“Stupidity” hates me when we meet and I hate it in return.
This instinctive attitude is weakness; it hindered my ability to imagine how the enemy mind works.
Along my quest I grew more tolerant. I changed my mind and chose to observe, not stupid people but stupidity as a dysfunction inherent to our human mind. Now I look at its outcome - stupid judgments, stupid words and stupid deeds - and seek its causes.
Tacit tradition separates society unwittingly into the ones who speak, “us” up here, competent, intelligent, reasonably educated and rational, versus “them” the incompetent brainless morons, low there at the bottom of the IQ scale.
I indulged this arrogance with a vague pinch of heart being aware that there must be among "us" some much more intelligent, smarter and wiser than me, who looking down the pyramid slope would probably see me as quite stupid. Additionally, I remembered that stupid people, and not so stupid people, would call me stupid when they failed to understand what I say and do, just because it did not fit their expectations. Who decides what is stupid counts. Moreover, I actually did scores of stupid things. There are also those annoying occasions for which I am not gifted at all.
In time, I learned from my readings that to look down at stupidity makes one bitter, exasperated with bad feelings, there is too much of it; as Einstein is quoted (mistakenly, in fact it was Flaubert), there are two infinite things, the Universe and human stupidity and of the first he was not even certain.
The blaming approach appears unfair, like seeing the straw in other people’s eye and not the beam in our own. Worse, despise is counterproductive; by means of prejudice, rejection precludes understanding. Therefore, instead of deploring, we will gain to better cope with the inevitable; learn how to comprehend stupidity and relate to it usefully. For this, we have to grow more tolerant with it, adapt to communicate with it, count with its various sorts and - when possible – avoid, prevent, cure or diminish it. Even arguing with people gone stupid requires subtle, prudent skill.
To learn about this affliction of humanity I read many words of agreement that the useful investigation starts locally and even better, humbly, with us.
The error to avoid in the personal study of stupidity is well known by psychology; when we face that we did something stupid it appears to our introspection as an explicable, unhappy accident, produced by an external cause or by a temporary impairment of mind, out of our control: constraint, fatigue, too much pressure, a jolt of temper, intoxication, inattention, being uninformed or misled, a lapse of memory, the empire of an irresistible drive or passion like love, pride, greed, anger... On the other hand, when we meet other people's blunders, the cause is undifferentiated; they are stupid, irrational, ignorant or guilty.
We have obviously more empathy for ourselves, so, yes; this is where we should start, with ourselves. We cannot get protected from stupidity by segregating from us the stupid people; we are all too closely related to this problem.
I decided to examine, before the stupidity of other people, that of myself. In fact, it appears now that the cases when I missed the mark, lacked elementary common sense, failed to observe, misunderstood utterly, took useless risk, hovered totally out of the picture or too clever by half, were too many to remember.
I had to work hard to unearth my examples. I had to fight the urge to bury past blunders instead of learning from them. I admit some difficulty to introspect properly my own history of stupidity, probably because I protect myself with oblivion of the shameful and of guilt. Moreover some seriously stupid actions seem smart when you look at them in isolation, when you do them, from close; to reveal how stupid they are you need a wider frame and a longer time perspective.
I spent a while recalling - with growing displeasure - some of the many stupid things I believed, said and did over the years. I asked old-time friends to remind me my biggest blunders. I even listened to my son explaining how inept I am about money. I watched myself in the mirror.
Looking at my own stupidity was humbling but also fertile; as I am more perceptive and sympathetic with me, I discovered more nuance. The episodes remembered helped me build, slowly, the point of view presented here.
I do not offer a detailed wailing confession of the many dumb and foolish things I have done. I also believe that I did not practice the complete list of human stupidity to be a perfect exemplar for exhaustive research. The ones quoted are mainly from my youth. A false impression would be that young people are stupid and the old ones wise; this is not so, all ages have equal chances to be silly, ridiculously deluded and foolish, not only the inexperienced.
There is also a plethora of “I” in my text. The reader may want to appreciate that it is better to speak for myself while I affirm the general character of stupidity.
The spiciest concrete memories belong to my private inner garden, I will not disclose them. Instead I attempt a working summary of things learned from first person stupidness.
