Katie Hopkins and the rise of the professional idiot

Shakespeare quote: "The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."
Not a picture of Katie Hopkins. You readers deserve better.

In Shakespearean times the fool was a common trope in drama: a courtier of low rank who used his wits to spotlight his superiors’ true folly. Shakespeare’s fools were subversive insiders, exposing the vices and failings of kings that others dared not bring to light. The fool appealed to all sections of the audience: the commoners relished watching him cut their masters down to size in ways they could only fantasise about, while the aristocrats identified his victims with their most puffed-up and insufferable acquaintances (never themselves) and laughed even louder.

Today the theatre has been replaced as the arena where society dissects itself by daytime TV. This being an essentially witless milieu, the court jester has been superseded by the professional idiot. The doyenne of this curiously incurious new species is Katie Hopkins, whose latest venture into punditry has been to deride the rise of Attention Deficit Disorder. In an op-ed for the Huffington Post, headlined Why Must Everything Be a Medical Condition, she calls ADHD a “very modern phenomenon”. The implication is that because it is modern, it must be bad. This is deemed Common Sense, an umbrella term for all kinds of uncommon nonsense that Hopkins and her kind rely on when confronted by a more reasoned argument. Needless to say, she gets plenty of opportunities to use it.

She begins: “Instead of accepting a problem and agreeing to do something about it, we seek a quick diagnosis (most made in under seven minutes) and a bottle of rattling pills to make it go away.” In fact the criteria for ADHD state that the symptoms must be present for six months before the condition can be diagnosed. Undeterred by her failure to grasp the rudiments of diagnosis, Hopkins goes on to demonstrate an equally shaky grasp of medical textbooks, specifically the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders. She boldly states: “Adding new conditions such as Aspergers Syndrome or Bipolar II Disorder results in shock waves of diagnosis and treatment that reach far beyond patients in direct need.” The question of what evidence this sweeping judgment might be based on is left hanging tantalisingly in mid-air. (One entertaining detail to note here is that the latest edition of the DSM controversially did away with Asperger’s syndrome as a separate condition and subsumed it into the wider autism spectrum.) She notes that autism diagnosis has increased 40 times in the US in 40 years without acknowledging the matrix of reasons behind this, such as the widespread misdiagnosis of autistic children in the past. If Katie paused to consider why we don’t lock people away in lunatic asylums so much these days, or lobotomise them, she might start to understand why drug treatment and therapy are on the rise. But understanding in general is not her raison d’etre.

ADHD is hard to define, harder still to diagnose, and relatively new to the public domain, all of which renders it a perfect target for the kind of glib analysis that the likes of Hopkins misdiagnose as scepticism. “A survey of 10,000 children in Canada found the youngest in the class (born December or January) was twice as likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder,” Hopkins writes. The study referred to actually compared children born in December with those born in January, with a sample size of nearly 1 million, and found that the difference was around 50% – still stark, but only half the rate Hopkins claims. More significant is the fact that the research was carried out to warn about the medical dangers of over-diagnosing ADHD, since the drugs used to combat it can damage a child’s sleep, appetite and growth. All of this is glossed over in favour of a vague digression about “lack of exercise, poor diet and absence of parental control”. We are less than 200 words in and already poor Katie’s attention span is waning. She blunders on: “In many cases, medication seems to be more about making life easier for the parent than relieving symptoms for the benefit of the child.” Had she managed to keep reading those Canadian studies, she might have learned that ADHD, if left undiagnosed, can lead to all manner of health problems in later life, including a greatly increased risk of suicide. I earnestly hope that one day she’ll explain why deterring children from killing themselves is not in their own best interests.

Hopkins, however, is rarely impeded by the impulse to learn or explain anything. The professional idiot is chiefly distinguished by a ready stock of opinions that are impervious to facts or reasoned argument. Assertiveness and belief are the USP of the modern pundit, rather than knowledge of any kind. When Katie Hopkins appears on a TV sofa you can hear the distant echo of a producer at the planning desk saying: “Let’s get Katie to talk about this, she’s always good value”, value having replaced worth as the measure of good commentary. It’s no coincidence that she first infiltrated the public consciousness on The Apprentice, a show where the competence of the participants counts for far less than the stridency with which they proclaim it. The purpose of witless punditry is not to inform, but to incite. If it stirs a reaction, or better still an “angry storm of protest”, it has served its purpose. The losers are the viewing public, who gain nothing from the discussion other than a visceral hatred for Katie Hopkins that they spend the rest of the day expectorating on Twitter. And when challenged, she resorts to the other crutch of the professional idiot: the cry of “censorship”. We live in Magnolia Britain, fumes Hopkins, where “controversial” opinions have been smothered by Political Correctness. Indeed, you can hardly turn on a television these days without seeing Peter Hitchens rant at length about how his views on immigration have been silenced and he is restricted to expressing them through the medium of a well-paid tabloid newspaper column. And regular therapeutic sessions on Question Time.

The success of the Shakespearean fool depended on his wits and his ability to cloak devastating insights with tomfoolery. As Isaac Asimov observed: ‘That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.’ Katie Hopkins takes this reasoning and turn it on its head: the great secret of the studio expert is that she has no expertise of any kind. Hopkins laments: “We have taken being young and elevated it into a medical condition.” No, Katie: we’ve taken being thick and elevated it to a career path. That’s the real tragedy here.

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