The title above is deliberately a little inflammatory, but people who know me, and people who read this blog, may — not without reason — think this is a common sentiment of mine. And it sort of is, but it’s actually a code for something much more intricate and involved. Last time I wrote about Leon Wieseltier, whose ten-word critique of modern society blew me away, especially his central clause: “Not enough critical thinking.”
This time I’d like to explore — or at least begin exploring — exactly what (to me) the phrase, “People are stupid!” really means. There are some key distinctions to be made. For example, I don’t think people are more, or less, stupid than they’ve ever been; our brains haven’t changed in many thousands of years.
And let’s face it, we all take a Stupid Pill now and then.
It’s the people who consume them constantly that bother and scare me.
Let me start by saying that stupidity is not about what you know; it’s about what — and how — you think. I’ve met amazingly smart people with very little education, and I’ve met highly educated people whose stupidity was breath-taking.
So what do I think is stupid? One aspect of it I might sum it up with: “Willful ignorance.” The key is the willful part. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something. We’re all ignorant of far more than not. We’re all learning as we go through life.
But I think it’s stupid to willfully ignore learning about things when you have the opportunity, especially when that opportunity involves someone taking a moment of their time to help you be less ignorant.
I am amazed at how many people react hostilely if you point out a grammar or word misuse (one that clearly isn’t a typo, I mean — we all make mistakes). The underlying resistance seems to suggest that excellence and precision are not worthy goals.
It strikes me as ironic that a people so dedicated to self-help and self-improvement are so willing to constantly display their failure to use basic English correctly. If we would articulate our thoughts so that others could share them, doesn’t it make sense to do so in a way that clearly communicates the shades and nuances of our opinion?
It strikes me as tragic that a country that brags about being “Number One” often has such a poor attitude about education and intellectual excellence. We admire athletes and actors (and worse, people who are famous just for being famous), but we don’t seem to idolize the thinkers and teachers.
We labor so hard to look good physically, and to get “in touch with” our feelings, it surprises me how little effort we typically apply to nurturing and improving our minds. I think that is stupid.
We hold our bankers, our surgeons, and our airplane pilots to a very high standard of personal excellence, but how often do we apply those standards to ourselves and to our own work? (And shouldn’t we hold our leaders to the same high standards as we would our doctors? It amazes me the crap we forgive in politicians.)
We seem to give ourselves a pass when it comes to critical thinking. Many even disdain the idea, as if it isn’t important. But it is important. As Wieseltier points out so eloquently, the nature of our society is determined by our opinions. If those opinions are not grounded — at least to some degree — in critical, rational thinking, then our society suffers.
As I said above, we all take a Stupid Pill now and then. Who among us hasn’t leaped without looking? Who among us hasn’t looked back at something we did and said, “Well, that was stupid!”
We are human; we are prone to error. A while back I wrote about the misquote often incorrectly attributed to Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It turns out no one really ever wrote those words, but it is a slogan used by Alcoholics Anonymous (and similar groups). In that context, referring to addiction, it makes sense.
In general, however, the quote doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Excellence for musicians and athletes (and many others) is founded on the idea of, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
But you also hear that quote as, “Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over…” That works equally well for AA-type groups, and minus the idea of practice, practice, practice, it also offers another workable definition of stupid. It really ties back the idea of willful ignorance, of refusing to learn.
I’m going to leave off at this point so that essentially a single idea is presented in this post. That idea being that: “Stupidity is being willfully ignorant (given the option to not be).” There’s a lot more to say, but I’m thinking this topic is best handled in small doses.
Stay tuned, or tune out, depending on your inclination. 🙂