Moselle’s lecture provided us with an important set of questions. What exactly is stupidity And how does it relate to morality; is it possible that you are of good and stupid character, for example? And what does it have to do with vice; could stupidity be a kind of bigotry? And why is it specific to one area: Why are people usually stupid in one field and smart in another? Moselle’s answer—centered on the allegations—focused too much on Hamas’s interwar period in Vienna to benefit us now. But his questions, and his intuition to the danger of stupidity, remain relevant.
Stupidity, in particular, is a cognitive failure. And it’s when you don’t have the understanding tools required for a task. Thus the inability to understand what is happening, and the resulting tendency to classify phenomena superficially and distortedly.
Perhaps it is easier to strike like a tragic situation. The understanding of trench warfare by British senior command officers in World War I was no more than the use of concepts and strategies from cavalry battles and the experiences of their youth. As a follower of Marshal Douglas Haig later pointed out, they believed that trenches were “mobile military bases”: a parable in maneuver wars that corresponded to the simple caveat that nothing could last. As expected, this did not do them well in formulating strategies: what hindered them, more than a lack of material resources, was a kind of “conceptual obsolescence” and a failure to update their cognitive tools to match the existing task.
Stupidity will arise in such cases, when an old conceptual framework is imposed, distorting one’s understanding of new phenomena. It is important to distinguish this from pure error. We make mistakes for different reasons. Stupidity is an accurate and intractable cause of error. Throughout history, philosophers have expressed great fears of irrationality in not using the means available to achieve goals: Tom wants to improve his physical fitness, but dust is starting to accumulate on his running shoes out of neglect. The basic solution to Tom’s problem is only willpower. Stupidity is very different from this. It lacks the required means and the necessary intellectual equipment. Fighting stupidity does not require great willpower, but rather building a new way of seeing ourselves and our world.
Such stupidity is perfectly consistent with intelligence: Haig was a smart man by any measure. In fact, intelligence, sometimes, prompts us to be stupid through malicious rationality: When Harry Hadini, the great deception artist, presented Arthur Conan Doyle – the inventor of Sherlock Holmes’ character – the tricks inherent in the spirit preparation sessions in which Conan Doyle strongly believed, Arthur reacted to fabricating a funny and detailed counter-explanation that it was true spiritual media that controlled tricks.
While stupidity was provided by “conceptual obsolescence,” stupidity is also consistent with some sort of misleading new ideas. Suppose a country enthusiastically imports new conceptual tools not from the past but from a different place. For example, international debates about social justice are dominated by a range of ideas and terms taken from the United States of America, a nation known for a particular historical and cultural path. When transferring this framework simply to other countries, such as where class racism is less (such as some countries relying on the exploitation of white migrant workers from Eastern Europe) or where racial discrimination is more complex (e.g. Southern African countries) it is socially and conceptually dangerous.
Stupidity has two characteristics that make it dangerous, especially when compared to other vices. First, unlike personal flaws, stupidity is mainly about groups or traditions, not individuals; after all, we receive most of our concepts and intellectual tools from the society in which we grew up. Suppose the problem with Haig was laziness: there was no shortage of other active generals to replace it. But if Hague had worked hard within the intellectual constraints of 19th-century military traditions, solving the problem would have become more difficult: it would need to provide a conceptual framework and establish a sense of military identity and pride. Once stupidity dominates a group or society it is difficult to eliminate – the formulation, distribution and normalization of new concepts is very difficult.
Second, stupidity produces more stupidity due to the deep ambiguity of its nature. If stupidity is about tools that are not suitable for tasks, the stupid act will depend on the quality of the task: for example, a hammer is suitable for some tasks and wrong for others. Look at politics for example, where stupidity is particularly prevalent: the stupid slogan is in harmony with the stupid voter, it reflects his worldview. The result is that stupidity cynically becomes very effective in the right environment: it actually targets some kind of vulnerability. It is important to separate this point from transcendent and well-known claims about the folly or ignorance of the “other side”: stupidity is consistent with educational achievements, and it is a cultural-political characteristic rather than an individual characteristic, which must be dealt with at this level.
Moselle’s lenient and almost aristocratic attitude toward foolishness being “evil” was certainly dangerously complax: consider, for example, his role in the phenomenon of opponents of the vaccine. But folly alone is rarely threatened: on top of every foolish movement, you find a stupid person driving it.
We can now explain why stupidity is specific to one area: why is someone so smart in one field, and stupid in another? Relevant concepts are usually specific to one area. Moreover, we can find many cases that are not described as completely stupid but mimic its effects. Imagine someone ignorant of all the signs of fraud and finally pay attention and ask themselves, “How can I be so stupid?” The problem here is not just stupidity; the concept of fraud is widespread. What we have here is someone who “behaves as if they are stupid.” Not only did he fail to expose the concept of betrayal, but he didn’t literally think about it: he was actually “offline” due to emotional and other pressures. In this type of situation, the person has the necessary intellectual tools but has not inadvertently used them. This illustrates an important contradiction with folly – we may make ourselves stupid but not foolish.
So stupidity is hard to cure. It gets worse in the way it is consistent with other vices: stubbornness, for example, will prevent me from rethinking my concepts even if it makes me a failure. But once we understand the nature of stupidity things will become clearer. Seeing political opponents as being ridiculed in the first place turns them into opportunistic monsters, leaving no room for their control. Seeing them as idiots is essentially a suggestion of an irreparable flaw – a flaw that is seen in our deep hierarchical society as specific to those who do not have the right educational qualifications. Both offer false reassurance: with a little thought we assert that we are not ridiculed, and with the right testimonies we prove that we are not fools. But we may still fall into the trap of stupidity. From history’s experiences, hundreds of years later, our grandchildren will find at least one incomprehensible part of our contemporary ethic “how can respectable people believe it?” If they don’t judge us evil they will have to conclude that we are stupid.