(About a 5 minute read)
There was a report a few weeks ago that over 60% of all Americans believe they are above average in intelligence. I think it’s understandable that more people believe they are smarter than average than actually are. You could write volumes about how our culture — and possibly most cultures — places great value on being intelligent.
But perhaps Americans carry that a bit too far. It’s not just that we look down on stupid people. I hear people here say things that strike me as implying stupid people a fair game. Fair game for any con that will work to exploit them. Certainly, we don’t have any widespread notions that intelligent people have an actual obligation or duty to look out after stupid people.
They more or less accepted relationship between smart and dumb in this country is much more predator and prey than that.
Do stupid people deserve being looked down on and even being thought of as fair game?
I suppose how one answers that might depend on what one believes about why people can be stupid. The last time I took a look at that, the scientists were divided on how much stupidity was a matter of our genes and how much it was a matter of our environment, including what we ourselves could do to change it.
Maybe we can do something to improve our intelligence, maybe we can’t, then. But even if we can — but fail to do so — are we to be looked down upon?
Stupidity is not the same thing as willful stupidity. Willful stupidity is when a smart person accepts or asserts a stupid belief — a belief they are too smart not to know is stupid — and stubbornly cling to it no matter how thoroughly it’s pointed out to them that the belief is stupid.
Perhaps people are justified to hold willfully stupid people in contempt, but are we justified to hold merely stupid people in contempt simply for being stupid?
I used to think there was something magical about intelligence that made smart people more likely to be kinder, more moral, more considerate, etc. than dumber people. But during my marriage to my abusive second wife, my opinion on that began to change.
She was often maliciously cruel — most likely because of a personality disorder resulting from childhood sexual abuse — but she was also brilliant. The sort of person who, when bored, would naturally turn to entertaining herself by working out calculus problems in her head.
I’m no longer blind to the fact that intelligent people can be heinous.
I suspect much of the general attitude towards stupid people comes not for any rational reason for it that’s based on logic and evidence, but rather is merely based on the emotional revulsion so many of us seem to feel when in their company. But isn’t holding someone in contempt or worse in the absence of any sound reasons for doing so itself a species of stupidity?
I suspect we must be fairly smart not to be foolishly governed by our negative emotions. I have a friend who can become physically sick to his stomach when in the presence of stupid people. But he is also highly intelligent, and would be the first to tell you that it would be unfair of him to look down on stupid people just because they can make him want to vomit.
The questions get more difficult when a stupid person does something to injure us. When that happens, it is so easy for us to not only hold the person in contempt, but to also feel anger towards them. A car that cuts us off in traffic, or a man who votes for a politician we see as an existential threat to our nation, can enrage us to the point we dehumanize them. But is our response to them fully justified?
I think it’s understandable to feel anger towards them. My problem with our all-too-often response to them is that irrational contempt and/or dehumanization never seem justified to me.
Nothing seems to rile many Americans more than the suggestion we might have obligations to society beyond a bare minimum — a minimum that seems to shrink constantly. In that extremist view, we are not only so unlike most peoples on earth, we are also perhaps both short-sighted fools and indecent.
Fools because we are social animals whose evolutionary success always depended on our ability to cooperate and care for each other. Moreover, it seems questionable whether a society or nation that pits its strongest against its weakest can endure, let alone endure as a place one might want to live.
But indecent too. For what society but an indecent one picks on and bullies its weakest members?
Of course, I do not mean to imply by anything I’ve said here that stupid people who are also malicious, cruel, abusive, violent, etc should be exempt from criticism. In my view, they should be treated just as we would anyone else with those tendencies. Here, I am confining my remarks to people who are merely stupid.
Decades ago, I had a secretary, an exceptional young woman named Tara. Tara had an extraordinary story and I have blogged about her here. In the time I knew her, she never once called someone stupid. Instead, she would describe them as being stupid, thus implying a number of things, including that they were not to be condemned as simply a stupid person.
Ironically, Tara herself might have been considered stupid by some strict folks. She had only one interest in life. People. Not celebrities, either. Only the people she knew. Her lack of interest in anything else might have condemned her in some eyes. Yet I found her to be both kind and wise.
How one feels and behaves towards stupid people is, of course, one’s own decision. I myself wish they were treated better and — by far and away most of all — that the ugly notion they are fair game for anyone to exploit at will were forever abolished from our culture.