Before this inquiry, I used to let myself flow with the usual trend: I deplored them, those dangerous troglodytes; confused, irrational and primitive saboteurs of intelligence, reason and competence.
“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.
I must think better to understand. I must look at what it actually is.
What is this thing we call stupidity?
I read and thought and observed. I searched for ways to explain it usefully. I gave up the quest for an ideal infuse substance called "stupidity". Along my quest I grew more practical and that made me much more tolerant.
I separated two kinds of stupidity - the low-end of doing things poorly for lack of normal intelligence and the high end of failing them in spite of normal intelligence. I chose to separate and postpone my concern with stupid-stupidity easy to describe as mental disability from a higher order "intelligent-stupidity" which we all share, potentially.
I also changed my mind from theory to observables and chose to consider, not individuals seen as "stupid people" but manifestations, instances of stupidity as a dysfunction which I imagine to be inherent to human mind, to human nature.
Stupid is thus not something we are but something we commit or indulge - in thought, speech or conduct: failing common sense and not being reasonable, going against our own best interest. Probably, stupid is being foolish in our conduct, lacking vital wisdom or being unable to apply it and use it, to live by it.
It occurs to me that we do not act stupid only alone but often as groups, small or huge, even - irresistibly - as an entire species getting out of touch with the other species of Life and with the Globe, our house. Isn't going astray from our own best interest, the inability to learn from the past mistakes and to plan sustainable future a clear proof of stupidity?
To understand stupidity I look at things we do or accept - stupid judgements, stupid words and stupid deeds. We are involved personally or collectively in stupid fashions, stupid mobs and movements, stupid ideologies, stupid institutions...
The straw in other people's eye and the beam in my own
Certainly, there is a danger or arrogance in engaging human stupidity in such a grand way. As the proverb goes, when the whole world smells fish, you better go and wash your own nose. If my eyes and ears observe so much stupidity, it is urgent to start with checking my spectacles and even closer, look at myself with a critical eye. Therefore, I will observe myself, the observer... to understand my personal experience and connection with stupidity and to learn from it.
With this somewhat wiser and humbler mind, I seek causes and antidotes instead of criticising with hostility. I consider a friendly critique to better cope with this often innocent enemy, be it in me or in other people.
Tacit tradition separates society unwittingly between the ones present, the ones who speak, “us” up here, competent, intelligent, reasonably educated and rational, familiar with our culture, versus “them”, the incompetent brainless morons, the barbarians low there at the bottom of the IQ scale. As for the obviously intelligent among us, doing stupid things, they are considered accidentally fallen, ill, mere exceptions.
I indulged in this arrogance of us, the well to do insiders, 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 same hierarchical 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 the square hole of their expectations. I learned to discard their judgement trying not to fail giving due attention to it.
Who decides what is stupid counts. "They" are dumb, but it is still true that you appear as the one out of the picture, maybe because you were not able to understand and handle their stupidity. The real life definition of stupidity appears to be: “Stupid is the one considered stupid by the public.” It is intelligent not to look stupid without a good reason.
Moreover, I actually did scores of things which I recognized to be quite stupid. Not to speak about those annoying occasions for which I am not gifted at all. There are fields in which I am no good.
In time, I also learned from my readings that to keep criticising 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 also 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. The more we bash, the less we can understand. Therefore, instead of deploring, we will gain to better cope with the inevitable; learn how to comprehend the instances of stupidity and relate to them usefully. For this, we may have to grow more tolerant with stupidity (this is easy to say), adapt to communicate with it, count with its various sorts and - when possible – avoid, prevent, cure or mitigate it.
Even disputing with people gone stupid (which the wise will avoid) is not an easy thing but complicated work for the intelligent. It requires lots of thinking, prudence and subtle tactics; (for an example, they are able to win by not understanding what you explain). As the saying goes: “One fool throws a stone into the pond and a hundred wise toil to retrieve it.”
In fact, with a positive attitude, stupidity can be an abundant and precious field for wise people. As an old consultant, I know one of the secrets of the profession: people do not request our costly assistance because of how bright they were and how competent they are. They need us for what they cannot do by themselves. Those of us who cannot stand stupidity and incompetence cannot be consultants, nor give advice of any sort.
