15. 7. 2021

English Version | What does it mean to be stupid?

by Diego Armés


The history of mankind wouldn’t be enough to carry out a study on stupidity. Because the thing is, as long as human beings exist and reproduce, we’re guaranteed to have new forms of stupidity awaiting, in the future, around the corner, contemplating us while waiting to define us and contribute to a phenomenon as massive as it is democratic, as dangerous as it is ridiculous, and as natural as it is surprising.

Artwork by Octavi Serra

What do we mean when we talk about stupidity? The subject is not as simple as it might seem. A person, who is, by definition, a complex entity, will hardly ever be simply stupid; besides, stupidity is not a characteristic reserved to people alone – we find it in gestures, words, events and actions; stupidity exists even in accidents, coincidences, or surprises, whether cosmic or human ones, whether scientifically proved or born officially out of the unknown and incognito. Is stupidity, that which is human or that has its origin in human nature, an extraordinary intrinsic ability or, on the contrary, are we dealing with an accidentally acquired capacity? Oh, questions, questions, questions and more questions. We look at this phenomenal shadow that follows us – and defines us – since the beginning of time and end up contemplating our own ignorance. Best case scenario, stupidity is a full-on universe made of abstract thoughts and, by principle, concrete consequences; worst case scenario, it is even more infinite than that (supposedly paraphrasing Albert Einstein, to whom the Internet in general attributes the phrase “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”; the Internet believes so, but you never know, because if there is a place where stupidity – mischief, deceiving, and presumption – grow and prosper is precisely the Internet, that less orderly extension of humanity). 

Stupid, from the latin stupidus (stupida, stupidum). The romans used the term to describe those who were apathic, stagnated, not moving; stupidus was an individual uncapable of acting. Thus, it’s not that off-base that today we associate the word we have inherited from Latin with contemporary dumbness. Those who are stupid today might very well have been stupid all the same two thousand years ago, some things never change, more or less declination. In today’s day and age, being stupid can mean very different things. As an adjective, which is perhaps the role it ends up taking the most – and widely used to describe people as long as they’re not in the room – still means, like in its origin, something that is actionless, that remains in a state of stupor, besides possibly being boring, or annoying, or, on the contrary, exaggerated, excessive, or even absurd and nonsensical. When used as a substantive though, the plot thickens: a stupid person is a brute, a moron, a fool! To sum up, it’s the opposite of someone smart. There we have it then, stupidity, the essence and fuel of those who are stupid, is frequently connected to those who are not that bright, which is fair when we look closer to the etymology of the term, but not the most accurate, as easily corroborated if we take a few minutes of time to contemplate the panorama that surrounds us. How many intelligent people are capable of doing the stupidest of things? 

Step by step here. If we go back, for example, to the 40s, we’ll recurrently find the words “idiot”, “fool” and “oligophrenia” to describe children’s mental conditions. These disorders, which were not neurological diseases, were seen as states or degrees of incapacity to deal and interpret reality. The only thing in common between the two was the description of children showing apathic behavior and less expedited intellect. As the years went by, the way we looked at oligophrenia was restructured, becoming the most general term when referring to an intelligence deficit – recently, and very logically so, the narrative has softened as to avoid the usage of offensive expressions. Within the so-called oligophrenic triad, there are three states: mental weakness, which is a softer form of intellectual deficit, imbecility, where the individual has moderate intellectual difficulty, and idiocy, where the deficit is more profound. Again, so that it is clear: this terminology should not be employed – here, we’re simply regrouping to get to the famous aforementioned stupidity. Because stupidity is frequently mistaken by these other terms that refer – or referred – to a general lack of intelligence. When it comes to personal offenses, one will use the words fool, idiot, or stupid, to describe someone one has no consideration for. But the definition of stupidity has evolved a great deal since its Latin roots and has been associated, for a long time now, much more with the deliberately, stubbornly and undoubtedly wrong action, gesture or thought than with any other mental debility its carrier could have had a priori. 

Perhaps it’s easier if we use examples. The French psychologist Jean-François Marmion, who is still the editor associated with the magazine Sciences Humaines, has let himself be fascinated by the topic of stupidity and, carried away with that fascination, has decided to jump in the conception of The Psychology of Stupidity (2021). This is a book gathering testimonies, interviews and other contributes by many different authors around this phenomenon, without allowing for any sort of condescendence to gather on the surface around the subject: in the end, all of them (and all of us) have been, at some point, completely stupid or have done stupid things – the truth is that no one is clean. In this book, in itself fascinating, that counts, for example, with the fundamental participation of António Damásio (according to the author, the interview of the highly-regarded Portuguese academic, was decisive for the oeuvre), where we can find many different approaches to stupidity – that, like we mentioned in the beginning of this piece, is not as simple of a subject as it could have seemed. More than anything, it is not a linear subject, easily defined with well demarked frontiers and limitations. In The Psychology of Stupidity, we find a passage that ties together everything that has been said over the past paragraphs. We’re referring to A Taxonomy of Morons, a text by Jean-François Dortier, the founder and director of the Cercle Psy and of Sciences Humaines, starts elaborating from the premise that “if there are multiple forms of intelligence, […] it stands to reason that there must also be an impressive range of forms of stupidity” onto to the description of “representative samples” ranging from: the “retards” to the “beauf” (simple-minded, hillbilly), from the universally stupid to the artificial ones, from the collective of stupid people to the faithful, going through the mentality uncapable before finishing off with the fool or idiot. 

