Trump, Hanson and the Dunning-Kruger effect

Claims like Trump is evil or insane, or that his supporters are dumb and ignorant are divisive and designed to enable left-wing intellectuals like myself to ignore the real reasons why the likes of Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson have so many supporters. This kind of name calling deliberately mythologises real human beings who have real issues. In academic terms, this is called Othering, i.e. making them into the Others—not us. It is in part about defining who we are by pointing out who we are not, but it also makes the Others kind of unreal. Once we’ve achieved that, we don’t have to deal with them because we’ve moved them outside of our own sphere and for our own safety we keep them there. This is how patriarchy has worked for thousands of years—it Othered women.

A friend, for whom I have great respect, recently shared an article titled Are Trump Supporters Too Dumb To Know They’re Dumb? Science Says “Probably”. I respect her for her intelligence, diligence in research and her compassion. I say this in part because I’m about to attack the article that she shared but also because, like so many people, I consider myself intelligent, informed and compassionate and yet I have also engaged in the type marginalising found in this article. I could say that I have been racist and discriminatory towards these Trump supporters who we think of as racist and discriminatory. In other words, in spite of my self-presumption of intelligence, education and compassion, I have behaved like a Trump supporter. I have to consider the possibility that I am also subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The quick version of that article by Rika Christensen is that Trump supporters suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is basically a scientific way of saying that there are some things that people don’t know that they don’t know. The article uses this to explain the ‘dumb’ of Trump supporters.

Using the Dunning-Kruger effect to scientifically label Trump supporters as dumb does not help us to understand them. Rather, it avoids understanding, much the same as Trump supporters avoid understanding Muslim or Mexican people. It is equivalent to asking a woman if she’s got her period when she’s upset about something. These are both ways of dismissing people we’d rather not listen to. Instead, this strategy panders to our sense of superiority and desire to be right; ultimately making us just as wrong as those we would dismiss. The patriarchy used, and still uses, labelling like this to dismiss women. Words like emotional, unstable, ball breaking and irrational gave men in positions of power excuses to ignore women’s genuine issues. While we are concerned with things like racism and warmongering, Trump supporters and their like also have genuine concerns. This is what Trump knows and takes advantage of. We ignore it at our own peril.

It doesn’t matter how uninformed, misinformed or actually informed his supporters are—they feel shafted by the system. They’re looking for someone to champion their cause. Trump is, in their minds, the only person listening to them. They’re right, partly because left-wing intellectuals write them off with ideas like the Dunning-Kruger effect. To a greater or lesser extent, his supporters do know what’s going on in the world around them, they know it’s not good for them and they know the only option they’ve got is someone like Trump. They understand that they’re being dismissed and it confirms to them that the system wants to ignore them. They add it to the variety of reasons why they feel disenfranchised and left behind. Most of them probably are.

The system is leaving many people behind and the system doesn’t want us to notice. In recent times, governments and the media have been big peddlers of fear and divisiveness. The more we dismiss these people to some kind of fringe, the more marginalised and left behind they become and the louder they will get. But we also marginalise ourselves in the proces because Trump and Hanson supporters are not the only ones being left behind.

We marginalise Trump supporters because we’re afraid and we’re ignorant. Whether it’s more or less than them is impossible to tell and not at all relevant—it is the same as them, we are the same as them. We’re afraid, partly because governments and media benefit from those fears and stir them up, but mainly because we can tell that the system is breaking up. Rome is burning but we don’t want to admit it because we cannot find somewhere safe to run to. We feel like we’re on a runaway train and that it’s too dangerous to jump off. But we’re assaulted daily with the problems in our system: climate change; gross inequity with growing poverty and homelessness; domestic violence and sexual abuse, both of which are largely ignored; little or no control over our food supply, making us into wage slaves; and all kinds of people, not all of them minorities, being marginalised and turned into enemies.

I blame our ignorance on governments and the media but that’s too long to go into here. However, fear feeds into ignorance because we become desperate for answers and will often clutch on to the least glimmer of hope. Much like the people who support Trump and Hanson. When confronted by people who, on the face of it, have radically different ideas to our own—even dangerous ideas—the Dunning-Kruger effect gives us an easy answer to cling on to. It allows us to avoid the hard work of looking deeper into what the actual problems are. Our general fears of the demise of human society and our anger at the faceless people who have created this situation out of their own selfishness drive us to grab a hold of ideas like the Dunning-Kruger effect as a thread of understanding and righteousness.

Many of the ideas promoted by people like Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson are mortifying and difficult to come to terms with. The Dunning-Kruger effect gives me an excuse to shout them down and dismiss them as foolish and ignorant. It’s seems impossible to understand why they would support such horrendous policies as the ones Trump stands for. I suppose that, just like the Trump supporters in the article, I am under the ‘unshakeable illusion that [I’m] much smarter, and more skilled and/or knowledgeable, than’ I really am. We need to stop finding ways to make Trump and Hanson supporters sub-human and start listening to their real issues. I know that’s difficult but it’ll get easier once the ice has been broken. It can start with us realising how much we are alike.

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