Ask Iris: Do conservatives fear others are as stupid as they are?

The Palace has received a missive that poses an intriguing question:

Could it be, that, to some degree, liberals hope others are as intelligent as they are, while (extreme) conservatives fear others are as stupid as they are?

A.  My dearest Loyal Reader:  You hit the nail on the head.  It’s somewhat of a generalization of course, and not limited to intelligence, but projection from both sides abounds.  Liberals project their own empathy: they think (feel?) that everyone is intuitively the live-and-let-live types that they are themselves, and honestly cannot grok how anyone could be so sadistic (or perhaps “indifferent,” if you’re a little bit kinder than I am) with respect to the unnecessary suffering conservative policies invariably cause.  Meanwhile, conservatives use “bleeding heart liberal” as an insult — as if empathy were a weakness or a defect — and operate as if others must be as depraved as they are.

All of this is for the most part unconscious.

Intelligence is somewhat trickier.  I am reading a book by Keith Stanovich, What Intelligence Tests Miss.  He makes a compelling case that “intelligence” (as defined and assessed by standard measures such as IQ tests) overlooks a critical component: that intelligence and rationality operate on different axes of cognitive function, and that rationality measures include good judgement and good decision-making.  For example, George W. Bush and his 2004 opponent Sen. John Kerry have the exact same IQ: 120.  But no one would call them equally rational.  (Well okay, a right-wing conservative might.  But as with everything else, they would be wrong.)

I suspect this difference in worldview is an emergent property of a personality trait, i.e. emotionally motivated cognition. In the case of conservatism, it is primarily based on fear (of change, of death, of being wrong, of the Other, etc.).  This fear is what leads to the disregard and discrediting of facts and evidence that do not support one’s previously held views, the compulsion to seek out and cling to self-reinforcing communities, and nearly pathological incuriosity — as curiosity will have a track record of leading to confrontation with terror-inducing new information.  Liberals, particularly the more scientifically- and skeptically- minded, are for the most part more open to looking at data that contradicts their current views, and changing their views accordingly.  I am not arguing that they are immune to conservative biases; I am arguing that liberals are to some degree better equipped and/or more willing to overcome them.  The conservative generally views changing one’s mind as a weakness, i.e. “flip-flopping.”  (Unless of course one changes one’s mind in the direction of right-wing views.  Then it’s not “flip-flopping” at all; it’s “seeing the light” or “coming to Jesus” à la former Democrat and current right-wing kook, Texas Governor Rick Perry.  Hallelujah!)

So in that regard, I think your statement makes perfect sense if what you mean by “intelligence” is more along the lines of what Stanovich is getting at in his research.

Your missive also reminded me of this:

I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it. –John Stuart Mill


I hope this edition of Ask Iris has been helpful.

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