In that same book, Brigitte Axelrad, college professor of philosophy and psychology, asks the question that will allow us to go further on the subject: why do very intelligent people sometimes believe the most inapt things?, which is an incredibly pertinent question when it comes to understanding the stupidity that surrounds us – and in which we participate, don’t be fooled by any fake sense of superiority. Axelrad gives many examples, from Kimmy Carter to Steve Jobs, from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking, all these figures who were so brilliant in their respective fields, ended up, at some point, caving into simplistic explanations or obscure beliefs of some kind. About the power of obscurantism, Brigitte Axelrad explains that “not all beliefs are stupid, […] some are constructive”, and exemplifies with someone’s belief in themselves, before trying to find an explanation so that brilliant intellects won’t question them – or their beliefs – and comply with them. “What constitutes the biggest strength of irrational beliefs is that they tend to take the side of our intuitive expectations”, coming to the conclusion that, in a text that underlines one of the most interesting themes of the entire book. About this, António Damásio seems to agree Axelrad and ends up backing it up with some clues form the neuroscientific field in order to justify certain surprising behaviors from people we wouldn’t expect such posture, conviction or reaction. Yes, even when it comes to stupidity, and no matter how much the negativist from science – such as Luc Montagnier, Nobel Prize of Medicine in 2008 “for the discovery of HIV” (that today we deny and discredit as if it was a conspiracy), and which António Araújo reveals and unravels in one of the chapters of The Psychology of Stupidity – tend to disagree with, science manages to find explanations. From the collective work organized by Jean-François Marmion we see emerging, more than others, one particular thought: when it comes to stupidity, as a phenomenon, and considering all its forms, origins and manifestations, no one is stuck, we all rotate, circulate, move throughout time or periodically, occupying different parts of the equation. Yes, sometimes I’m the stupid one, and yes, that is normal – I would even say it’s healthy, if we don’t exaggerate and overdo it with our own stupidity. Another Portuguese person who has contributed to the Psychology of Stupidity is the Young Right-Wing Conservative, a fictional character that presents itself as “intellectual” – which is fair and adequate. One of the best phrases of the whole book belongs to this Young man: “There is no humanity without stupidity and, even less so, stupidity without humanity.” So that we can better understand the reach of this affirmation, we talked, not with its author himself, but with the organizer and mentor of the book, Jean-François Marmion. 

After having completed this work [the book The Psychology of Stupidity] did you manage to reach a conclusion? For example, did you find a definition for “stupidity”? The book quotes the French author Gustave Flaubert, who once said: “Stupidity is wanting to draw conclusions”. As soon as we think we have deciphered an extraordinary complex phenomenon, the most likely thing is to burst out with nonsense. The study of stupidity is, by definition, infinite. Humility is essential. Several definitions of stupidity have resurged throughout time, but I would take my chances with two of them, with all due caution. Objectively, we’re stupid when we persist in a mistake with arrogance and aggressiveness, without knowing or caring about what we’re doing. Thus, there are two strategies to fight stupidity. Trying to convince someone who is wrong, enriching their point of view, teaching them something… Or changing our own attitude, trying to judge others a little less, which, mechanically, will reduce the number of idiots in our point of view. And then we understand that the most stupid thing of all was not necessarily what we thought it was. Let it be added that stupidity is not mandatorily the contrary of intelligence, given that there are many highly educated stupid people, blind by their own fatuity. Stupidity is, first and foremost, the opposite of wisdom. And what is wisdom? Quoting Albert Einstein, “Intellectuals solve problems, geniuses prevent them.” 

What led you to be interested by the subject of stupidity? 

Quite simply, my own stupidity, which has provoked unfortunate situations since early on in my life, leading me to accuse others a little too easily. I’ve made mistakes I should have never made and that irritates me immensely! Hence the idea of asking very intelligent and wise people what they think, not about my stupidity but of human’s stupidity in general. How is it possible that we’re capable of the best, but so many times settle for the worst, apart from when we create it ourselves? It’s a capital enigma for me whose exploration, as in a good movie, encompasses all emotions, from laughter to tears. 

