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Willful Stupidity and the Good Reader

(About a 4 minute read)

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  — George Bernard Shaw

I suspect future historians will now and then speak of us as an “Age of Wonders”.  The wonder of our electronics.  The wonder of our communication technologies.  The wonder of our medical advancements —  especially in the field of mental health.   And so forth.

But sadly, I suspect future historians will also speak of us as an “Age of Willful Stupidity”.

If so, they will doubtlessly say our age began over 100 years ago with the Stupid Bolshevik Revolution in Russia that was soon enough followed by the Rise of Stupid Fascism in Italy.   And the historians are bound to point out that the willful stupidity has continued largely unabated straight through to today’s many Stupid Denial Movements.

I suspect future historians will write whole libraries on that one theme alone — willful stupidity.  And I expect — I actually expect — that somewhere in those libraries there will be a book or article with an insightful footnote saying, “The first casualty of willful stupidity is the art of listening.”

Listening or reading — in this context, they are the same thing.  Forty years ago, I took a university course in the art of listening well — most often called today “active listening”.  It was a game changer.  Today, I feel I was all but clueless how to listen before taking that course, for I do not suppose myself born with any outstanding talent for listening.

A key take away from the semester was that most of us most of the time listen to respond rather than to understand.

A consequence of listening to respond is that we so often think we understand what is being said when in fact our sense or grasp of someone’s meaning is no better than a mere ricochet off the true meaning of their words.

The chances are huge that the last time you felt misunderstood is a recent memory.  It almost doesn’t matter how simple or complex your words are.  You can say, “A black cat crossed my path today”, and it will not be long before someone reads into your words more than your words really say.

I am gradually learning not to blame people for being poor listeners.  Good listening is work.  And so many people today already work 10 or 12 hour days.  It seems rather unfair to demand they always put in the work necessary to get anything harder to get than a knock knock joke.  In most ways, I have mellowed into simple acceptance and empathy when it comes to folks misunderstanding me or misunderstanding anyone else.

Yet, I can’t say that’s true when it comes to willful stupidity.  Near as I can see, willful stupidity can be extraordinarily dangerous — too dangerous to tolerate.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the brilliant Christian theologian, correctly identified willful stupidity as precisely what enabled the Nazis to come to power.

Bonhoeffer also seems to have been of the view that willful stupidity renders people absolutely incapable of reforming themselves.

Basically, he asserted that an open and free society that wishes to save itself from willful stupidity must — if things ever come to a head — resort to the ruthless repression of willfully stupid people.   Think trials.  Convictions.  Jailings of, say, White Supremacists simply for being white supremacists.

I hope Bonhoeffer was wrong about that.  I hope there are less repulsive means of dealing with willful stupidity. But I do agree with Bonhoeffer that willful stupidity can poise — and often has poised — an existential threat to democracy, freedoms, and liberties.  To say nothing of human flourishing and happiness.

I have almost no clue how to combat willful stupidity.  But if I had a child, I would want to do whatever I could do to make that child immune to becoming a willfully stupid adult.  And one thing I would try is teach the child how to be an active listener.  For it seems to me that it is difficult to be willfully stupid and yet still understand what you read or hear.

Not impossible.  By no means impossible.  But perhaps more difficult.

7 thoughts on “Willful Stupidity and the Good Reader”

  1. “A key take away from the semester was that most of us most of the time listen to respond rather than to understand.” That’s true, of course, but just as often I find that people are poor listeners because they are bound and determined to hear what they want to hear. Also, as far as willful stupidity goes, I think the thing that would make it most difficult to combat is the fact that in our society we would not be able to agree upon who was being willfully stupid about what. Think of any avidly debated subject of present: climate change, universal health care, abortion… Each side would swear that the OTHER side should be convicted, jailed, beaten with a wet noodle, etc. for being ‘willfully stupid!”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cade, I agree with you. Moreover, I believe that is what defines “willful stupidity” – that totally irrational, incomprehensible refusal to believe that anyone who believes differently has any claim to truth.

      I know I’m guilty of it, though shame would have me deny it. But there are certain keywords, certain assumptions, that once revealed by someone else, cause me to totally shut down and walk away, knowing there is no room for discussion left. If that doesn’t reach the level of “willful stupidity,” it certainly qualifies as the worst kind of hypocrisy. 😒

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I think it’s quite possible, Lisa, that the best any of us can do is to be rigorously honest with ourselves when decide what to believe or disbelieve about the world. To me, that means digging down until I arrive at those truths I honestly cannot doubt are true. That is the best I can do, albeit it, it seems so inadequate at times.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Good points, Carla. It’s so very sad, isn’t it, that it can take decades — even centuries sometimes — for it to become consensus that an evil was indeed an evil. Perhaps without the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, or the defeat of Leninism in the Cold War, we’d still be debating as a society whether or not the Nazis or the Commissars were willfully stupid.

      I think it’s a pretty safe assumption that future generations are going to look back in wonder at such things as the public health care — or lack of it — in the richest nation on earth. But today, the issue is still murky to so many of us.

      Welcome to Jeopardy. Today’s categories begin with “The Least Sane of the Great Apes”.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. C. S. Lewis — whose theology I would spar with any day — nonetheless got it right when he stated that the stupidity of evil was the most daunting thing about it, and made the Satan of his space trilogy not a suave Mephistopheles at heart, but a consciousness which, though capable of manipulation and scheming, relapsed in its natural state to the dull cruelty of a nasty, obtuse child. Lewis was one of the most astute students of human nature and the human bent for self-deception ever to write fiction, and when he was not trying to shore up his acquired Christianity against his inner Pagan, always rang 100% true to me.

    Since grade school my most frustrating moments have involved conversations with people who are sure they know all there is to know. Dunning-Krueger is ubiquitous.

    There is a nice little book entitled “The Natural Science of Stupidity” which offers an interesting theory: that many parents manifest enough insecure narcissism to feel threated by a questioning of curious child, and reward their children for ignorance; for example, scolding the child for asking awkward questions or questions that show up the parent’s own lack of information. Instead of “I don’t know, let’s go to the library/Internet/dictionary and look it up together,” the child is chastised for being a nuisance, and learns not to seek new information.

    I don’t know how universally this might apply but it certainly does seem likely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your insightful, thought-provoking comments.

      For my own sake more than for the sake of others, I have for the past few years made a sustained effort to — like Spinoza — understand human behavior rather than “bewail” it. Yet, willful stupidity is one of the toughest traits of our species for me to be non-judgmental about. I don’t “get” it much more than to perhaps increasingly understand how impossibly entrenched it is.

      I think you’re probably onto something about at least one of its causes being found in how we’re raised. Yet so many questions remain to be answered. For instance, how did it evolve — how could have such an implacable denial of reality have evolved? If I were a willfully stupid evolution denier, I’d be more likely to point to wilful stupidity as evidence of divine intervention in our evolution than the complexity of the eye.

      I suspect — but have no way of knowing — that another causal factor is the human fear of uncertainty. In so many ways, we humans habitually refuse to accept “I don’t know” as an answer. Narcissism might or might not be a cause of some of that. But even without any narcissism at all, humans are typically “explaining” things they are in truth clueless about.

      Liked by 1 person

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