When it comes to literature about this affliction of humanity I read many noble words of agreement that the useful investigation starts locally and even better, humbly, with us. This strengthened my resolve - in order to find what causes people to think and act stupid - to examine, before the stupidity of other people, that of myself.
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 tragic passion like love, pride, greed, anger... On the other hand, when we meet other people's blunders, the cause is plain and undifferentiated; they are irrational, ignorant, wicked or guilty of imprudence.
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.
In fact, I find - after some insistent effort of memory - that the cases when I missed the mark, lacked elementary common sense, failed to observe, misunderstood utterly, took useless, careless risk, hovered totally out of the picture or too clever by half, offer rich material to learn from.
I had to work hard to unearth those examples. Try to examine your own past errors and you will see how annoying it is. I had to fight the urge to bury past blunders instead of learning from them. I spent a while recalling - with growing displeasure - some of the many stupid things I believed, said and did. I watched myself in the mirror and saw how I wasted the most important thing I owned – my years. It was difficult to introspect properly my own history of stupidity, probably because we protect ourselves, with oblivion of the shame and of the guilt. Moreover some seriously stupid actions seem smart when you look at them in isolation, before and when you do them, from close; to reveal how stupid they are you need a wider frame and a longer time perspective.
I asked old-time friends to remind me my biggest blunders; but they were charitable and forgetful. Or too cowardly to risk offending me. I even listened to my son explaining how inept I am about money.
Looking at my own stupidities was depressing but also fertile; as I am visibly more perceptive and sympathetic with me than with other people observed, I discovered more nuance. The episodes remembered helped me build, slowly, the point of view presented here with somewhat inconvenient sincerity whose style is homage to my role-model, Michel Montaigne.
I do not offer a detailed wailing confession of the many dumb and foolish things I have done; that litany for sleepless nights is nobody else's business. I also believe that I did not practice the complete list of human stupidity to be a perfect exemplar for exhaustive research. As it happens, the ones quoted are mainly from my youth, now distant. A false impression would be that for me 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. Be assured I did not cease being stupid when I have a good occasion.
Note that there is a plethora of “I” in my text. The reader may want to appreciate that it is more diplomatic to speak for myself while I affirm so frankly the universal character of human stupidity.
My spiciest concrete memories of stupidity belong - as I said - to my private inner garden, I will not disclose them. “What you see here is all you get...” and – as Tina Turner once declared on stage “...what you don’t is better yet.” Instead of total disclosure I attempt a working summary for educational purpose 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 generators of stupidity which I found while reflecting to why I committed them:
Stupidity by simply not thinking
My richest cause of ridicule, poor choices, regrettable, infelicitous and foolish acts, was an absent mind: not looking, not observing, not thinking at all, not doing the necessary prudent things required by common sense and politeness. This cause of stupidity is plain and available to anyone.
I made big mistakes when I failed to pay sufficient attention to what happened around me, and forgot to ask, listen and consider what my good plans implied for other people, their occasions, interests and worries. Often, I did not hear because I was speaking.
Omission of attention and absence of judgement can be worse than poor judgement. The brightest lantern unlit gives no light.
In a number of instances, against my best interest, without intention, I missed the obvious, I hurt people, lost opportunities and took the wrong turn, inflamed animosity and useless conflict, offended or insulted people, some close to me.
The most frequent cause of such unhappy words, responses and actions unfit to situations and to people is then very simple, easy to understand; I did not think. It was not on my agenda to consider them. Obviousness camouflaged them. I was busy with something else, following my own plans without looking right or left.
All this damage of thoughtlessness was committed by means of that which was not done, impalpable “negatives” as I like to call them: inattention, ego-centrism or task-centeredness, laziness, distraction, superficiality or neglect. As a result I made things uselessly hard for myself and other people. Lack of attention amounted to lack of respect. No excuse that it was not done 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.
People close to me observed that I see sharply what I look at with interest, even through “troubled water” but I am blind to what I do not watch or care for. I flatter myself that the main causes of the false conclusions I rushed and the inadequate things I have said and of some costly blunders I committed was innocent inattention, distraction and forgetfulness. I must own up though that inattention was not without some guilty lack of regard.
