What is stupidity?

Do you ever act in stupid ways? Do you know stupid people? Are you stupid?

What is stupidity? Is it a state of mind? Is it a way of acting? Is it a type of personality?

The English word ‘stupid’ originated in the 16thcentury and meant mentally slow, dull, or inane: it is a look of not knowing what to say or do. The modern sense of the word can incorporate various meanings from slowness of mind, a state of insensibility (stupor), dullness of feeling (torpidity), or lacking in interest (uninterested). The word ‘stupid’ derived, through 16thcentury French stupide, from the Latin stupidus– to be amazed, confounded, dull, or foolish – which in turn had originated in stupere, meaning ‘to be struck senseless’. This word had a further origin in the Proto-Indo European language group (4,000 yrs BCE) as stupe- meaning ‘to hit’ – which itself meant ‘to push, stick, knock, or beat’ – thereby indicating an expression of senselessness when one is beaten or hit.

Stupidity is distinct from idiocy. The word ‘idiot’ derives from the Greek idiotesmeaning a private citizen, an unskilled layman, who, in virtue of their lack of skill, did not participate in public life. Some commentators have taken this fact to mean that a person who does not take part in public life is selfish and foolish. In the Roman period, the word came to mean someone who was crude, uneducated, and ignorant and eventually, in the Middle Ages, it was used as a synonym for stupid. In 14thcentury England, an idiot was someone who was ‘mentally deficient’. By the 20thcentury the word ‘idiot’, along with its cognates, ‘moron’, ‘imbecile’, and ‘cretin’, was a legal term defining a psychiatric condition of profound intellectual disability – a person with a mental age of two or less. These terms came to be regarded as offensive and fell out of use, although ‘idiot’ is still used as a derogatory term for a stupid or foolish person.

Stupidity is also distinct from foolishness. Foolishness is a way of thinking that is dogmatic and rigid. Foolishness may refer specifically to acting contrary to social norms and may include a lack of empathy and an incapacity to co-operate. A foolish person may also have illusions of grandeur. We think that a person is foolish when they make a statement that is not thought out. So while stupidity and foolishness are closely related, a foolish person makes statements on subjects on which they know nothing, while a stupid person may know their subject matter quite well but, for various emotional reasons, makes an assertion, or acts in a way, that is contrary to the logic of the situation.

Bigotry is an unthinking way of acting: does this make us stupid? No doubt, many bigoted statements are also quite stupid assertions, but a bigot can also be a relatively intelligent person. Many bigots rise to positions of great power and authority, although they do not rise to high levels of education. Bigotry, meaning an intolerance for those who hold different beliefs or customs, seems to derive from a lack of emotional intelligence and empathy, rather than a state of stupidity.

Finally, stupidity is not simply ignorance. We are, by definition, ignorant of a great many things. We are not omniscient. So ignorance does not make us stupid. Nor is stupidity a lack of education. Uneducated people can be quite intelligent, while educated people can exhibit a special type of intellectual stupidity. More on this later.

Stupidity refers to a certain way of acting that is unreflective and not thought out. I make a rash statement and then realise that that was a stupid thing to say. We all probably do this at some time in our lives but this does not make us a stupid person. To be a stupid person, we would have to act in an unthinking manner on a consistent basis.

So what is stupidity?

The philosopher, Walter B. Pitkin, believed stupidity to be the ‘Supreme Social Evil’ and did so for three reasons: Firstly, the number of stupid people is so huge that they are inestimable; secondly, for some reason, stupid people succeed to positions of great power in business and politics (we might call a government by idiots, an idiotocracy); and finally, people with highly developed abilities can also be afflicted with serious stupidity.

James F. Welles, in his book Understanding Stupidity, argued that stupidity must have at least three characteristics: that it is maladaptive, deliberate, and informed. That is to say a stupid person acts in a way that it will prevent adaption to new data or to changed circumstances. Such behaviour brings no benefit to the person and may actually occasion harm to themselves. Further they must know that they are acting in a way that is not beneficial for them and finally they must make a choice to act in this way. Stupidity then, is self-defeating behaviour. We gain no advantage by acting in a stupid manner or saying stupid things, even though we know that we will gain no advantage but yet still choose to act in that way.

Why would we do this?

Otto Fenichel, a psychiatrist who had an important influence on Jacques Lacan, argued that “…people become stupid ad hoc, that is, when they do not wantto understand, where understanding would cause anxiety or guilt feeling, or would endanger an existing neurotic equilibrium.”This appears to capture an essential truth about stupidity. Stupidity is a choice originating from an emotional blockage. We act or speak in a stupid fashion when we do so impulsively and without regard to the consequences, knowing that such actions or words will not benefit us one bit.

