On the Calling-Stupid of People

        November 2006

funny misspelled sign

When I was in elementary school, there was this one day when we had recess indoors because it was raining.  Some of the kids were playing board games, and others were drawing pictures on the blackboard with colored chalk.  I was one of the children who was drawing, by myself over in a corner of the board.  After a while, I'd created a picture that I thought was pretty good.  I wasn’t boasting about it or calling attention to myself in any way but, just as I was finishing, another boy ran over, knocked me down, and erased the drawing.  Confused by the other boy’s actions and enraged to the point of tears, I responded — not violently, but verbally.  I called the other kid stupid.  In fact, I called him The Stupidest Kid in the Class.  At this point, the teacher noticed the conflict and came rushing over.  I was sure that the bully was about to be appropriately punished for the senseless and unprovoked attack — so imagine my surprise when the teacher grabbed me by the arm, dragged me out into the hallway, and proceeded to lecture me about how terrible it is to call people stupid.

I explained that the other boy had started it, and that, besides, all the kids called one another stupid all the time — it was a standard insult.  The boy who wrecked my drawing had even called me stupid before and not gotten dragged out into the hallway for it.  “That doesn’t matter,” the teacher replied.  “He can call you stupid ’til the cows come home, and it doesn’t matter, because you know you’re smart.  But he isn’t.  He struggles with everything.  When you call him stupid, it matters.”  And that was how it went.  I got punished, and the other kid didn’t — even though he started it; even though his offense had involved physical violence; even though the drawing had been really, really cool.  The “moral” was clear:  if you’re smart, calling people stupid is the worst thing you can do; worse even than physically assaulting someone for no reason.

Today, by launching this website, I hereby call bullshit on this.

The idea that calling someone stupid (if you yourself are smart) is the worst thing you can do is a pretty damn bad idea to disseminate throughout a culture.  The result is that stupid people can do stupid things with impunity — that they can basically skate through life daring people to call them stupid, knowing that if smart people take the bait and do so, an even bigger reproach will be leveled at them by the rest of society.  This creates a win-win situation for stupid people, and one that survives into adult society.  In an argument, the dumber person always has the advantage of being able to present the smarter person with what I like to call the “Smarter-Than-Me Paradox,” as follows:

“Either you’re not claiming to be smarter than I am, in which case I should not listen to you, since there’s no point in changing my mind to agree with someone who is no smarter than I am, or you are claiming to be smarter than I am, in which case I should not listen to you, since on principle I shouldn’t listen to someone who is so exceedingly conceited and cruel as to claim to be smarter than other people.”

As a result, the smarter person’s only recourse is to argue the position that they are both equally smart, but have had different experiences, and that this is why they disagree.  The PC movement was largely based on this idea — so much so that its proponents began to actually accept as fact the idea that no-one is any smarter than anyone else.  But this was a huge mistake.  The result was the mainstream acceptance of the idea that all disagreement is based on experience, and never arises from a simple inequity of intellect.  Because of this, it became impossible to ever get anyone to change their mind about anything.  After all, why should they? An experience cannot be “right” or “wrong,” and so political and philosophical belief was demoted to the level of taste, no different from preferring one style of music over another.

We're used to the idea that calling someone stupid is a moral failing, but that being stupid is not one.  This is extremely dangerous, considering the fact that all of history’s great evils — from the Crusades to the Salem Witch Trials to the Holocaust — have been perpetrated by stupid people who were basing their actions on ideas that smart people could easily have disproved.

What devices do stupid people use to reinforce this idea, you ask?

Let’s say a smart person is in a cafeteria, at work or at school, and overhears a group of stupid people discussing their adherence to some idea that is demonstrably false.  Any interference or correction on the part of the smart person will very likely be met with rage.  He or she will be accused of “thinking they know everything.”  But is this fair?  The stupid people, after all, were not discussing “everything” — they were discussing one specific thing, and the smart person has only demonstrated that they claim to know more about this specific topic (as indeed they almost certainly do).  If any demonstration that one knows something is met with accusations that one claims to know everything, then what is a smart person to do?  We would all have to pretend to be as dumb as the dumbest person present at all times for our entire lives — and yet, even if we did this, then someone else would appear to be the smartest person in the room and be met with the same accusation.

There might be a few readers who would seek to inject a bit of relativism into the dynamic here.  How can we speak flatly of dumb people and smart people, they might ask, when everyone is smarter than some people and dumber than others?

It's a fair question.  The dividing line is partly a matter of how one reacts.