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 that haunts me now was failing to see and understand the state of my old, declining Mother. In time, I feel what it is to grow old and to be alone.
Stupidity because of body and temper prevailing
On reflection, impulsiveness and impatience were my most visible soft spot. Some rivals played well with that. 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.
I remember an amazing number of silly little things done and said simply because I could not wait or control my face revealing what I felt.
When you feel impatient or surprised it is urgent to wait. Your physiology, your body hinders your judgement. Startled reactions are regularly wrong. Decisions and commitments negotiated under emotion and hurry are impaired and can be disastrously stupid.
Talking too much, too quickly and too well, instead of keeping silent was another favourite mine-field for my blunders. Using my speed of mind was such an evident advantage that I overused it. After years of this error I concluded that, while many people need some training to speak, the born speakers must do the opposite; 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, by softness and instinctive need to trust and to sympathize, easily deceived by smiling faces and credible looking packages and thus weakened in my otherwise vivid exercise of critical thinking. I would never give up this naive need to presume beauty and to trust; it keeps my life beautiful. My moderate solution to this was to learn, when I found out that I was being played, to go along with it pretending I did not observe, to study how it was done and at the right moment to act. In this way I obtained valuable experience.
And yes, often I did silly things for the opposite reason, because of my inborn critical spirit, cultivated indiscipline and autonomy; when you roam free, thinking with your own head, it is easy to exaggerate, 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 promptly. A mindset of conceding error promptly can repair stupidity in progress and stop the loss.
Emotion and mood impaired me at times, this happens to all of us. Our body is part of our mind.
In my early youth I was, like most men, stupid with girls – whom I saw as aliens, from ignorance and lack of experience, not attitude 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. When you fall in lust an even more when you fall in love know in advance that you will be sensibly less intelligent and definitely less wise that normally; put yourself under some protective control; avoid to sign; try to listen to family and friends!
With both sexes, lust does not increase cleverness, as you may know already. Easy to see that for many intelligent people, sex is a serious vector of mistaken decisions and actions of breath-taking stupidity. Our various drives of the body must be kept in mind as a constant source of stupid deeds notwithstanding our IQ. Do count on this!
Such is everyday stupidity to be prepared for; emotion impairs judgement. When shaken, elated or lost, do not declare, do not decide, do not commit; gain time.
I must mention here yet another strange source of stupidity which I consider as caused - at least in part - by our temperament - weakness of will. Akrasia as it was named by Aristotle is strange because by weakness be do, accept, allow to happen, to be done to us distasteful damaging things and abuse thet seen by an observer can only qualified as very stupid. It is strange indeed; you know, you are aware that something is bad for you and damaging, ridiculous or totally inadequate and still do it or allow it to happen simply because you are lazy and weak.
In sum, allowing temper and character to prevail is a massive source of stupid conduct and attitude in spite of intelligence and known wisdom.
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 smiled and observed: "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 media 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, hand-made, were a rare craft at that time. I managed soon to sign about one series episode two times a week and one full feature film each week at prime time. Pros know this is crazy. But 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 texts, during the day I hijacked all the dactylographers of the office to type for me for extra gain. “One man start-up” I would say, very American. 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 ritual public gathering of the "working men and women", something normally equal with ending irreversibly all career perspectives, countrywide. To shorten the story: to be properly re-hired by Television, ten days after the official firing I went back to the personnel department and announced that I did not want to be dismissed any more, 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, whatever. Then he looked at me and hit me 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 skills-training course in Switzerland, the place you want to study for your Ph.D. 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 to an exciting TV career. It is after some 35 years that I looked back at this mess. Imprudence, exaggeration, pride, vanity, anger, obstinacy, all components of stupidness, were present. I wasted precious life-capital in the most stupid way. I lost by winning. I could have easily been crushed. I imagine that some big personages were watching me and decided to spare me, amused to see such a young beast growing.
All that, the wear and tear, the nights without sleep, the enemies made, the insecurity, the lost opportunities, the wasted years, all because of aggressive pride and short-term brilliance. I must add to this however that all the pain and the experiencing 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...? I still feel anger sometimes... and pride.
