Wednesday, August 21, 2013
War Against Stupidity
I recently read The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, a little book written way back in 1976 by the Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla--but only recently published in English (even though it was originally written in that language while Cipolla was teaching at Berkeley). I loved both Cipolla's tongue-in-cheek style and his keenly insightful definition of human stupidity: "a stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses."
Cipolla further points out that the relative occurrence of thus-defined stupidity within any given group is a constant wholly unrelated to other factors (such as socio-economic status or education): in other words, the possession of wealth, power, or education in any combination or configuration whatsoever does not in any way ensure that an individual will not be stupid.
Since this tiny pamphlet was intended to be a literary tour de force, not a scientific treatise, Cipolla does not bother to present elaborate statistical evidence to prove his "law." Rather, he trusts that his readers' experience will corroborate his own and thus validate his arguments. As indeed my experience certainly does.
For instance, it is obvious to me that: a) a great many rich people are stupid (Donald Trump has nothing to gain from his cringe-worthy stances on politics--and don't even get me started on the damage done--to others and now, finally, to himself as well--by the contractor who shoddily built my house); b) an astonishing number of powerful people are stupid (what will Tea Party legislators gain by shutting down the government?); and, c) countless so-called "smart" people are stupid (any college faculty lounge brims with idiots willing to harm their careers in the long run for the momentary pleasure of sabotaging a rival). Dumb, dumber, dumbest.
For me, personally, the most painful assertion made by this book is actually a pretty self-evident verity that, as an educator, I have nonetheless stubbornly resisted: stupidity cannot be eradicated--not by anything--not even a good educational system or by powerful teaching. Nature, it seems, has a yet-unexplained need for stupidity--just as, apparently, it has a need for a few more boy babies than girl babies and for a steady supply of homosexuals (who just refuse to stop occurring, much to the chagrin of the religious right)--and it has accordingly hard-wired our species to provide, in spite of all well-meaning rectification efforts, the requisite numbers of crackbrains and holy fools.
In other words, those of us who were/are teachers may do a perfectly marvelous job of dispensing knowledge (all the latest techniques, all the exhausting effort). But no matter how well we accomplish that task, a relatively constant percentage of our students will nonetheless turn out "stupid" (even if they are accepted to Harvard). That's rather discouraging, isn't it?
Well, since we cannot eradicate the stupidity of the stupid ones and since Nature seems implacable in its determination to replace any crackbrain lost by attrition, our only recourse is to confront these incorrigible blockheads and to fight them, vigilantly, unceasingly, determinedly--with words, of course, but especially with actions. Above all, as Cipolla reminds us, we must resist the temptation to underestimate the potential these singularly zealous people have to do harm. We cannot just sit back and "be nice" while they sow discord, wreak havoc and--if they acquire sufficient influence--blithely undermine the very foundations of our social contract. Nor, certainly, can we successfully "compromise" with them. This is because stupid people are afflicted with a kind of brain impediment which a) prevents them from understanding the notion that both sides can sometimes win and b) makes them believe erroneously that the other guy's loss is necessarily a "win" for them. Since, therefore, "win-win" is a foreign concept to a booby and since, consequently, his/her sole objective in human interactions is to make others lose without regard for his/her own advantage, any "deal" with a stupid person is almost certainly doomed to either collapse and/or turn out badly for all concerned.
President Obama--not himself a stupid person--nonetheless seems unable to learn this lesson and persists in trying to negotiate with the boobies who control Congress.
I doubt that this is the right tactic, Mr. President. And it may be the undoing of your administration. Governance by compromise was probably possible once upon a time--when the level of stupidity in Congress was no greater than its level in the population as a whole. In such a "balanced" situation, logic and reason could occasionally prevail, I suppose, even when intelligent people had to make deals with "bandits" (a race distinguished from the stupid by their reluctance to behave irrationally in defiance of self-interest and without regard to outcomes). But now? When, since 2010, the Tea Party Stupids have acquired effective control of the legislative process? No, Mr. President, negotiation and deal-making can no longer provide a win to anyone, don't you see that? Don't you see that the stupids will never permit anyone (and especially not you) to win--even if they, also, win thereby? So, if you want a victory, Mr. President--as distasteful as you, a refined and (alas) aloof gentleman, find belligerence--you will simply have to get down in the muck and WAGE WAR, marginalizing and neutralizing the boobies and their hapless, intimidated allies.