By Robert A. Vella

Last week, I had a very interesting conversation with a visiting relative.  We discussed a wide range of topics, and I greatly appreciated his perspective as a late Gen Xer who resides in a culturally distinct region from my own.  One of the topics we delved into was the human psychology behind the escalating public distrust of our social institutions.

When I conveyed my concerns about civil society breaking down from the rise of narcissism, hubris, and uninformed subjective opinion amongst the populace, he said something I didn’t expect:

“It’s like devolution.”

He went on to suggest that this apparent return to our primitive past, where intellectualism and humility were denigrated as feeble and effeminate, is at least partially due to modern consumer technology.  Specifically, he cited how cellphones and other electronic devices are alleviating people of the everyday activities which help keep our minds sharp and counter our inclination towards laziness.

It was an insightful observation which is receiving a lot of sociological study these days;  and, that it came from a younger person whose life is immersed in such technology, is even more impressive.

Our conversation continued as we explored the psychological aspects of this phenomenon.

I asked him, as a layperson, if he would disregard the informed opinion of a doctor regarding surgery or challenge an aircraft pilot while performing flight duties.  He replied that he would only if it was meaningful and necessary.  Then, I asked him if it was only a difference of opinion.  He hesitated for a moment in contemplation unsure about his response.  I offered an example of a person I know who adamantly answered “yes” to my question.  He seemed surprised that anyone could be so brazen.  I explained that this person dropped out of the education system before high school and grew up in a secluded, culturally restricted community.

I’m relating this conversation today not because we should never question accepted knowledge or professional expertise – far from it.  All humans are fallible and all people make mistakes no matter their education, training, experience, and character.  I am relating it because we are at a pivotal point in time when our very future depends on what we do in the here and now.

Why is this spread of narcissism and hubris happening?  Why are we so obsessed with our own opinions particularly those which are demonstrably uninformed?  Is it due to intellectual devolution as suggested by my family member?  What compels us towards the mentality of I believe it, therefore it must be true?  What makes us prioritize our philosophical beliefs over empirical knowledge?  Don’t facts matter anymore?  Are our worsening culture wars blinding us to our shared humanity?  Can we not see, or do we not care about the purposeful and disingenuous agendas of extreme ideologies?  Where there is truth, must it always be destroyed?  When we argue about everything, how can we accomplish anything?

18 thoughts on “Intellectual devolution: How narcissism and hubris are destroying civil society

  1. Excellent post and questions. I ask myself these questions daily and I can’t get my head around them. Empirical evidence is pushed away by many as easily as I’d dismiss a person telling me they have Bigfoot living in their apartment with them. Trump cuts a million people off food stamps, half of whom are his staunch supporters, and, yet, he is loved and worshiped by the very people he’s screwing over. Why? It makes no logical sense. People are being harmed by this kind of thinking yet it is becoming more and rampant daily. If this “trend” isn’t somehow curbed and calmer minds do not somehow take over, we are headed toward the end of our civilization, and I’m not being hyperbolic here. This is bad. Very, very bad.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I was always as long as I can remember curious and a bit skeptical of many things. I didn’t have to be taught it, as it seemed to come naturally. So is it genetics? My Dad was somewhat like this too. And one brother. And I know others that will believe anything if someone they like says so….

      Also I think plain laziness is involved and we have definitely grown more lazy mentally, especially

      Liked by 2 people

    • Very true, but to take such skepticism so far as to flippantly reject all objective knowledge which inconveniently contradicts our personal beliefs is what I’m addressing here. For example: climate change deniers, Trump supporters, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think much of this happens because our social institutions and our elites have perhaps become more…brazen…in their corruption and their interest in screwing “us”. Of course, the torchbearers of this assault on skill and knowledge are themselves generally the most ignorant, the most brazenly corrupt, the most violent.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Agreed. What disturbs me most of all is that this growing anti-intellectualism is not only ubiquitous, but it also has spread across multiple demographic groups.

      For instance, a fellow lady blogger in the U.K. – who I would describe as left-wing – recently published a short editorial asserting that unless someone is confused about the world, then they have been duped by the ruling establishment. I was so astonished that I read the post twice to make sure I understood what she was saying!

      Nothing is understandable? Confusion is a badge of honor? Knowledge itself is a grand conspiracy between government, business, science, and every other social institution on the face of the planet? Good grief! How paranoid can a person be?

      Liked by 2 people

  3. These are all relevant questions Robert. The conversation you had with your younger relative is indeed interesting. It does seem that devolution (at least on a federal government level) is one of the prime drivers of the Trump administration. It also seems that on a societal level, conditions are worsening for the masses, again a factor driving their desperation for authoritarian leaders who appeal directly to their fears–immigrants etc.

    I’ve long believed that there are 2 major causes of isolation in American society –the car and TV. The destruction of mass transit systems in the first half of the 19th century allowed people to drive alone from work and shopping to their homes in the secluded suburbs. In essence, the middle class and wealthy didn’t have to see, talk or rub shoulders with anyone who wasn’t from their own socio-economic bracket. That kind of isolation breeds distrust and contempt for the ‘other.’ As for TV, I simply think that a steady diet of passive entertainment causes one’s brain to rot. Binging Netflix isn’t going to improve anyone’s ability to think critically, a skill that seems to be in short supply these days. We can also add ‘consumption’ of everything to this list!

    Of course, the break down of societies is complex and can’t simply be blamed simply the development of a couple of technologies. Still, I do believe that isolation, rampant individualism and lack of meaningful personal communication are responsible for many of the social ills we face today.

    Thanks for providing such a great forum for discussion Robert!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you too for those insightful observations, Henry. Yes, consumer technology has certainly impacted social cohesion in a negative way. But, as you said, this problem is quite complex.

      What especially concerns me is the confluence of these technological consequences with other factors such as the de-emphasis of civics courses in our schools, the de-funding and privatization of public education, the transition of higher education from liberal arts towards business-oriented studies, the politicization of religion, and that globalization was hastily pursued without concern for disaffected workers, rising inequalities, and ethnic strife.

      With all these dynamics and more transpiring concurrently and over a short span of decades, it was inevitable that social cohesion would begin to breakdown. I think it’s implausible that our leaders couldn’t anticipate it. Their willful ignorance or intent is inexcusable, and it is a major cause of the growing distrust of our social institutions we are seeing around the world today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wholeheartedly agree Robert. Our leaders–and much of the population it seems–have only been interested in generating quick profits which benefit the few in the short term and no one in the long term.

        Liked by 1 person

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