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 gaffes and still strikes now and then. However, I learned in time that I can cheat pride with elegance by becoming aware of it and “flirting with humility”; it is spectacularly effective when we are teased into stupid responses of vanity. But, for that flirting you need confidence accumulated from some experience of success.
Stupidity by narrowing of mind, blinkered with received ideas and exclusive “truth”
I was potentially stupid, while seeing myself creative and bright, when, imagining some actually better idea, I saw only one perspective - mine, blind to other points of view, wider or different; definitely, this is measurable stupidness - to have but one point of view and be satisfied that you understood something. I was in such occasions highly taxed because I failed to consider other people's major interests and differing angles.
On this path I was judging poorly as often as I let myself be drawn – by rushed spirit of contradiction and un-philosophic reasoning – to oppose a no to a yes, a yes to a no or the other extreme to a silly, hateful one; this brought me into awkward error and disappointment. 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!
There is worse in my memories; 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 seizably 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 own stupidity, but a learned one, it came unwittingly from my parents imprudence; they had shared with me their own important conclusion that God was a silly improvable belief, and also the value that truth acquired must be fought for; 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 in what they do is exemplary stupidity much worse than believing an error.
For a small kid this is just a ridiculous anecdote but when adults do it, when crowds do it, it is tragic; fanaticism and total thinking 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. A person firmly convinced will be stupid. Confusing your freedom of belief with a righteous privilege to know better what other people must believe “because this is the truth” opens the gates of Hell.
I retain firm, intransigent. close-minded professing of exclusive-truth as a neat factor and diagnostic symptom - even a cause - of stupidity, with possibly disastrous consequences. In time, fanaticism will always be proven stupid. The amazing thing is that people with high intelligence performance can become stupid zealots at the same time. QI and knowledge are insufficient to save us from this blinker of the mind; only open-minded wisdom does.
Do I harbour unknowingly some other such basic, incorrigible beliefs to roll out upon people? Possibly. My optimistic impression is that I stopped over the years forcing beliefs in favour of debating or at most persuading. Nowadays, I believe in the right to be wrong and in agreeing to disagree. This preserves me of some stupidities.
The most deadly stupefying delusion from which I was forced to learn first-hand was the grand utopianism lived for a while by my parents - their temporary closing of mind (as it appeared to be later) ; I witnessed with them the drama of ulterior discovery of the error of placing faith and loyalty in an exclusive ideology and in its political movement. I observed their anguish of waking up, too late, to the grim reality of totalitarian “victory”. The good thing is that I also witnessed their ability to heal and regain critical spirit. Yes, it is possible to quit parties and sects!
My loved ones, 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 black and white cut between good and evil, the abstraction of ideas, looked simple to them; because fascism, Hitler, were obviously evil, their opponent, communism, little Father Stalin had to be good and humane; and he smiled so fatherly from far away. For a start, they found justice in opposition, in protest; being against evil is easy and noble and it is in your own hands. So many things around them were obviously unjust and bad; exploitation, poverty, inequality, wicked violence, oppression, intolerance, racism! Anything radically opposed to radical evil witnessed had to be good; like “the enemy of my enemy”. Reason, truth and justice would prevail in a new World-Order. They confused theory with life.
Those bright, humanistic, educated young rebels fell into the trap for fools, no questions asked as so many amateur revolutionaries did before them. They offered their life, to die for an idea. They took arms and joined resistance for the “universal high cause” of some minuscule underground in some Balkan country meant anyway to fall under the rule of one or other geopolitical empire.
Miraculously, the cannon fodder which they were survived. They “won”! The fascists were defeated. My parents became momentary heroes of the new regime. For a few years. Of course, nobody needed living heroes. It took them some ten or fifteen years of denial before they woke up to see what sinister company they ushered to win. Universal humanists fighting for tribal totalitarianism! It was certainly not their dream, nothing of their basic values; it was just the same beast in different garb; many of the fascist henchmen who tortured them and whom they defeated and arrested were in fact re-hired by the new regime. Some of those torturers became their "comrades" and managers.
How on earth could they be fooled like this?
