Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
George Eliot – Middlemarch (1871-72)
Suppose we suggest that the great driver of human attitudes and allegiances is the search for security. Security is survival writ small but still survival, still a core part of what we are.
Sane people did what their neighbours did - they still do. There is security and satisfaction to be found here. What is Boris Johnson doing if it isn’t what his political neighbours do? What are those two lecterns either side of his if they are not his political neighbours? What is SAGE if it is not a political neighbourhood?
We don’t usually call them neighbours and neighbourhoods, but politically that is what they are. It leaves Boris and his government vulnerable to manipulation, but as we have seen, they don’t care. As for those who leave the neighbourhood such as Dominic Cummings – others move into the neighbourhood so they are soon forgotten.
None of this is at all mysterious. What is mysterious is how certain people value a more dispassionate search for better information. Why is it that some people cannot simply adopt the consensus of their cultural neighbourhood – the mantras and clichés which nobody else questions? What keeps them on the periphery? Why are they apparently happy to be there?
Presumably these oddballs see greater ultimate security not just in better information but also in the pursuit of better engineering, better science, deeper understanding and better quality in its widest sense. This pursuit of deeper understanding covers anything from Shakespeare scholarship to bridge building to pharmaceuticals to pithy insights but isn’t the pursuit of consensus.
Yet if influential people pursue consensus too rigorously they cut everyone else adrift from the sharp stimulus of basic survival. They cut us all adrift from the need to pursue deeper understanding. There are still those with a hunger for better information, but the rest of society is cutting itself off from them.
In other words, it seems to be possible for us to lose the survival stimulus partly shielding us when consensus goes wrong and stupidity lends a hand. Ironically in a connected world, we cannot shield ourselves from stupidity even when it clearly threatens our cultural survival. That would be a culture of actively trying to avoid stupidity – the one we used to value rather highly.
This seems to be where the urgency lies. In the age of the internet, stupidity is becoming valuable clickbait. In other words, stupidity has become valuable.
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