Cat Pierro

INTRODUCTION TO STUPIDITY (BY THE STUPID, FOR THE STUPID)


ISSUE 16 | STUPIDITY | MAY 2012

Psychologists have argued that you can judge a baby’s intelligence by how quickly the baby loses interest in unusual events. Faced with a toy train that disappears behind a partition and emerges on the other side no longer as a toy train but as something else, a toy truck maybe, babies have varied reactions. Before a certain age they don’t seem to think anything weird has happened; they did not expect any continuity because they did not mentally project the train’s journey into and through the place where it couldn’t be seen. But after that age, their astonishment shows on their faces. And psychologists have attempted to show that the longer babies remain astonished when shown the same weird thing over and over again, the lower their predicted IQ score.

In these three babies—the one who is oblivious to the strangeness, the one who can’t get any distance from the strangeness and remains too long surprised, and the one who adapts to the strangeness without any rational explanation for it—we have three distinct pictures of stupidity.

Of course, the correct explanation is that someone is hidden behind the partition taking away the train and replacing it with the truck, but the babies have no way of learning this. The idea of adaptation does not preclude the possibility of a world that is inherently surprising. Our world is indeed a deeply strange place, and our strategies for making sense of it (or refusing to make sense of it) are at least as diverse as the three babies’. Perhaps nowhere has any collection of these strategies been more stunningly cataloged than in that (as it happens) very confusing book, The Sound and the Fury—be sure to check out Eliot D’Silva’s piece on it.

What I mean is this: given the mess that life hands us, given our justifiable confusion, does it even make sense to call anyone stupid? And yet, our culture does think in terms of stupidity, I think inescapably, at this moment. I say inescapably because it remains true that the most incisive critique of a stupidity-based outlook is that it’s a stupid way to think. This trap leads us to such aporiae as the one I encountered reading Lydia Davis’s very short short story, “Enlightened”:

I don’t know if I can remain friends with her. I’ve thought and thought about it—she’ll never know how much. I gave it one last try. I called her, after a year. But I didn’t like the way the conversation went. The problem is that she is not very enlightened. Or I should say, she is not enlightened enough for me. She is nearly fifty years old and no more enlightened, as far as I can see, than when I first knew her twenty years ago, when we talked mainly about men. I did not mind how unenlightened she was then, maybe because I was not so enlightened myself. I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it’s not very enlightened to say that. But I want to say it, so I am willing to postpone being more enlightened myself so that I can still say a thing like that about a friend.

However reptilian the narrator’s thinking may seem, it’s difficult to reproach her. She can, I think, rewrite the story to absorb any critique we might level at her. Her version of stupidity seems to be one that can’t be escaped by intelligence alone. That is, if by intelligence we mean—and often we do, sadly—the ability to recognize that something is stupid. But maybe I’m missing something here; maybe fully recognizing one’s ignorance is not so easy to achieve, or to dismiss. For more on this, Élan Reisner.

It’s easy to get caught up in the violent aspect of the word stupidity—its use to demarcate differences between people, lauding one while denouncing another. When we chose it as a theme, I imagined two ways in which it could go wrong. One, all our article submissions could rant about someone or something that was incredibly stupid. Two, all our article submissions could put a “twist” on stupidity and argue that certain kinds of stupidity are actually good and important. I hoped for some balance between the two extremes, but thankfully, we ended up with something much better than I hoped for. The issue hangs together as a sympathetic exploration of stupidities. Even Chris Bisignani’s article, our closest thing to a rant against stupid people and the stupid things they think, comes from a place of deep sympathy and appreciates the difficulty of escaping what Chris calls “The Framework Game.” Read it to find out if you have a framework problem and what you can do about it if you do.

Eliot D’Silva’s piece, as I mentioned above, concerns the possibility of gleaning objectivity from The Sound and The Fury, a task not at all straightforward given that book’s plurality of limited viewpoints. But only after reading Casey Lange’s piece did I realize that it may be a lifetime’s work to hear the full resonance of the word “objectivity.” Casey’s creative (and self-reflective) interpretation of The Thief’s Journal pits stupidity against autonomy and explores the responsibilities of a criminal mind. Conversely, Michael Kinnucan takes a stab at the true meaning of justice by splitting a baby into two equal parts.

But let’s take a step back. Where does stupidity come from? It can’t come from nowhere. Or can it? If you have any intellectual conscience, Élan’s investigation of Descartes’ ontological commitments is bound to make you feel stupid.

I hope you enjoy the issue.