Judging when waking up from trance, was much easier for me in the presence of the painful example and the witness of their horror. I saw their daily survival and their pain of dissonance. My Mother withdrew in illness. My father isolated himself for life in an ivory tower of books, theory and denial of reality. Erich, the realist, helped us all survive and survived among wolves; but he was assassinated later, being a dangerous witness.
How could intelligent people act so foolishly?
When I was grown enough to judge, I knew my Mother as a warm, intuitive, educated, fiercely critical spirit, rarely failing her first impression of people, art and ideas. My father was well read, sharp and conceptual, a logical thinker compulsively analysing the truth behind appearances. 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? Mature 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 deprived of meaningful learning from History; their teachers and books of history have been incapable to give them the perspective of the errors that humanity made repeatedly in the past. Ant they did not listen to their parents, believing that the future is different from the past.
I tasted that grey system for thirty years and paid the price of escaping it. For my lifetime, the lesson is learned by direct witnessing. Will my descendants remember and understand what I told them but they did not experience? Will they absorb my experience?
Stupidity-mongering beasts will rise again and again, to cheat and poison later generations of intelligent people unarmed against being made stupid by the closing of their mind; new avatars of Utopia are born in every generation.
You can see rising new fools ready to die for the right religion, the just justice, the final true truth, the supra-human human, for the sake of the planet, even for the stars in the sky; some are mere reckless, lost, empty heads but I am afraid that good, intelligent, educated people will join their folly exactly as it happened before...
Stupidity by losing touch with context and common sense of daily life
I think now that I was chancing stupidity whenever I fired up into exotic abstraction, imagination and excess – in my judgements and in my actions, when I forgot to return to practical reality. For a while I made the error of treating people as abstractions, problem-solving, "movement of ideas" or "factors". Wise people tried to warn me that I was too intellectual. Learning to make things simple when landing back among people was a slow but life-changing apprenticeship for me. I am still learning. Newness is of the same kind. The difficulty to discern that which is too original for the unimaginative from that which is outright silly came for me from my experience: some bold, disruptive intricate ideas usually not understood, were extremely useful; but they still needed to be adapted to people, to start change from where people are and not from some distant abstract objective.
My imagination made me often appear to some and sometimes actually be ridiculously outlandish; the problem is that as a creative individual you never know when exactly that which you conceive as new and different is merely misunderstood by less imaginative people or actually inconvenient or damaging. I have no solution against this creative risk except to assume the peril, observe, listen 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 in plain human terms. Replacing common sense with principle, Method and theory made me occasionally stupid and, I would say, inhuman. Strict application of method and procedure, strict plans made in advance for moving territory, made me fail several times. Rigid method has the tendency to select only what fits the “correct” assumptions and tools and to neglect or even deny essential practical reality. This brings me to guess that theorists and engineers have their privileged, specific way of being gravely inane, missing some local reality check – because of their tools, measurements and procedures; likewise, marvellous ideas, 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. Genius can be stupid.
I said and did many stupid things whenever I neglected the particular context, including the things not present and not said but important, when I overlooked the meaning of the occasion, the objective beyond the actual task at hand or I did not pay enough attention to whom specifically I was talking. It is meaningful to observe that the stupid thing was not what I thought and said but the inadequate timing, the communication in insensitive ways at the wrong occasion and to people not prepared to accept.
Being disconnected is the essence of being stupid with people.
I was also foolish 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, to do instead the right things within my reach.
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 specialized discipline-orientation to count with interdisciplinary diversity at work. To consider and acknowledge that which you do not know is even harder. To concede ever present ignorance is painful for the anointed expert. Not to draw a clear frontier line around my competence was and is a fountain of stupid commitments.
A variant of expert stupidness I practiced sometimes – and which I witnessed thousands of times - 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. I did not ask because I thought that I knew already.
Young, I was often silly whenever I thought and exclaimed impatiently: “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 listen, learn and rectify. Later, absorbing the Socratic legends helped me greatly, from the moment I understood the force and the value of saying often and wholeheartedly that I do not know much and never will; but I seek and I will do my best.
Stupidity induced by purposefully awkward situations and manipulation
Some of the stupid responses I lived and observed were induced by idiotic institutions, situations, and instructions, genuinely senseless or intended to stupefy and take advantage of people.
