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Meakin Armstrong: On Stupidity and The Encyclopedia of Stupidity

June 8, 2010

Why are people so damned stupid?

meakin_armstrong-small.jpgThere hasn’t been much study of stupidity—why humans are so damned stupid, even while they are surrounded by information of the highest order? A simple Google click could dispel many a jackass thought, yet few bother with such things. Instead, we insist on maintaining our flawed worldviews.

The powerful think they are exempt from humdrum stupidity. Ordinary stupidity is for that guy filling your gas tank and washing your windshield at the local BP, not for the company’s CEO. But it was Tony Hayward, head of BP, who told us not to worry about the spill—it’s a big ocean, and it’ll swallow up all of that spilled oil, no problem. He did nothing to improve the company’s pathetic safety record, which after many safety violations, was a known entity.

Ask Tony Hayward: who’s stupid now?

The dictionary definition of stupidity is, “a poor ability to understand or to profit from experience.”

That sounds good, but perhaps stupidity is still too amorphous a term; it’s a judgment call and doesn’t allow for objective measurement. We know a stupid act when we see it, but we don’t know how to describe stupidity to a computer, in order to measure it. The IQ test was devised as a way to measure stupidity, but it turned out itself to be a stupid test.

By any measure, the BP disaster was stupid. It fulfills the definition for stupidity: a similar event (that we could have learned from) happened in 1979:

Again, the dictionary definition of stupidity is, “a poor ability to understand or to profit from experience.”

BP (and the Bush and Obama administrations that have had regulatory responsibility) thought they were above stupidity. Stupidity happens to the little people who don’t have access to fancy equipment.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve invented a god: we’re children who need to imagine that there’s at least one adult out there in the ether, minding the store.

Of course, we give ourselves weapons we’re too stupid to have and we devise technology we’re too stupid to control. Perhaps that’s why we’ve invented a god: we’re children who need to imagine that there’s at least one adult out there in the ether, minding the store.

In 2003, when the U.S. was wallowing in stupidity (that would be the year the U.S. invaded Iraq and sold itself to China in order to finance the war), both a documentary and a book came out about stupidity. The documentary is (rather obviously) called Stupidity (it’s available at Amazon and streaming now on Netflix). It was made for a Canadian cable channel, and to be truthful it isn’t very good. The reviews for it are universally bad, with most of them contending the same thing that I’m about to: this is a subject that needs to be explored, and it’s too bad only one stupid documentary has been made about it.

The film was obviously made in a heated moment: anyone who was against the war in Iraq and against the concomitant Republican power grab was angry back then. Stupidity is more of an essay than a documentary—imagine this blog post read aloud, with flashing pictures of people acting idiotically, and how it is to see the film becomes obvious. Its on-camera experts are there to back up any contention made in the film; no data is given, no science of stupidity is referred to. (A science of stupidity—if only there were such a thing.)

Stupidity breaks every rule of good documentary filmmaking. Go on Netflix, and the commenters will tell you to not waste your time. But do it: watch Stupidity. It’s worth seeing for its ideas, but not for its conclusions, or any of its visuals. Stupidity says our celebrities are underage yahoos who we idolize. It contends that we like to be stupid, that we see it as a break from the mundane, that we are addicted to acting stupid. And unfortunately, as our society becomes increasingly specialized, we seem to becoming infantilized and in love with our own stupidity.

The Encyclopedia of Stupidity, a book that came out at about the same time as the movie, is less angry, less reductive (the movie asserts, duh, that Bush acts stupidly; I think anyone who isn’t an idiot knows that). The book’s author, Matthijs van Boxsel, asserts that culture requires stupidity for it to grow. As culture encounters stupidity, it tries to contain it and become less stupid; we’re in a gigantic arms race against stupidity, and it’s been going on since the beginning of time.

But as our technology grows, the idiots out there are better able to inflict harm, now on an international scale. Bush put this country in danger economically, thanks to his stupid behavior. BP put us in danger because of its stupidity. Now, it’s going to take a genius to get us out of this mess.

Bio: Meakin Armstrong is Guernica’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter at @meakinarmstrong.

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