An interesting, eloquent piece which delves deeper into some themes I touched on in my blog yesterday. You can hear already the inevitable, tedious cries of ‘snobbery!’ which greet any claim that we are capable of great things; greater, certainly, than ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and Perez Hilton. Such pap has become synonymous with ‘popular culture’ and criticising it is seen as an attack on people – particularly the working-class. I’ve long argued that this argument shows far more contempt for both popular culture and the working-class than the criticisms themselves. Indeed, there is a strong, proud tradition of intellectualism amongst the working-class – the conflation of being ‘ordinary’ with ‘lowest common denominator’ is a pernicious fantasy. It is a rarely challenged one, with the aforementioned charge of ‘snobbery’ being wheeled out frequently, yet the fantasy is openly exposed when figures like Gordon Brown attempt to appear ‘ordinary’ by speaking about ‘X Factor’ and we rightly respond with ridicule and cynicism.
The common thread of Fox’s assertions – that we are increasingly unwilling to engage in demanding intellectual effort (I’d go further than this and say that we are increasingly scornful of anything and anyone which expects this) struck a chord with me as I am currently slogging my way through a difficult book. It’s only 200 pages long but it has taken me weeks to read 50 pages. This isn’t because it’s tedious or terrible but rather because every page is packed with people, ideas and history which I am completely unfamiliar with. The desire to find out more about them sends me off on lengthy internet tangents. If I’m being honest, however, this isn’t why it’s so difficult. Rather, it’s because it makes me feel very ignorant and stupid. I’m squarely confronted with how little I know, how quaint and mediocre much of my thinking is. The temptation to toss it aside and take comfort in some lighter reading is very strong, not least as it would cause me to cringe less at my blog posts which seem absurdly naive and banal afterwards.
Reading ‘Dumbing Down’ brought this experience to mind instantly and caused me to think about its root cause. It struck me that it’s because we largely consume culture in order to flatter our own egos. As with so much of modern life, the things we read, the music we listen to, even the conversations we have – they are extensions of ourselves and we process them by thinking about what they say about us rather than what they say about the world. Even when we flatter ourselves into thinking that we are being ‘objective’ and reading alternate viewpoints, they tend to be prosaically oppositional within a strict, narrow continuum. Truly challenging ideas, those which violently confront our core assumptions and beliefs, threaten to chip away at (or even fundamentally alter) our closely-guarded sense of self. Changing this (improving it, if you want to call it that?) requires dedication, effort and an ego which can accept both being completely wrong and also holding previously contradictory, even unacceptable views. More than this, it necessitates a powerful and eager curiosity which values discovery over personal gain.
Why do I say this? Well, the extension of ourselves, specifically our egos, into everything we touch goes far beyond the culture we consume. It seems quite fundamental to the way we relate to each other. It’s a basic concept of psychology that we are drawn to others whom we believe are similar to ourselves; however, while this would traditionally be taken as meaning that we have a strong sense of self and associate with like-minded individuals, it currently commonly seems to mean that we are fearful of expressing any strident identity. Sure, we have brought brushstrokes which we cling to – ‘liberal’, ‘light-hearted’, ‘intelligent’ etc – but the ego is so paramount that people adopt personas in order to be validated rather than forge friendships based on an honest, messy relationship between two distinct personalities. The relationship therefore is one of mutual gratification where each acts as a mirror, reflecting the person the other wishes to see. It’s arguable then that a truly rewarding relationship with another person requires, as with culture, intellectual effort and an acceptance that it will not always take you to comfortable or affirming places.
Effort can often feel like a slog – that’s why it’s so easy to get stuck where we feel comfortable. Guarding against this is constant, requiring an unshakeable conviction that pushing our minds, ourselves, to places where we feel exposed and where our egos are shaken is the only guarantor against a living death. I make no grand claims to be any better at this than anyone else but I’ll finish that book and celebrate that it will perhaps make me that tiny bit less ignorant.