What Do We Mean By “Stupidity”?

Time, said St. Augustine, is something we understand as long as we do not think about it, and contrariwise. Much the same can be said about the concept of “stupidity”. How many of us get through a single day without calling somebody an idiot or any of the innumerable synonyms? And yet it is by no means certain what we mean by the word. Only on a minority of occasions are we seriously suggesting that the person is slow of mind – or, in the modern metaphor, has a main processor with a low clock speed – that is, the sort of thing allegedly measured by I.Q. tests.

To take one example, almost everyone says “stupid” when what they really mean is ignorant. The person might have a brain, but no stock of knowledge upon which to deploy it. This might not be their own fault, but that of parents, schoolmasters and above all religion. For this reason we often amplify our shorthand term “stupidity” as wilful ignorance. If we think about intelligence as a tool of survival, in both ourselves and the animals, then taking care not to know about the world is obviously a bad move. In a state of nature, wilful ignorance would lead to an early death and failure to reproduce; but Man is the only animal that can make others carry the can for him. To call wilful ignorance “stupidity” is therefore reasonable, but we should note that it is not the same phenomenon as the slow clock speed, poor spatial skills and inability to reason that we test at school.

Closely related to wilful ignorance is incuriosity. This was the characteristic of George W. Bush that most struck those who knew him. This man was not necessarily stupid on most of the other parameters, but people were astonished at his lack of interest in the world, especially given the fact that he was supposed to be running it. So once again, ‘stupid’ is the natural, exasperated response. Incuriosity in turn may be a symptom of an extremely narrow agenda. In the Bush case, we might suggest the interests of his lineage, plus sports; as a Briton I am all too familiar with the type, from when the country was run by aristocrats, some of whom seemed as thick as two short planks. But as long as their unearned revenue was rolling in, why should they take an interest? A tactical algorithm for accumulation does not need anyone to be at home.

Further down the social scale I call in evidence all those whose agenda is confined to their next beer, their next fuck, their next styling or their next shoes. They can be very smart indeed in acquiring these desirable objects, while remaining resolutely uninterested in anything and everything else. In fact, such people may make us wonder whether we have in fact gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick, whether these apparent stupids are what human beings are and are meant to be, namely animals marginally more intelligent than most but with precisely the same agenda, and thus whether it is we ourselves who have something amiss, a hypertrophied monkey curiosity about what does not concern us.

Closely related to ignorance is the failure to learn from experience; but this can generally be attributed to something other than sluggishness of mental operations. Was it stupidity or insanity that someone defined as “expecting a different result from the same action”? That such behaviour may be characterised in terms of both stupidity and insanity may tell us something about both. Can you have a high I.Q. according to the usual criteria and nevertheless expect different results from the same action? People seem adept at spotting this mistake in others, but are blind to it in themselves. Perhaps the lack of understanding is not congenital but an artefact of parental programming to be self-destructive.

Related to the latter is poor judgment. We all know people who are intelligent or even brilliant, but seem to have a gift for doing the wrong thing. Contrariwise, we all know people who may not have been top of the class, but appear to have an instinct for making the right decision. Good judgment often goes together with the ability to read other people, their motives and intentions, but is not confined to this skill. Is it related to gambler’s luck? I have the impression that mankind in general and modern science in particular has never devoted much attention to the question of what good judgment actually is, despite its vast importance in all human affairs, on both the individual and collective planes. The reader should ask himself: would he rather have a wife who was good at puzzles, vastly well-read, or with a good nose for the right thing to do in a given situation? Now how about a prime minister?

At least two other things are often called stupid but are actually something totally different, namely self-interest and uncouthness. People are often called stupid because they obviously do not understand what we are saying. This may be due, not to any inadequacy of mental processing, but to the fact that they are simply not listening. This in turn may be due to their complete lack of respect for us, either as individuals or on general principles. Now, in many situations a contemptuous indifference to what we are saying may lead to disaster for themselves, as for instance when we are warning them about a minefield; but more frequently it will lead to misfortune for us, as for instance when he is a jack-in-office who is supposed to give us something or to assist us. Why, then, should he care? If he messes us up by refusing to listen, it will be no skin off his nose. We call this sort of person stupid when in fact he is acting with perfect rationality and intelligence; he just happens to be a selfish and unpleasant individual, which is by no means the same thing. The intelligence may be formidable, but his aims are not our aims.

If someone cuts in front of us on a roundabout, we tend to call him stupid. It might well be that he lacks the nous to understand the traffic flow, or the imagination to foresee what the road accident he is about to cause is going to feel like, or it may be that he simply does not care. And this is also a moral rather than a cerebral failing. If we move the thought-experiment from the road to the pavement, and consider the way in which Norwegians typically walk in cities, there will be no road accident in which the uncouth person himself may be injured, but he may enjoy impeding, shoving or even knocking over another pedestrian. Philosophers have tried to ground ethics in Reason and show why good behaviour is in everyone’s interest; but our pavement bully’s uncouth behaviour is less likely to result from failure to follow their logic than from an upbringing in which adults indulged the child by jumping out of his way and his walking straight at people therefore had no consequences. And yet we still refer to his Brownian motion by this multifarious word, “stupid”, because we are making the assumption that he is trying to behave like a civilised entity and, through lack of intelligence, failing. Such an assumption is wholly unwarranted, for again, his aims are not our aims.

Posted on December 3, 2013 at 12:43 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

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