The economist, Carlo Maria Cipolla, formulated several laws of stupidity. Firstly, reflecting Pitkin’s point, non-stupid people always underestimate the number of stupid people that there are. For some unknown reason, intelligent people always assume that there are less stupid people than there actually are, or, conversely, that there are more intelligent people than there actually are. Secondly, intelligent people typically underestimate the harm that stupid people can actually do. This is due, in part, to the fact that intelligent people underestimate the number of stupid people, but mainly it has to do with the fact that stupid people typically act against their own best interests. If both of these points are true, then stupid people can inflict enormous damage and harm. Thirdly, a stupid person, and this fact defines an essential aspect of stupidity, that stupid people will cause harm to other people, and even, quite perversely, to themselves, without experiencing any personal gain. As intelligent people, we often assume that no-one, for no good reason, would do something that brings no benefit to themselves. But this is exactly what stupid people do. They act in ways where, not only is no benefit gained, but they may eventually be harmed by their actions. And when this is true for themselves, it is doubly true with relation to other people. Fourthly, the occurrence of stupidity is quite independent of any other personality characteristic. Musicians, artists, scientists, business leaders, politicians, etc., etc., can all be quite stupid people. Finally, when we add all these attributes together, we discover that a stupid person is the most dangerous sort of person that there is. It is a wonder that we have survived as long as we have. This world of stupidity is indeed a bleak place.

Apart from these laws of stupidity, there are also various types of stupidity.

Tactical stupidity, otherwise know as willful ignorance, occurs when people are aware of certain facts but refuse to acknowledge them. Their stupidity is a tactical maneuver, designed to forestall objections or criticism. They know there are facts out there which would contradict their position, but they claim ignorance of these facts and, in doing so, claim the right for the truth of those facts to be established. They have to, they claim, need to examine the basis of these facts themselves, and hence postpone the debate proceeding forward.

Protective stupidityoccurs when the thinking process stops at the threshold of what it takes to be dangerous thought. It involves not seeing logical errors, not grasping the power of an analogy, misrepresenting simple arguments, or being bored or repelled by any line of thinking that leads in a dangerous or heretical direction. George Orwell, in 1984, described this as Crimestop: we stop thinking along a certain line if we think it will lead to heresy or some other intellectual crime.

The mind should develop a blind spot whenever a dangerous thought presented itself. The process should be automatic, instinctive. Crimestop, they called it in Newspeak. . . . He set to work to exercise himself in crimestop. He presented himself with propositions — ‘the Party says the Earth is flat’, ‘the Party says that ice is heavier than water’ — and trained himself in not seeing or not understanding the arguments that contradicted them.

A final, important type of stupidity is intellectual stupidity. Doris Lessing wrote “…there is no fool like an intellectual … (They possess) a kind of clever stupidity, bred out of a line of logic in the head, nothing to do with experience.” For anyone with experience of intellectuals, this type is well known. The sophisticated intellectual, with all their fine theories and grand ideas, can really, when we get down into the real world experience, be quite stupid. Their headful of ideas actually inhibits their experience of the real world.

Not surprisingly, that pin-up boy for post-modernism, Michel Foucault, made the same sort of point when he argued that we need stupidity to re-connect with those experiences that our articulate, conscious categories exclude: that is, we require stupidity to recapture the alterity of difference. Foucault’s point is that the categories by which we understand the world are in fact obstacles to directly experiencing, and thereby understanding, the world around us. Hence we require stupidity to experience the world directly! Without wishing to say the Foucault is wrong in this respect, and there is no reason to assume that he is, or he isn’t, the important point remains that there is an important connection between intelligent people and stupid people.

The stupidity of intelligent people is that they believe that the stupid are far more intelligent than they actually are. This is despite the fact that, time and time again, stupid people act in a way which is, quite simply, stupid. On the other hand, the intelligence of stupid people is that they believe that intelligent people are far more stupid than they believe themselves to be. The correctness of this view is based on the fact that stupid people, despite their stupidity, recognise that intelligent people consistently underestimate the extent and strength of stupidity within a community, and consistently over-estimate their own importance.

Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to the spread of stupidity within society is not the stupid people themselves – they have always existed in great numbers and always will so exist – but rather the arrogance of intelligent people who believe that stupid people should act in what they deem a more intelligent way, which, in itself, is an indication of their own stupidity.

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