It is important that we understand ignorance vs stupidity: one is that we don’t know; the other, that we don’t want to know.
My wife and I don’t let our children use the word ‘stupid.’ It’s rude, but it also implies someone who someone who can’t learn, and who is perhaps mentally handicapped from birth. I want to approach that differently here. Stupidity indeed represents a mental handicap, but one that is acquired, not genetic.
Ignorance vs Stupidity
Consider that we tend to use the words ‘ignorance’ and ‘stupidity’ as synonyms. That conflation is unfortunate; if you think about it, ignorance means ‘I don’t know.’ But that is a human constant, our ignorance will always be infinite, and one of the goals of this blog is to help people to recognize and accept that.
In contrast to ignorance, I want to suggest that stupidity means ‘I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.’ For much of my life, I have tried to understand how it is that we have these powerful brains with great capacity for logic, which we then refuse to use. Or even worse, how is it that we live in these illusions, where our illogic feels completely logical, and where we insist that anyone who suggests otherwise is absolutely illogical, and stupid? Our stupidity can be so strong that we will deny the evidence in front us and maintain our illogic, not only insisting what we see is not there, but also claim that anyone who says it is there, is not ignorant, but stupid.
This, in fact, is one of the diagnostics of stupidly: they insist that others are stupid. And yes, I am well aware I am putting myself in front of my own firing squad.
Faith vs Religion
But all of us are stupid at some times, and on some topics. We can behave quite logically in most of life, and then have these blindspots, these scotomata, where we are stupid: what we believe makes no sense, but we practice stupidity: it’s not just that we refuse to admit our illogic, we refuse to consider it. I have mentioned the stupidity of anger. We can all remember angry words or actions that seemed perfectly logical at the time, but which were obviously wrong, sometimes horribly so, from a calmer perspective.
This are our ‘religions‘ – a word which has nothing to do with theology or spirituality, but which means ‘to be tied up’ – and so religions are positions to which we are bound, and that we refues to examine. We see this not only in religion and politics, but in football, and even science. Here I extend that, pointing out that stupidity is a positions to which we have tied ourselves; we could examine them, we have the mind and the liberty to do so, but we refuse.
However, when we approach religion, politics, science, and even football, in more open-minded and reasonable ways, then we speak of faith: faith that others can be right, faith that we can be wrong, and the belief that with patience, faith, and logic, things will work themselves out. This is also statesmanship, citizenship, and even wisdom. In those approaches we have belief, but not knowledge; we accept our ignorance and we reject our stupidity. We still make decisions, but we are forced to acknowledge our uncertainty, we keep an open mind.
Being Stupid about Stupidity
I noted that it is stupidity to call someone stupid. If I can split hairs, I’m not trying to condemn the person, nor the conclusion, but the mindset. I’m trying to get us all to recognize the flaws in our thinking, and to recognize the symptoms of our own stupidity. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, ‘Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.’
But here the problem grows, because we can be stupid about our stupidity: we don’t want to know that we don’t want to know. And so stupidity starts to bleed over into insanity. We deny reality in favor of some internal assumptions and conclusions about the world around us, and reject anyone who disagrees. All criticism must be attacked, and repudiated. We don’t want to admit we have problems, while insisting that everyone else conform to our problems.
This the how the right wing is different from the conservative: the conservative argues for his beliefs, while the right winger, the fascist, and the authoritarian personality insist that their beliefs are beyond question.
I want to offer a couple of approaches for those of us who are not too far gone. People will insist they know something, that they are absolutely sure of it, be it politics (left vs right), economics (capitalism vs communism), government (democracy vs autocracy), or religion (mine vs yours); and many other labels besides. My questions for for exploring this are straight-forward:
- Have you ever questioned your knowledge, and considered that it may not be true?
- If you have never questioned what you believe, how can you be sure it is correct, or that it is even your idea?
- How many times do you need to question your beliefs to be absolutely sure they are correct?
I think that the honest person will realize that the answer to the last question is ‘Never.’ So if we seriously consider these questions, I think the rational person will move toward something I have been proposing here: We must learn to live with doubt. We should learn to be faithful, rather than religious. We should be curious, not dogmatic.
Open to Open-Mindedness
Which means we need to remain open-minded. There are circular arguments on both sides, and we must choose: We can be stupid about our stupidity.
Or we can be open-minded about open-mindedness.
These ideas are incorporated into my book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation, available from the University of Louisiana Press and Amazon.
‘Hear Nothing’ courtesy of Wikimedia.