To make a long story short, here is a synthesis of typical stupid things I did and a few personal examples which I find meaningful for my inquiry:
Stupidity by simply not thinking
My richest cause of stupid choices, words and acts was an absent mind: not observing, not thinking at all, not doing the necessary prudent things required by common sense and politeness. Absence of judgment is stronger than poor judgment. The lantern unlit gives no light. In a number of instances, against my best interest, without intention, I hurt people, lost opportunities, inflamed animosity and useless conflict, offended or insulted people, some close to me. All this damage of thoughtlessness was committed by means of things not done, “negatives” as I like to call them: inattention, egocentrism, laziness, superficiality or neglect. As a result I made things uselessly hard for myself and other people. No excuse that it was not on purpose; as it was said so well, maybe by Oscar Wilde, a gentleman is one who would never offend someone... unintentionally. I was less than a gentleman.
The most frequent cause of such unhappy words, actions and situations is then very simple, accessible to everyone; I did not think. I was busy with something else, following my own plans.
I made big mistakes when I failed to pay sufficient attention to what happened around me, and what my good plans resulted in when applied, particularly with people, their occasions, interests and worries. Often I did not hear because I was speaking. Or I did not ask because I thought that I knew already.
People close to me observed that I see sharply what I look at with interest, even in “troubled water” but I am blind to what I do not watch or care for. I flatter myself that innocent inattention, distraction and forgetfulness are the main causes of the false conclusions I rushed and the inadequate things I have said and of some costly blunders. I must own up though that inattention was not without some guilt of lack of respect.
A very dangerous cause for not observing the obvious, worse than careless inattention, was for me that strange blindness, denial. I knew rationally that I should pay attention but I avoided to look close and blocked thinking of things I was unable to face. The most tormenting example I remember was failing to see and understand the state of my old, declining Mother.
Stupidity because of body and temper prevailing
On reflection, impulsiveness caused by impatience was my visible soft spot. A perilous variant was to allow myself to be pressed into engaging conversation when surprised or under stress; today I know only too well that in such moments the most important thing to do is not to react immediately. Decisions and commitments negotiated under emotion are impaired and can be disastrously stupid.
I remember an amazing number of silly things done and said simply because I could not wait or control my face.
Talking too much, too quickly and too well, instead of keeping silent was a favourite mine-field for my blunders. After years of this error I concluded that, as I like to repeat, when you have the gift of speech, what you need to learn is how to keep your mouth shut.
I was often gullible by emotional compassion and instinctive need to trust and to sympathise, easily deceived by smiling faces and credible looking packages and thus weakened in my otherwise vivid exercise of critical thinking. Interestingly, when I found out that I was being played, I went along with it to study how it was done and learned valuable experience.
And yes, often I did silly things because of my born critical spirit, cultivated indiscipline and disorder; when you roam free, thinking with your own head, it is easy to err and to get lost; blunders so frequent that I had to form a habit of redressing seamlessly, before I would be caught; or to concede error with elegance.
Emotion and mood made me stupid at times. Our body is part of our mind. In my early youth I was stupid with girls – whom I saw as aliens, from ignorance and lack of experience, not of the heavier sexist kind. I skip the examples, mine are no different from many other people’s, but I retain the important common-place that sexual desire, shyness, lack of experience and intimidating situations make one notably dumb. This is everyday stupidity to be prepared for; emotion impairs judgment. When shaken and lost do not declare, do not decide, do not commit; gain time.
Desire did not increase my cleverness. Easy to see that for many intelligent people, sex is a serious source of mistaken decisions and actions of breath-taking stupidity. Our various drives must be kept in mind as an important factor of stupid deeds notwithstanding our IQ.
Stupidity by pride
This was in my beginning years at Television. At that time I used to be a public relations officer of the Foreign Relations department, a busy but cosy job. Additionally I was an interpreter and successful translator of films. This did not satisfy me; I wanted to be a TV producer. There was an opening for a junior editor job at the Youth Programmes department. I took advantage of the open door access I had with top management and went to one of the vice-presidents - a high placed political person. I told him that I would like to do some real life TV work. He looked at me and replied: "You know; now you are appreciated and safe where you are. You have a roof above your head." I answered smartly, I thought, that maybe it is time for me to meet a bit of rain. He looked at me attentively and said: "All right, you have the job!"
