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13 June 2012updated 08 Jul 2021 10:42am

We demand an absurd level of certainty from our politicians – and this makes them stupid

By Ian Leslie

There is little that’s enigmatic about Boris Johnson, but to many people, he is a riddle. How can such an intelligent man be such an idiot?

On the one hand, evidence of his cleverness is not hard to find. In case you’re in any danger of forgetting it, he studied Classics at Oxford, achieving a creditable 2:1. He can get by in a few different languages. Most obviously, he made it to Downing Street and may be about to win an election. In other words, if he’s an idiot, what does that make the rest of us?

On the other hand, Johnson’s grasp of Brexit, or any area of policy, does not seem to extend beyond the superficial. As foreign secretary, he was a miserable failure. On the basis of his performance in that job, the Economist awarded him idiot of the year. There is an excruciating clip from a BBC documentary about the Foreign Office that shows a senior civil servant patiently briefing Johnson on a meeting with the French, while Johnson interrupts her, makes childish jokes, plays with his hair – anything but listen.

This points us towards an answer, and also to something about the nature of intelligence that we tend to get wrong. We think of intelligence as a ladder, with geniuses at the top, idiots at the bottom and the rest of us somewhere in between. We acknowledge, occasionally, that smart people can do stupid things, but we essentially think of smartness as a stable quantity. Each person has a rung on the ladder, assigned at birth, and that’s more or less where they stay, whether they are lucky enough to get a good education or not. There’s even a scientific number for it, known as IQ.

But intelligence and stupidity are not just traits; they are practices, or habits. Being intelligent is one thing; staying intelligent another. The brightest minds can dim themselves over time through dogma and laziness. Conversely, the mediocre among us can make ourselves smarter, by practising good cognitive habits, such as listening to people who know things we do not, and making serious efforts to understand new problems rather than assuming we can magically intuit the answers. Boris Johnson is a clever person, but if he doesn’t listen or reflect he will turn himself into an idiot, if he hasn’t already.

For a more extreme example than Johnson, consider the Tory MP John Redwood. Redwood is a fellow of All Souls, the Oxford college for people who are too clever for Oxford; a hothouse for academic stars. He must have had a very powerful mind indeed. Yet these days, he is a reliable fount of breathtaking stupidity. Just recently, he tweeted that after Brexit, Britain should become self-sufficient in “temperate food”. It’s possible, I suppose, but only if we turn the whole country into an allotment (which, I grant you, might secure Jeremy Corbyn’s backing). In case you think I’m picking on Tories, by the way, I give you the Cambridge graduate and shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon. Say no more.

Politicians are not the only people who get dimmer over time, but they are in greater danger of it than most. Politics is a game in which the participants must purposefully blunt their own minds in order to win.

To stay intelligent, a person needs to stay alert to their own ignorance, and to the possibility that others have thought about things more deeply than they have – otherwise there is little point in listening, or thinking too hard. But this requires being comfortable with admitting that you don’t know, that you’re unsure, that you might be wrong. Everything about the culture of politics makes this habit dangerous and even self-destructive. To be a successful leader or activist, you must project conviction in your views at all times. We demand an absurd level of certainty from our politicians, and this makes our politicians stupid.

To stay intelligent requires independence of mind. It’s crucial to apply our critical faculties to propositions made by people whom we like and mostly agree with, and to be able to recognise value in ideas from people for whom we have no fellow feeling. But politics tells people this is a foolish way to behave. To clamber the heights of a political party, you have to value fealty over truth. You gain status by signalling your loyalty to the group, and lose status by questioning its received ideas. The more ingrained this habit becomes, the harder it gets to fire up the brain when it’s needed.

To stay intelligent requires a supple mind. An intelligent person habitually revises their assumptions in light of new evidence or better arguments. That requires a certain scepticism about your own beliefs; you can hold them firmly but you can’t enjoy them too much. Politics, at least in its most ideological form, makes a fetish out of beliefs, demanding that they be fixed, inviolable. We admire signposts, not weathercocks.

My definition of an ideologue would be one who has a rigid mental model of the world, and allows it to substitute for actual thinking. Every new question gets processed by a simple mental algorithm that spits out an answer. An ideologue might be highly intelligent to begin with, but over time, their capacity for thought withers away, and they end up like Redwood or Burgon. This is the crucial thing to understand about stupidity: it is not just the absence of intelligence, but the dogged adherence to a flawed set of rules for thought. Stupidity is a choice – and in politics, sadly, it’s often the right choice.

Johnson is not an instinctive ideologue, even if it sometimes suits him to pose as one. He does like to declaim, and he is prone to rely on his verbal fluency at the expense of listening or thinking. But if he is becoming more idiotic it is because he has ascended to the top job by way of Brexit, an issue that, more than any other, requires politicians to be stupid to succeed.

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This article appears in the 20 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over