Let’s say that, in another cafeteria, a group of fairly intelligent people are discussing advanced physics, and that, since they are not experts on physics, there are some things that they’re getting wrong.  If someone seated at the other end of the table were to lean over and say “Excuse me, but I’m a Professor of Physics, and there are a few things you’re getting wrong here; I could explain them to you, if you’d like,” the people who are less knowledgeable about this particular topic, but still smart in general, would welcome this intrusion, wouldn’t they? They certainly wouldn’t respond by saying “Fuck off, Smarter Person — we liked it just fine when we were getting it completely wrong,” because they're smart enough to want to know more.

But truly dumb people react in the opposite and angry way, in any number of situations, on a regular basis.  They have to.  Telling smart people to fuck off is what they live for.

Another favorite device of theirs is to protest that they were only having a conversation, and don’t feel like having a debate — but is this distinction really worth anything?  If someone is stating a belief and explaining why they believe it, then this person is making an argument (see Frequently Misused Terms entry for argument), even if they are doing so in an informal setting.  So, when they say that they were only having a conversation, what they mean is that they prefer to have a one-sided debate and are demanding the right to only ever be in the presence of people who already agree with them — but no-one has this right.

Since most people — and, I guess, with good reason — may still consider it rude to eavesdrop on people and then interrupt them, regardless of who is more intelligent, I should mention that this dynamic certainly doesn't always have to involve overhearing and interrupting.  How many times have you been in the presence of someone who espouses a viewpoint directly to a group of people, and then, after realizing that someone else in the group does not agree and is beginning to offer a response, announces that they “don’t feel like discussing it,” and demands that the subject be changed?

What they mean is that they did feel like discussing it when they thought everyone agreed with them, but didn’t anymore once they realized that this wasn’t the case, and that the person who disagrees is smarter than they are — which means that, if a debate ensues, they will definitely lose.  They might even protest that the person who was about to respond would be violating their right to Free Speech by doing so, because, being an idiot, they have absolutely no idea what “Free Speech” does or doesn't mean (see Frequently Misused Terms entry for Free Speech).

cute schoolgirl pinup in plaid skirt with glasses

Another favorite tactic of the dumb is to alter the nature of the disagreement so that the focus is on the personalities of the people involved, rather than on the comparative worth of the ideas being discussed.  They will say that the smart person just “likes being right,” or that they are “one of those people who have to be right all the time.”

The first form of the objection is clearly ridiculous — who the fuck doesn’t like being right? — but the second form must be examined in more detail.

Now, it’s obvious that smart people can accurately be described as “people who are right more of the time than other people” — after all, isn’t that what being smart means?  But as for having to be right, in the sense of its being some kind of psychological problem?  Just who is it who’s really like that here?  When smart people consider a question, they use the scientific method:  they take their personalities and identities out of the equation, examine the evidence, consider all possible options fairly, and arrive at the best conclusion possible; or, if a clear conclusion cannot be reached, they admit it.  In the scientific community, when one scientist proves other scientists wrong, they change their positions to the correct one, and sometimes even thank the person who proved them wrong — after all, hasn’t this person done them a service?  They used to be wrong, and now they’re not.

On the other hand, when you prove a dumb person wrong, they get pissed at you, call you a dick, and continue to believe the wrong thing just because it makes you mad.

Doesn’t that make them the “people who have to be right all the time?”

American parents regularly tell their children that “one of these days they’re going to outsmart themselves,” or warn them against becoming “too smart for their own good,” and even use the word smart itself as a synonym for disrespectful, as in “a smart answer.”  Our culture has become so permeated with the idea that being dumb is morally superior to being smart, or that uninformed discussion is “nicer” than informed discussion (both Conservatives and many Liberals are guilty here) that it’s causing people to misinterpret the world around them.

We have this idea of the “evil genius,” and it is one of the things we most fear — even before dumb people rallied around George W. Bush, most Americans responded in polls that they didn’t want a president who was “too smart;” they thought that the president should employ smart advisors, but be only average or a bit above-average in terms of intelligence.

Western anti-intellectualism has become so powerful in recent history that now we even conceptualize the embodiment of evil, the Nazis, as “evil geniuses,” and picture them doing high-culture stuff like listening to opera and putting their cigarettes in between their pinky and ring finger instead of over by the thumb like normal people — but in reality, the Nazis were extremely dumb guys who, like most extremely dumb guys, just wanted an excuse to get drunk and beat the shit out of people.  Some of their leaders pretended to be into Art and stuff, but this was mainly for the sake of their image and they actually didn’t know crap about it.  As for Nazi “science,” it was fake, made-up science that anyone who knew even a little bit about real science could easily disprove (and indeed it was disproved — but the Nazis, like most dumb people, didn’t care).  So trying to use the Nazis as evidence for a condemnation of science would be like using a guy who dresses up like a fireman and then kills a bunch of people as a rationale for saying that actual firemen are a bad thing.

