Clever, but absent-minded

We are, in general, rather lazy creatures who avoid cognitive exertion wherever possible, and remarkably often fall back on established categories, tropes, and clichés. One can see how, in evolutionary terms, this could have developed: though I am suspicious of evolutionary psychology in general as it is only ever retro-fitting a plausible developmental narrative to the observable phenomena, a few of its basic principles seem pretty reasonable, and the tendency to interpret the world by reacting to novel stimuli using established cognitive categories rather than analysing the scenario from scratch is an efficient use of cognitive resources as (in evolutionary terms) a false positive never harmed anyone, whereas presuming the null hypothesis, or spending precious processing time and resources performing an online judgment almost certainly did. When the long grass waved in the absence of wind, the caveman who consistently interpretted this as the presence of a tiger will have been more likely to survive when it actually was a tiger than the ones who presumed it was nothing, or stood still for a while whilst they decided.

This, ultimately, is the origin of the tendency to believe in the supernatural—because assigning active agency to unexplained phenomena is the safer false positive—but also, for the purposes of this post, is the origin of interpersonal stereotyping: racism, sexism, homophobia, and thinking that all clever people are absent-minded.

Clearly, by asserting an evolutionary origin to these traits, I am not attempting to defend them: merely to explain them. As Richard Dawkins often asserts—when he is not busy applying several of the isms mentioned above, in direct contravention of his very assertion—we are better than our genes: we have arrived at a level of self-awareness where we can say “No, I will not do that, even though it be my instinct.” The fight against the evils of racism, sexism, and cleverism is long and drawn-out precisely because it is a fight against our basic natures. Again, this is not to defend these natures: they are repugnant. But if the Catholic Church, Martin Luther, and John Calvin can all agree that my basic nature entitles me to no more than eternal torment (though whether I escape that through faith, grace, or works I understand is something of a moot point), I feel I can at least assert this somewhat lesser stance of the worser devils of our nature.

All of this goes to explain that, though I understand why people persist in applying the “clever, but absent-minded” stereotype to me, I still feel perfectly entitled to my deep irritation at it. I am clever, yes—I have enough contempt for goddamn English false modesty to feel no embarrassment in asserting that—but it is only lazy, cavemanish cognitive simplicism which leads you to presume that I am therefore also forgetful, distracted, useless at things practical, and generally incapable of finding my arse with both hands.

I mean, a clever but absent-minded person would not be able to run their own business successfully for ten years, would they?

A clever but absent-minded person wouldn’t have the attention to detail to make them a rather good editor, would they?

And a clever but absent-minded person certainly wouldn’t be so spectacularly fucking brainless as to leave their passport in their jeans pocket when washing them barely two weeks before travelling to Australia …

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… would they?

Good British fun

It’s been a wet weekend in São Paulo, and as I don’t really know anyone here, and the much-needed rain has been a decided discouragement to exploration, I’ve been largely at a loose end, just going to the gym, moseying around shopping centres, and chowing down on awesome mineiro food. Not a great many opportunities for fun.

I was delighted, therefore, to find that the United Kingdom Independence Party has offered its members the chance to not only have fun, but even win prizes, by rating how much they hate—sorry, “feel close to”—different social groups. Groups like “Eastern Europeans,” “Blacks,” “Muslims,” “Asians.” Give ’em a score from 0 to 10! What fun! What good, British, fun.

Alas, the survey has either been taken down or is in a members-only part of the site, so I could not fill it in. But even with the few examples from the screen shots, it turned out to be a perplexing rather than a fun task. For some reason—some hideous, progressive, rational reason—I found myself totally incapable of asserting how close I felt to such large and heterogenous groups.

So, simple-minded man that I am, I decided to have a go at version of my own, using individuals. I know, I know. Such a failure of abstractive ability. I decided to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how utterly, irredeemably, loathsomely vile I found the following detrita of humanity:

Turns out they all got a 10. But then I had to go and allow an 11 for the man who defends, in part or whole, all these people; who aligns his party with a Holocaust-denier so far-right that the French National Front will not associate with him; who happily co-chairs an EU Parliament group with a man who thinks that Anders Breivik has “ideas … in defence of western civilisation”; who feels awkward when he cannot hear English being spoken in a train carriage; who selects the war-mongering autocrat Vladimir Putin as the statesman he most admires; who would ban migrants with HIV from entering the UK; who thinks that his party only “possibly” should not accept funds from a man who denies the existence of marital rape; who sought the endorsement of Enoch Powell, and twice asked him to stand for his party; whose election materials slam funding of Eurocrats but boasts of having received £2m in expenses, expenses which repeatedly look like they have been fiddled; who thinks breast-feeding mothers should sit in corners and not be “ostentatious”; who poses as a man of the people yet considers his £79,000 salary (before expenses, fiddled or otherwise) makes him “poor”; and who is “proud” that former BNP voters now vote for him.

I think I must have got something wrong though. I didn’t, in the end, find this exercise in hatred any fun at all. I just found it terribly, terribly, terribly depressing.