The Theory of Stupidity / Why we should fear stupid people more than the bad guys
There's a saying floating around the Internet that goes, "Arguing with an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon—he drops the stones, defecates on the chessboard, and flies back to his flock, declaring victory." It's funny and clever. It is also deeply, desperately disturbing. Although we never say it, we all have people in our lives who we think are a little crazy – not necessarily about everything, but certainly about some things.
Most of the time, we laugh about it. After all, stupidity can be a lot of fun. When a friend of mine asked us in a group a while ago what Hitler's last name was, we laughed. When my brother learned just last month that deer are real animals – ok, that's funny. Laughing kindly at one's ignorance is part of everyday life.
But stupidity also has its dark side. For the theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the fool is often more dangerous than the wicked.
In picture books and action movies, we know who the bad guy is. They usually wear dark clothes, kill as they please, and laugh like crazy as they carry out their diabolical schemes. Even in real life we have bad guys – dictators who violate human rights, or serial killers and violent criminals. As evil as these people are, they are not the greatest danger, as long as they are known. Once something is a known evil, the good in the world can join forces to defend and fight it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, “you can protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if necessary, prevented by force. Evil always carries with it the virus of self-destruction."
But stupidity is a completely different problem. We cannot fight it so easily, for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice that most of us take seriously. We do not reproach others for being ignorant. We don't yell at people who don't know things.
Second, the fool is an elusive opponent. He is not defeated by debate and is not open to reasoning and argument. Moreover, when the fool has his back against the wall—when faced with facts that cannot be refuted—he lashes out and lashes out. Here is how Bonhoeffer puts it:
"Neither protests nor the use of force can achieve anything; reason falls on deaf ears; facts that contradict his prejudice are simply not believed—at such moments, the fool becomes even critical—and when the facts are irrefutable, they are simply dismissed as unimportant, as accidental. In this whole situation, the fool, unlike the evil one, is completely complacent and since he can be easily irritated, he becomes dangerous by attacking".
With great stupidity comes great power
Stupidity, like evil, is not a threat as long as it does not have power. We laugh at things when they are harmless – like my brother's ignorance of deer. This will not cause me any pain. That's why it's funny.
But the problem with stupidity is that it often goes hand in hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes: "When you look carefully, it becomes clear that every strong rise to power in the public sphere, whether of a political or religious nature, infects a large part of humanity with stupidity."
This happens in two directions. The first is that stupidity does not prevent you from holding office or authority. History and politics are replete with examples of fools rising to the top (where the wise are ousted or killed). Second, the nature of power requires people to give up some skills necessary for intelligent thinking—such as independence, critical thinking, and reflection.
Bonhoeffer's argument is that the more one becomes part of the establishment, the less individual one is. A charismatic, exciting, intelligent person with a penchant for sensible policies becomes an imbecile the moment he takes office. It is as if he has been shot in the hand by "slogans, watchwords and the like... He is as if under a spell, blinded, misused and abused in his very being."
Power turns people into automatons. People who were once intelligent and critical thinkers now have a script to read. They will employ the smile instead of the brain. When people join a political party, it seems like most choose to follow suit, rather than think things through. Power takes the intelligence away from a person, leaving them as an animated mannequin.
Bonhoeffer's argument, then, is that stupidity should be seen as worse than evil. Stupidity has a much greater potential to damage our lives. More damage is done by an idiot in power than a bunch of Machiavellians. We recognize evil and can deny it power. With the corrupt, the oppressors and the sadists, we know where we stand. We know how to take a stand.
But stupidity is much harder to eliminate. That's why he's a dangerous weapon: Because bad guys have a hard time getting power, they need fools to do their jobs. Like sheep in the field, a fool can be led, directed and manipulated into doing many things. Evil is a puppet master, and it wants nothing more than the unthinking puppets that make it possible – whether in the general public or within the corridors of power.
The lesson from Bonhoeffer is that we can laugh at those strange, silly moments when we are in close company. But we should be angry and afraid when stupidity rules. / Big Think
*This article was published by Bota.al and reposted by Tiranapost.al