Even before this image of the Nazis became widespread, the figure of the “mad scientist” could be found everywhere in Western Culture, from Dr. Frankenstein to Lex Luthor; it is as if people believe that being smart causes someone to become evil.  Of course, this requires you to forget the fact that, traditionally, Superman is actually infinitely smarter than Luthor — he has super-intelligence in addition to his other abilities, and in college he had to deliberately miss questions on tests so that no-one would suspect he was Superman (indeed, most people have forgotten this — but they seem to be remembering the part about him being really strong just fine).  

As for Dr. Frankenstein — the character whose name is inevitably invoked whenever smart people get too uppity — extracting a condemnation of intelligence from his story is actually wholly backwards, whether we are talking about the book or the many movie versions of it.  In the book, Frankenstein gives life to the Creature, and then makes the relatively minor mistake of freaking out for a second (which is totally understandable) and leaving the room, during which time the Creature escapes — but at this point the Creature is a totally nice guy, and he only gets pissed off and evil after dumb people try to kill him about a million times because of the way he looks.  In the movie version, the Creature is evil because Frankenstein’s retarded assistant Fritz (not “Igor” — watch the movie!) gets lazy and brings back a psychopath’s brain. 

The moral of the book is “don’t try to kill people just because they look weird,” and the moral of the movie is “don’t have a retarded assistant.”  In neither case is the moral anything about how it’s bad to be “too smart.”  In both cases, it was dumb people who fucked things up.

The moral is also not anything about how it’s wrong to “play God,” since the book’s author, Mary Shelley, didn’t believe in God.  She was, however, a genius who wrote one of the greatest novels of all time when she was only nineteen — so if you do think that Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about being “too smart,” how do you reconcile the fact that the person who gave us this great moral truth would probably have seemed to you to be “too smart for her own good” if you had known her?  (Sure, she later talked about the book being “cursed” or whatever, but that was just, you know, to be cool and stuff.)

The figure of the “evil genius” makes for a better story — but this is precisely because it is not what usually happens in real life.  The vast majority of geniuses are good, and the vast majority of dumb people are dicks — hence, an “evil genius” is ironic and therefore interesting. 

Just look back over your own life and ask yourself:  How many “evil geniuses” have you known, compared with how many dumb assholes?

It certainly doesn’t sound so much anymore like the smart people are the ones who are being “rude,” does it?  Of course, someone might still object that it is not always so easy to tell the difference — after all, in any given conversation, who knows which is the smart person and which is the dumb person?  But if one only looks back over all these previous examples, the answer is clear:  the dumb person knows.  Why else would dumb people behave this way?  A smart person invites open debate, because they know that they can disprove whatever objections or counterarguments a dumb person might have, and that doing so will only strengthen their position in the eyes of onlookers.  The dumb person, on the other hand, knows that they will lose, which is why it is in their interest — and in only their interest — for differences of opinion to be demoted to the level of indisputable tastes, and for the smart people who object to this characterization to be seen as rude and conceited.

Have you ever noticed that, when people are observing a disagreement between a smart person and a dumb person, they will allow the dumb person to call the smart person an “idiot” and so forth again and again, but become enraged and offended if the smart person says it back — and that even the people who supposedly agree with the dumb person’s position act this way?

Well, think about it:  if they really agree with the dumb person and think that they are the one who is smarter, then shouldn’t they be offended when the dumb person says it?  The horrible truth at the center of all this is that, deep down, dumb people know that they are dumb.  They know that their beliefs are wrong and can be disproved by anyone who is not dumb.  They know that the world would improve if they cast off these positions, but they refuse to do so, simply to spite the smart people out of jealousy.

What could be more rude and conceited than that?

Finally, I'd like to close by addressing the fact that, in many of out examples, the figure of the smart person stands alone against a sea of united dumb people.  This may have led many readers to assume that the argument is actually a lament for the fact that smart people are unpopular — and indeed, the accusation that smart people are just trying to ruin everyone’s fun because they have no friends is a common reproach leveled at the smart by the dumb.  But this is only another of the many fallacious arguments that dumb people use to try and make themselves feel better about being dumb.

In the story I related at the beginning of the essay, for example, how many of you assumed that I was a “nerd” in sixth grade and that the bully who assaulted me was popular?  If you did, you were wrong — I actually had way more friends than the bully.

Why do you think you assumed otherwise?  Does it always seem to you as if dumb people are acting on behalf of humanity in general, rather than as if smart people are the ones who are doing so?  Who do you think taught you to reason that way?  

I’m certainly not disputing the fact that dumb people outnumber smart people — only pointing out that this doesn’t necessarily make them the good guys.

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