I met, over the years and the meridians, numbers of selling schemes and scams exciting greed, lust, pride, to cloud judgment. I fell for some. Other settings were traps designed in bad faith to ensnare us, the targets, into rushed decisions, self-defeating angry response, fear, to cause oversight of key aspects by means of group and peer pressure, misleading example to imitate like sheep, diversions of attention and distractions or plainly to bully into exaggerated speed, no time to discuss, to ask, to think. Not to speak about time for examining truth and values. If you are interested to know what things make you stupid, detect these.
A means of making me stupid which worked against me for a long time was for skilful leaders to play on my generic perfectionist desire (maybe pride?). The trick was to make me ignore or forget what was the wider organizational or political design in which my local task was included and serving. I am sad to say that only few employees are aware and interested in the end results of their work and effort. I was ridiculously gullible when carried away by need of the thing well done, or simply by enthusiasm of the task given. I concentrated too much on improving and succeeding, at what I was doing, without reflecting deeper and wider, why, serving whom, and judging if that task was the right thing to do in the first place. Later I labelled that sort of stupid, manipulated conduct “doing the wrong thing right”.
Success made me stupid a few times; not only it tends to go to the head, not only it creates unexpected and useless enemies but it also develops a thrust with unhealthy inertia; it is difficult to slow down, change direction and even more to stop suddenly at sight of a changed situation. What was adequate and excellent becomes suddenly inadequate, bad taste and offbeat - stupid.
We need apprenticeship to survive success; it is one of the dangerous circumstances of life. On the opposite, learning to lose some, made me wiser.
I met situations when I was forced, required by role, loyalty or rules, to do knowingly stupid things, against my common sense and values, because doing otherwise was inconsistent with duty or serioussly dangerous.
You can pay dearly having eyesight in a land of the blind. And saying what you see may be outright imprudent and stupid.
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 by spreading of such wisdom to whole nations.
Dictators and totalitarians are inevitably stupiditarian; they enforce the rule of stupidity as a way of life. Do you want your whole nation to become stupid? Vote for a charismatic dictator.
I retain from this work of biographic 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 narrowing of mind, blinkered with received ideas and exclusive-truth
Stupidity by losing touch with context (by means of fantasy, abstraction, or method)
Stupidity induced by purposefully awkward situations and manipulation
In short, this is what I found:
You can be intelligent and very stupid at the same time. You can know the right thing and still act stupid.
Intelligence in itself is no protection against stupidity. Quite the opposite: brainpower and good education can be amplifiers 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 acknowledge but disown them. I was intelligent and stupid at the same time but it would have been possible to do better. And it is now. I also flatter myself with falling back on my four feet like a cat as we all should; I had - without merit - an ease to take distance, understand and recognize quickly that I was stupid in this or that. I was less stupid than other people only when I was quicker than them 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. I am growing old, soft and silly.
Thinking of my own stupidity was and is very painful in a deeper way; beyond shame for my past blunders, I feel deeper intellectual despair, as I am forced to understand and face how endlessly limited I am and we all are.
By sheer commonsense reasoning I learn that I can never be 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, external. By human nature, I am confused with the bias of fleeting words and turns of mind, common places, misplaced trust in shallow authority and pre-judged opinion, blinkered with reverberations of tunnel-visions, wishful thinking, blind spots and dead angles. Mine is a minuscule life, soon to end and be forgotten, mostly consumed in apprenticeship and dissipation, while I keep living forwards and understanding backwards.
Stupidity observed everywhere, is, as it seems, a corollary of the human condition struggling between an animal body and a rational mind. Recently we add to this the race with the very "intelligent" machines we created with our own mind and hands. New horisons for human stupidity.
This awareness is more tragic than looking down with irritation to some idiots and ignorants.
I am human, therefore I am stupid. Homo sum, stupidus sum. To understand this vulnerability is wise; Socrates knew very well why he declared so often to be totally ignorant. Other sceptics, like Montaigne, did as well.
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.
In sum I became convinced that stupidity is an inseparable companion of intelligence and of wisdom, so that becoming less stupid emerges as a major way to wisdom.
*(among the many more I observed around me, not described here)