to change their behavior. Is this sounding familiar yet?

There will be a point when the position of climate-change deniers will shift, explains Atwood, but it won't be until the idea starts to appeal to our ego, or to our wallets. When the green energy sector becomes profitable enough, expect a sudden reduction in the amount of climate change opposition. “That will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country,” Atwood says. She believes Elon Musk is the “wave of the future”, with Tesla cars and the Powerwall home battery. When his technology becomes affordable and therefore profitable, the idea of green energy will truly have arrived in the wider consciousness.

Margaret Atwood's new book is Hag-Seed.

  • Transcript


Margaret Atwood: If you look at the history of what happened to Darwin when he published, what would you call that? Yes he was hugely attacked at the time. And it's often a case of people do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, especially cherished beliefs that they find comforting. So it's no good for Richard Dawkins to say let us just stand on the bold bear promontory of truth and acknowledge the basically nothingness of ourselves. People don't find that cozy so they will go around the block not to do that. And that's very understandable and human. And religious thinking, you know, the idea that there's somebody bigger than you out there who might be helpful to you if certain rules are observed, that goes back so far. We probably have an epigene or something or a cluster of epigenes for that and you see it a lot in small children that there is a monster under the bed and you can't tell them there isn't. They don't find that reassuring. What you can tell them is yes there is a monster under that bed but as long as I put this cabbage right in this spot it can't come out.

So yes anti-science. When science is telling you something that you really find very inconvenient, and that is the history of global warming and the changes that we are certainly already seen around us. First of all it was denial. It could not be happening. Now there's grudging admission as things flood and droughts kick in and food supplies drop and the sea level rises and the glaciers melt big time. I have seen that; been there. You can't deny that it's happening but you then have to pretend that it's nothing to do with us. So therefore nothing so we don't have to change our behavior. That's the thinking around that. And that can get very entrenched until people see that by trying to solve the problem jobs can be created and money can be made. And that will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country.

Other countries are already there. Norway, which is an oil state, is a huge green country because they know that the fossil fuel thing is going to run out so they are already preparing for that. If we were tall forward looking more of us would be doing that, although Elon Musk is the wave of the future. He's got the all electric car; he's got the rapid pre-charger for it; and he's got the Powerwall, which is a home battery storage unit that you can recharge through solar and then run your appliances off it when it's dark. And that is probably going to be the connecting link. When that becomes cheap enough and efficient enough you ask anybody, I don't care who they are, if you could get off the grid and have a car you could recharge your self and appliances you could run yourself just off some units on your roof or in your backyard would you do that? Everybody says yes. So that's the idea whose time has come. And now it's a matter of the price. So mentalizing the entire world with wind turbines is not going to be the answer, it's going to be individually owned and controlled off the grid electrical systems.