As a self-described political satirist and all-around commentator on the human condition, I confess to spending an inordinate amount of time talking about stupid people.
Now, let’s define our terms here.
Stupid stands alone as a condition not susceptible of being fixed. One is born stupid, lives stupid and dies stupid. Moreover as John Cleese explained, and actual real serious studies confirm, stupid people are so stupid they don’t know they are stupid. The set of skills needed to assess ones relative “smartness” are sadly lacking.
Ignorance is a quite different thing, though I think most people take offense at being called ignoramuses. They should not, since ignorance is something we all share as to many many things. Ignorance is merely lacking knowledge on a particular subject. Ignorance, therefore, can be cured as to any particular thing, merely by acquiring the necessary information.
But what kind of information?
Ahh, there is the rub, as Shakespeare would say.
Which leads to the focus of this essay–the propensity of us humans to become angry at those who express ideas and act in ways that denote lack of knowledge of a subject. I’m here to tell you that you should not. I should not. No one should.
One can go back to Epictetus for the proposition. Perhaps it was known before him, I am ignorant of knowing before Epictetus.
Epictetus argued, (I would say successfully), that no human acts deliberately for the bad. The bad you say? What is that? Let us begin with the premise that there is good and there is bad. It is generally good to not harm people for instance. The devil is in the details as they say. As it any particular person we might disagree. It might be considered by some people to be “good” to kill a tyrant. Others might disagree. But we all agree that a norm is that people should not be harmed.
So, to a great degree, when we talk about specifics, what is good or bad is somewhat subjective.
Does that mean it is arbitrary?
No, of course not. The decision to define something as good or bad depends on the amount and the quality of information possessed. That’s where all the argument comes in. I say that you have made a poor decision about X because you have received either inaccurate or insufficient information. You might say the same of me.
When you include more and more people, a consensus is arrived at as to whether a particular thing is good or bad. It may not be correct, this consensus, however, since a minority might very well possess the better argument, the better data.
What else is at work?
All the panoply of “stuff” that make up the human condition. Our desires, our experiences, our fears, our goals. All impact how important that “good” is to us and thus how resistant it is to being overcome by newer and better data. The stupid person can probably never overcome his emotional lock on a particular belief as being good or bad, while an ignorant one can be brought to a point of discarding her belief in favor of one truer.
Deepak Chopra said the same thing in one of his books. I recall it as something like, “each person is doing the very best they can given their level of knowledge.” It is of course no different from Epictetus.
You may claim no, some people are born bad, and choose bad because it is their nature.
Are you sure of that? I believe that to be a convenient lie we tell ourselves. It allows us to hate whom we hate, and to kill whom we wish to kill or otherwise put them out of our way. American prisons are chock full of people we have “given up on”.
Let’s take a couple of examples.
A young man slips a gun into his waistband and leaves his home to head for the corner where he will sell drugs for the afternoon. If confronted in the wrong fashion, he may well shoot at someone to defend his “turf”. Is this youngster acting deliberately badly?
I would argue no.
He is making a decision that based on all he knows (limited as that might be), this is the best means to attain his goal–living his life in some acceptable manner. The funds he acquires from his trade of drugs for cash affords him money for food, lodging, clothing, and leisure activities. He acquires, among some subset of humans, “status”. He acquires some modicum of power over unarmed persons he comes upon should he choose to exercise it. He has concluded that either his school offers no real education, and even if it does, there are no jobs suitable that would give him the above in an equal measure. He has reasoned that his neighborhood is dangerous and if he is unarmed he faces the real possibility of death.
He has made all these assessments more unconsciously than not perhaps, but they are hardly unreasonable. Given more information, he might not make these choices, but others that we, who have not his experiences consider more “good.” But he is probably not stupid, just ignorant of a series of truths that can and would alter his calculus.
Let’s look at another example: Sean Hannity
Hannity is one of the more egregious cases of Fox News “journalism”, a form of journalism in which actual truth plays little part, but where a point of view is underpinned with weak facts, and assumptions to support one political ideology over another.
Hannity has been caught selectively editing film to say exactly the opposite from what the taped statement actually said. He twists facts, ignores others, mis-states others, and berates anyone who attempts to introduce other facts that go against his desired meme.
Does he do this deliberately? Probably.
So he is actively pursuing the false? Don’t we agree that that would be a normative “bad?”
Yes, it would, but Hannity I am sure believes he serves a higher purpose. I suspect in his mind, he believes that the average viewer is incapable of understanding and is without the “insider” information he possesses. They must be appealed to viscerally rather than intellectually and led rather than informed. Hannity himself is part of that small cadre who “knows” what must be done, knows what is best for the country and world, and can’t take a chance that you, his viewer will be confused. For after all, you are tuning in for an hour, while he is living this “issue” all day, every day.
A Hannity can’t be convinced by better information, because of these hidden assumptions. He can only be “corrected” if his other assumptions about his own relative insider view of the world is changed. In other words, He would have to lose his arrogant assumptions about his relative worth vis-a-vis the “masses” in the world. Hannity is not a man to be hated, but rather one to be pitied. He lives and is content in his own delusions.
What does all this mean in the end? Not much, other than perhaps a lowering of one’s own blood pressure.
When confronted with the wrong-minded I can relax knowing that:
- They might be purely stupid, in which case, there is nothing any mortal can do about it. Move on.
- They are ignorant but happy in their ignorance because it satisfies their emotional needs as they view the world, in which case, they are to be pitied. Move on.
- They are ignorant because no one has yet provided them with the additional information they need to change their opinion. Step in and offer them what you know and where they might obtain more.
- Learn to discern which of the above is applicable. A few conversations should suffice.
There is only one caveat. Even if talking with a stupid person, if you are in a public forum, do continue. Many people are listening, and some of them, perhaps only one, is paying attention. You can change the world, one person at a time.