Three month later there was a massive downsizing and I was fired; thrown out like a wet chicken. That taught me to speak smart with a Gorgon, even a sympathetic one. I found employment as an audio-visual expert in a visual production centre of the Ministry of Tourism. This was far from the glitzy Olympus whence I was tumbling. My displeasure was clearly visible for everyone. I did not care to adapt. I decided to do the impossible and get back to Television. I started to do plenty of what I knew to do. Film-translation and subtitling were a rare craft at that time. I managed soon to sign about one series episode each evening and one full feature film each week. That success was quite visible. My ex-colleague clients liked to be safe with me and the public appreciated the quality. The effort was very tiring too. And my local direction disapproved. They exiled my job to another town 150 kilometres away from the capital. I did not give an inch. I would take the train every morning at five and back every evening at four to run my work at the studios. On the road I wrote and corrected my text, during the day I hijacked all the dactylographers of the office to type for me. “One man start-up” I would say. And I won. The effort was excessive though; my girlfriend told me later that what conquered her was that I would take her out for dinner and fall asleep while courting her. After six months, with a new reputation, I was called back to TV; I would cost them much less as an employee than as a contractor. At the same time I was being fired from the Tourism job by a public gathering of the "working men and women", something normally equal with ending all career perspectives. To shorten the story: to be properly re-hired by Television, ten days after the firing I went to the personnel department and announced that I did not want to be dismissed anymore but wished to have my resignation accepted instead, retroactively. The young personnel chief looked at me with wide eyes and went to see the director. They accepted my request in 24 hours. However, being “resigned” was not good enough in the socialist culture; I was advised by the studios to move by transfer. Two more days later I requested from my bitter enemies that the resignation be turned into a "transfer in the interest of the office". Otherwise the fight would have to go on. The apparatchik almost fell off his chair but went to ask again. He came back in no time to tell me that it was all right to do as I want. Then he looked at me and exclaimed with unexpected honesty:
"Why did you do all this? If you have so much power, if even the director is afraid of you, why didn't you just do quietly all you wanted while waiting a little? You were on the list to be sent within six months to follow a training course in Switzerland, the place you want to study for your PhD. Couldn't you wait six months?"
I did not know what to answer and did not care either. I was certainly proud of my victory, of going across my enemies like a tank. I deleted the episode from my memory and went ahead. It is after some 35 years that I looked back at this mess. I wasted precious life-capital in the most stupid way. I lost by winning. I could have been crushed. All that the wear and tear, the nights without sleep, the enemies made, the insecurity, the lost opportunities, all because of aggressive pride and short-term brilliance. I must add to this however that all the pain made me learn some wisdom I teach now to other people. I am who I am because of what I did. Maybe. What do I know...?
Generally speaking I behaved much sillier than usual - by my own standards - whenever under influence of passions rightly called sins like pride, hate, lust, laziness, egoism or greed. Eagerness to show what I can do was powerful in my instances of youthful stupidities and still strikes now and then. However, I learned in time that I can cheat pride by “flirting with humility”; it is spectacularly effective when we are teased into stupid responses of vanity. However, for that flirting you need strength from some experience of success.
Stupidity by blinkered point of view, received ideas and one-truth
I was potentially stupid, while seeing myself creative and bright, when by imagining some actually better idea I saw only one point of view - mine, blind to other points of view; definitely, this is measurable stupidness - to have but one point of view and be satisfied that you understood something. I was in such occasions out of real life, and it was highly taxed because I failed to consider other people's major interests and differing angles.
I was thinking stupid as often as I let myself be drawn – by rushed spirit of contradiction and unphilosophical reasoning – to oppose a no to a yes, a yes to a no or another extreme to a silly, hateful one; this brought me into awkward error and misplaced expectations. Extremes have minimal chance to be wise and maximal probability to be wrong. To oppose an extreme take the moderate, common-sense middle-way! Keep away from the other extreme!
Young, I was often stupid whenever I thought and said that “I know, I know!” Whenever I did this conceited mistake I also neglected to look closer, deeper or further and I missed the chance to learn and rectify. Reading the Socratic legends later helped me greatly, from the moment I understood the force and the value of saying often and wholeheartedly that I do not know.
There is worse in my memory than believing that I knew; I also tasted knowing better what other people must believe. Try to imagine this grotesque situation: Me a small boy of seven, probably smallest in my class, on top of a sizably bigger lad, frightened by my fury, under a shower of blows, with me commanding him:
"Recognize that there is no God! God does not exist!"
Probably I remember this incident after so many years because it clashes radically with who I am now.
It was not my stupidity, it came unwittingly from my parents; they had told me their own important truth that God was a silly belief, that truth must prevail, and the way I proceeded to spread the good news was an unintended consequence. Of course, they did tell me that believing or not was everyone's right, but omitted to explain that forcing people not to believe is exemplary stupidity.
