Friday, November 26, 2021

There's No Arguing with Stupid

Have you ever heard the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German pastor and theologian who lived and died under the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer fought Nazism when there really were Nazis. His was real resistance.

Among his thoughts we find the following to be especially salient in our current historical moment. I take it from a Peter Burns article in Medium:

“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian. 

Think about it. Burns did:

It was a dark time in his homeland. Total war had engulfed the world, and a totalitarian regime was controlling the country. Bonhoeffer pondered how this came to be. He thought about the nature of evil, but came to the conclusion it was not evil itself that was the most dangerous enemy of the good. Rather, it was stupidity.

For you can fight against evil. You can expose it. Evil makes people uneasy. As Bonhoeffer continued, “evil carries with itself the seeds of its own destruction.” To prevent willful malice, you can always erect barriers to stop its spread. Against stupidity you are defenseless.

You can defend yourself against evil. You can expose it by appealing to reason. Against stupidity, Bonhoeffer said, there is no defense. You cannot argue against it, because stupid people refuse to engage in argument. 

He wrote:

Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

How do people arrive at peak stupid? Simply put, Bonhoeffer posited that the problem was more sociological than psychological. People glom on to stupid beliefs because they want to be part of the crowd, or because they are afraid to defy the will of the crowd and the prevailing dogma.

We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.

When sociability depends on adherence to an ideology, stupidity takes over. It’s like being part of the herd. Burns explains:

Numerous heuristics evolved in order to help individuals navigate the world. Among these, following the herd is arguably the most prominent. It makes sense. When information is scarce, doing what others are doing is probably the best course of action. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work all the time. In some cases it can bring about bad results, due to cognitive biases.

Herd behavior is among the pre-eminent causes of stupidity. Numerous scientific studies have shown how individual humans can be swayed by the crowd to adopt positions which go against all logic. In a classic examination of human folly, psychologist Solomon Asch looked at how individual people respond to the majority group around them.

Do they conform to the group’s view? Or do they strike out on their own contrarian (but ultimately correct) path? The results were mind-boggling, but incredibly telling for showing how stupidity arises. In the course of the 12 experiments on conformity, around 75% of the participants conformed to the majority view at least once.

People overcome with stupidity act as if possessed. Their logical part of the brain is shut down. Such a person starts acting as a political zombie, with whom any type of logic or discussion of facts fails. Instead, they function on the level of slogans, catchwords, and low-level rallying cries.

Since rational argument threatens the individual’s sense of belonging to a crowd or even a mob, there is no use arguing rationally. One should also note that the mob persuades people by threatening them with social extinction, with being canceled.

Bonhoeffer writes about trying to deal with a stupid individual:

In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.

When the force of the crowd becomes strong enough, it causes minds to lock. Bonhoeffer declares that it is useless to convince the stupid person.

Yet, argue with the individual actors using logic and facts, and you get nowhere. Their brains are locked, captive to pre-conceived notions and biases. As Bonhoeffer noted, it is wiser to abandon all attempts at convincing the stupid person. It’s of no use.

In Bonhoeffer’s words:

We must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person.

Of considerable interest here is the simple fact that the German citizens who succumbed to the Nazi message were not, strictly speaking, uneducated. In principle, they were highly educated. Worse yet, their minds had been marinating in idealistic philosophy for centuries.

If you think that education is a panacea, you should think again. And if you think that philosophical idealism, the kind purveyed by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche and Heidegger is the solution, you should understand that it is the problem.

After all, the greatest philosopher of the Nazi era, Martin Heidegger joined the Nazi Party and used his academic position at the University of Freiberg to militate for Hitler. Even though he distanced himself from Naziism in time, he never recanted his adherence.

As you know, Heidegger was the progenitor of a philosophical method called deconstruction. It has been taught in American graduate programs for decades now, despite everyone’s full knowledge of its origin. Naturally, those who have hopped on to this Nazi philosophy do not accept that it’s founder’s political beliefs are relevant. Dare we say that they have reached peak stupid.


IamDevo said...

Shorter, funnier version: You can't fix stupid.

David Foster said...

One way to detect Stupidity is the rise of weird special vocabularies that people are expected to use.

Bizzy Brain said...

“Hello. I’m Joe. Joe Biden. People call me Joe Biden.”

Justin_O_Guy said...

I wish I thought we had arriven at peak stupidity. I'm not sure we are half way to what we will see.

David Foster said...

I'm afraid there is no more a 'peak stupidity' than their is a 'largest integer.'

David Foster said...


Guitarman5269 said...

I offer this opinion, to whit: "You can fix stupid, however it has to die"!

Freddo said...

We live in amazing times. Not only do we produce such an abundance of food that obesity is a major health issue, but also our wealth allows the intelligent to make stupid choices and have society at large pay the price (at least for the time being).

The low IQ stupid will always be part of society, and traditionally cultural norms and rituals have been the way to embed those people in society with the least amount of harm. And even the monstrous dictatorship of the 20th century understood that once you control the media the functional low IQ people are not a threat to the regime, use the concentration camps and gulags for the more educated.

It is the high IQ stupid that worry me, and where the line between stupid and evil gets awfully thin.

Sam L. said...

"There's No Arguing with Stupid": Oh, SURE you can, but are you crazy enough to get into one...and stay there...?