In the book The Psychology of Stupidity, many of the participants and authors connect stupidity, in a concrete way, to ostensive behaviors, like negotiating. Do you agree we leave in an era of stupidity? Are we, as humans, regressing, intellectually speaking? It’s tempting to consider that we leave in a sort of golden age of stupidity. We have so many examples on television or social media, or simply in daily life. However, things are not that simple. On one hand, we tend to pay more attention to what awakens negative emotions in us, the things that tire us down, enrage us, which is obviously the case for stupidity (other people’s, never, ever, our own!). As a result, we don’t really acknowledge the smart and wise people around us. Idiots take up our attention span, but this doesn’t mean they’re particularly more virulent than in any other time – or that they exist in bigger quantity. After all, since Ancient Greece there have been great thinkers who thought that there have never been as many idiots as at that point. This is individuals that they consider inferior to their venerable personalities. On the other hand, we’re all globally more educated, and have never had such easy access to all forms of expression, cultures and opinions. It becomes difficult to know what to think, bit that is the price to pay for moving away from that arrogant certainty which is one of the founding stones of stupidity. And yet, we’ve never been so preoccupied with the destinies of perfect strangers that live on the other side of the globe. Even though not everything is perfect, far from it, we have never been so vocal about racism, sexism, sexual violence or pollution than what we would tend to consider as normal a few decades ago. Intelligence, culture and ethical dilemmas are instantly at our reach. But so is stupidity. It’s up to each of us to make their own choices. 

What could lead an intelligent and educated person to become stupid? 

First and foremost, routine. Reflection and doubt demand a great amount of time, but also energy. If we were continuously thinking, we would feel like we had been taking an exam all day long, our body would be exhausted. Therefore, we turn to shortcuts based in stereotypes, errors in judgment, complacency, as frequently as possible. This is our regular way of operating, and we often forget it. Let it also be noted that we always find more excuses for ourselves than for others, and only retain what confirms our opinions as we realize that, quite frequently, we’re not really making a lot of intellectual efforts except when the situation demands it. Secondly, another key-factor to stupidity is our tendency to ignore opinions, visions, emotion, desire, the dignity of the vast majority of people around us. We’re focused on ourselves, our own vanity, ego, and many times it takes a real effort to realize that we might be hurting others, or that we might be wrong. Though, obviously, we could have listed a series of other ingredients: turning stupidity around that fast would be too good to be true. 

What about intrinsic stupidity, does it exist? If yes, in what way? Is it possible to describe? Nobody is born stupid. Worst case scenario, someone might suffer from a mental deficit, but they’re not stupid. We’re literally born with a brain that is programmed to explore and adapt to faces, human relations, environments, situations, pleasures and threats. In our time and culture, infancy and adolescence represent a huge field of exploration due to the infinite learning in school, in our families and by joking around as well. Once parents provide livelihood for their children, we have nothing to do except enjoy life. And we all probably learn throughout life, as we grow hold, whether a language, an instrument or new ways of thinking. In theory we’re perfectly equipped to escape stupidity. 

In the Psychology of Stupidity, we can find many different testimonies and collaborations of Portuguese personalities. Why are there so many Portuguese people in the book? What type of relationship do you have with Portugal and its culture? 

I’ve been planning to visit Portugal for years, and if I was a bit less stupid, I would just do it, since I’ve heard so much about its incredible beauty. With the publisher [Desassossego], we agreed that it would be great to have Portuguese contributors that would enrich the book a little. In its original version, in French, there was only one contribution from a Portuguese author, António Damásio’s – however, his role was decisive: he was the first one to agree to participate in the project, and he is so prestigious that my publisher in France could never say no to the book. It was António Damásio who made me want to become a neuropsychologist when I was still a student. Then, as a journalist, I had the opportunity to cross paths with him many times. He is extraordinarily intelligent, humble, and learned out to speak French from Tintin’s comic books! He is one of the best psychologists in the world and I am incredibly honored that he chose to trust me. My book talks about stupidity addressing people who are smart and with a good sense of humor. 

Do you mind if we ask you one last question? I feel like we’re missing… I wouldn’t say a “stupid” one, but at least a not-so-bright question. Because the subject is complex and vast, and I would love to know what it is we’re talking about when we talk of stupidity. 

How about this: “What are we talking about when we talk of stupidity?” What are we talking about when we talk of love? Of love at first sight, of the tenderness between an elderly couple, of the love for our children, for God, for a football team, for a job well done, for a good wine? Nobody knows, however, depending on the context, we all do. With stupidity it’s the same: we might mention it whether to refer to faults in reasonability or abominations committed without scruples, to comply with ignorance the same way it fits into pedantic arrogance, to credulity in the same way of collective drinking whose value is inferior to the sum of all parts. But, as we are discussing it, we know what we mean. We can also say that the common denominator of all forms of stupidity is the bitter feeling of wastage. We wish we could see our neighbor as another form of “ourselves”, we wish technology was always well employed, that freedom of speech and expression always resulted in interesting exchanges, but no, stupidity ruins everything. And sometimes you realize that you are stupid as well! You disappoint yourself, and that is even more painful. 

Translated from the original, as part of Vogue Portugal's Nonsense Issue, published in july 2021.

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