For a small kid this is just a ridiculous anecdote but when adults do it, it is tragic; fanaticism was there in me, in a nutshell. I see shades of such intolerance at work every day. The one firmly convinced, impermeable to argument, sees with clarity one truth only. I retain that firm, intransigent bearing of one-truth as a neat factor and sign of potential stupidity with possibly disastrous consequences. Do I harbour unknowingly some other such basic, incorrigible beliefs to roll out upon people? My optimistic impression is that I stopped over the years forcing beliefs in favour of debating or at most persuading.
The most deadly stupid delusion from which I was forced to learn first-hand was lived by my parents; I witnessed with them the error of placing faith in an ideology and in its political movement. I observed their anguish of waking up in the grim reality of their “victory”. Those honest, righteous, nobly intended idealists, nourished with humanism and Erklärung, Ioan, Katy, Eric, joined Communism in the years before World War Two, when they were still teenagers. The cut between good and evil looked simple for them; because fascism, Hitler, were obviously evil, their opponent Communism, little Father Stalin had to be good. For long years they found justification in opposition. So many things around them were unjust and evil; exploitation, poverty, inequality, wicked violence, oppression, intolerance, racism! Something else, radically opposed to all this had to be better; reason, truth and justice would prevail in a new World-Order. Those bright, generous, humanistic young rebels fell into the trap for fools, no questions asked. They offered their life to die for an idea. They took arms and joined the universal high cause of some minuscule underground in some Balkanic country meant anyway to fall under the rule of one or other geopolitical empire. Miraculously, the cannon fodder survived. They “won”! They became formal heroes of the new rule of Communism. Of course, nobody needed living heroes. It took them some ten years of denial before they woke up to see what sinister company they helped to win. Humanists fighting for tribal totalitarianism! It was certainly not their dream, nothing of their values; it was just the same beast in different cloth; some of the fascists they defeated were in fact re-hired by the new regime. How on earth could they be fooled like this?
Waking up was much easier for me in the presence of the painful example. I witnessed their daily survival and their pain of dissonance. My Mother withdrew in illness. My father isolated himself in an ivory tower of theory and denial of reality, for all his life. Erich helped us survive and survived until he was assassinated.
When I was grown enough to judge I knew my Mother as a warm, intuitive, educated critical spirit, rarely failing her first impression of people, art and ideas. My father was well read and conceptual, a logical thinker compulsively analysing the truth behind apparence. Eric was unparalleled in practical sense, smartness and ability to act. How could these bright people believe and act so stupidly against their best interest? What understanding, what truth, what wisdom was missing? More experience? A larger view? The long-term perspective? Did they ignore that elementary learning from Aristotle that extremes are vicious and only the golden moderate middle way offers virtue? Today I would say that they were lacking meaningful learning from History.
I tasted that grey system for thirty years and paid the price of getting away from it. For my lifetime the lesson is learned by direct witnessing. Will my descendants remember and understand what they did not experience? Such mongering to stupidity will come again upon later generations of intelligent people unarmed against being made stupid by some other Utopia.
Stupidity by losing touch with common sense
I was chancing stupidity whenever I fired up into exotic abstraction and excess – in my judgments and in my actions, so much that I forgot to return to practical reality. Wise people tried to warn me that I was too intellectual. Learning to make things simple was a life-changing apprenticeship for me. The difficulty to discern the original from the silly came for me from the fact that some bold, disruptive ideas were extremely useful, while others fell flat.
My imagination made me often appear to some and sometimes actually be ridiculously outlandish; you never know when exactly that which you conceive as new and different is misunderstood by less imaginative people or actually inconvenient. I have no solution to this creative danger except to assume the peril and to persist… ready to correct the blunders.
I was too intelligent by half when I grew too “bright” or abstract to look at the practical side and the application of things. Replacing common sense with principle and theory made me occasionally stupid and, I would say, inhuman. Strict application of method and procedure made me fail several times. Rigid method is excellent to select out the essential from practical reality. This brings me to guess that theorists have their privileged, specific way of being gravely inane, missing some built-in reality check; the marvellous, pure creations of genius can be horribly harmful for humanity by neglect of human nature, unintended effect on the human condition and the human reality.
I said and did many stupid things whenever I neglected the particular context, the things not present and not said, the meaning of the occasion, the task at hand and to whom I was talking.
I was silly when I worried and intervened in things where I had no possible means to help. As Epictetus teaches, some things are of us and some not, I should have wisely left them be.
A means of making me stupid which worked for a long time was to play on my perfectionist desire and make me ignore or forget why I did what I did, the end consequences. I was foolish when carried by need of the thing well done, or simply by task, I concentrated too much on improving and succeeding at what I was doing, without reflecting deeper why, serving whom, and if that task was the right thing to do. Later I called that sort of stupid conduct “doing the wrong thing right”.
Success made me stupid a few times; not only it tends to go to the head but it also creates a thrust with inertia while rising unexpected enemies; it is difficult to slow down and even more to stop suddenly at sight of a changed situation. What was adequate and excellent becomes suddenly inadequate, bad taste and offbeat. We need apprenticeship to survive success; it is one of the dangerous moments of life. On the opposite, learning to lose some made me wiser.
I also practiced at times the stupidity of the expert for whom - because he is an expert in hammers everything looks like a nail; as a young psychologist, everything looked like psychology to me (maybe it still does, with some disguise of common sense). It takes time for discipline-mindedness to count with interdisciplinary diversity at work. To consider that which you do not know is even harder. To concede ignorance is painful for the anointed expert. Not to draw a clear frontier line around my competence was and is a fountain of stupidity.
A variant of expert stupidness I practiced sometimes was to know too well, from the first sight, what had to happen and what was the solution; the excellent competence of being very familiar with your domain can betray you ridiculously.
Stupidity induced by awkward situations and purposeful manipulation
Some of the stupid responses I remember were induced by idiotic situations, genuine or intended to stupefy and take advantage of people. I met numbers of selling schemes and scams exciting greed, lust, pride to cloud judgment. I fell for some. Other settings were traps designed to ensnare us, the targets, into rushed decisions, self-defeating angry response, fear, to cause omission of key aspects by means of group and peer pressure, misleading example to imitate, diversions of attention and distractions or plainly exaggerated speed, no time to discuss, to ask, to think. Not to speak about time for examining truth and values.
I met situations when I was forced, required by role or rules, to do stupid things, against my common sense and values, because doing otherwise was inconsistent or dangerous. You can pay dearly having eyesight in a land of the blind. At times it appeared obvious even in my youth that playing stupid was the only prudent thing to do. I can imagine what can be done in this way to whole nations. Dictators and totalitarians are stupiditarian; they enforce the rule of stupidity as a way of life.
I retain from this work of memory the experience of a few instances of stupidness I lived* as a normal person:
Stupidity by simply not thinking
Stupidity because of body and temper prevailing
Stupidity by pride (and other “sins”)
Stupidity by blinkered point of view, received ideas and one-truth
Stupidity by losing touch with common sense
Stupidity induced by awkward situations and purposeful manipulation
In short, this is what I found: You can be intelligent and stupid at the same time, and intelligence in itself is no protection against stupidity. Quite the opposite: brainpower can be a multiplier of the stupidity which creeps in by the paths mentioned in my partial list.
In spite of so many stupid things I lived, I still feel that they are of me but not me, I disown them. I was intelligent and stupid at the same time. I also flatter myself with falling back on my four feet like a cat; I had an ease to take distance, understand and recognize quickly that I was stupid in this or that. I was less stupid than other people when I was quick to concede and fix the faults or to recover seamlessly. The more I was aware of my stupid acts the less stupid I was.
Sadly, even now as I write these lines I still practice number of slips, disconnects and weaknesses already familiar to me. Nor do I do wisely what I know I must do. Much of this deficiency is for the sake of comfortable life or because of weary lack of energy.
Thinking of my own stupidity is very painful in a deeper way; beyond shame for my past blunders, I feel deeper intellectual despair, as I am forced to face how endlessly limited I am. By sheer logic I learn that I can be never more than partially right, wise only if aware of being many times more ignorant than knowing. I am imprisoned for life in the nested Gödelian Russian dolls of “certainties” that remain always to be proven by something else, wider. By human nature, I am confused with fleeting words, misplaced trust in shallow authority and pre-judged opinion, blinkered with reverberations of tunnel-visions, wishful thinking, blind spots and dead angles. A minuscule life, mostly consumed in apprenticeship while I keep living forwards and understanding backwards.
Stupidity is observed everywhere, a corollary of the human condition struggling between an animal body and a rational mind. It is about more than looking down to some idiots. I am human, therefore I am stupid. To understand this limitation is wise; Socrates knew very well why he declared so often to be totally ignorant.
In fact the many stupid things I committed proved very useful; recapitulating them in my secret garden as if telling my beads makes me aware that they are an important source of whatever wisdom I possess today. Perhaps this was the price to pay to glimpse and understand what I shall not do and why and what I should dissuade other people from committing.
*(among the many more I observed around me, not described here)