Friday, 27 March 2015

Things I Don't Understand - Number Eight - Stupidity

I don't understand stupidity. I would like to make it clear that I'm not referring here to being intellectually disabled.  In fact I've sometimes found those who are, more aware and clued up than the supposedly 'normal'. I also don't mean those who don't have any higher education - university or polytech is not everyone's cup of tea. Plus many who have been, seem to turn off their brain the moment the ink is dry on their degree. Rather, I mean those who have a perfectly functional at-least-average intelligence, but choose not to use it.

There are, I feel, two types of stupidity. Those who practise the first are boring but usually harmless enough. They're the people who simply who go through life without any particular thought or plan, who seem to live by rote, just 'doing what everyone else does'. For their entire lives. If they think at all - and I'm not certain it counts as 'thinking' - it seems to be a kind of rote thinking, or rather not thinking, a mere repeating of conventional ideas, "what everybody thinks", or "what everybody knows".

You've probably met this sort - the ones who talk almost entirely in cliches, "well I never, it'll be all right in the morning, what goes round comes round, time heals all wounds, etc, etc"; and who seem to have never had an original thought in their lives. If asked their opinion on some issue of the day, they usually say something like "Well I never really thought about it", or "I don't really have an opinion on that" - and seem surprised you even ask. Their minds seem closed, their lives limited, and they never question authority or seek to challenge themselves in any fashion.

I first remember encountering this in a teenage friend, in a girl I'd known since primary school. I was truly shocked one day when, after I expressed an opinion on some issue, she responded with what I recognised as a parrotting of her parent's highly reactionary opinion, and seemed to feel no need to revisit that, or form her own views.

I find it hard to connect with such people (even more so than most, I mean), but they do form a sort of unquestioning mass, who simply get on with the day to day necessary things of life. I suppose we need them. But stupidity isn't just about being on a sort of mental autopilot, and the second type are a very different story. They think all right - but only in certain narrow ways, or by grabbing hold of some wisp of an idea, building it up into a 'castle in the air', and then seeing only those things that bolster their views, avoiding or ignoring anything that challenges them.

The result is they hold beliefs I can only describe as nonsensical. I'm thinking here, for instance, of a woman I knew in my twenties. She once told me, very solemnly, that Maori and Sanskrit were related because their words for dog - "kuri" and "cur" respectively - were similar. I was studying Historical Linguistics at the time, and nearly laughed in her face, knowing there was no relation between them, as would anyone with a small knowledge of history or the two languages. This was a woman who'd travelled widely, had a variety of interesting experiences, and completed a university degree, yet she could harbour this completely ridiculous belief. And don't even get me started on those who believe in things like UFOs and conspiracy theories or Elvis being still alive. I'm no genius, but I don't think you have to be to see through some of the BS trotted out by those who should know better.

When such opinions are held privately by individuals, they're harmless enough, if a little silly. But when people in power hold stupid beliefs, often ones based in blind prejudice (one of the worst kinds of stupidity - but a convenient one for leaders of course, on the old 'divide and rule and keep 'em distracted' principle), then it becomes something far more blood-curdling. Hitler was a prime example of this - a stupid fanatic who led average Germans (many of them practising the first kind of stupidity), and in the end most of Europe, into the chaos and horror of war and the Holocaust. 

And it isn't only the leaders of countries who can be stupid - leaders of social movements, religions, government departments and even the media, in some countries, can be really, really stupid. The lives of gays in Russia, for example, are becoming more and more precarious - beatings and even killings of gays are becoming more and more common, because many Russians believe that being gay automatically means also being a paedophile. This confused belief is obviously shared or even propogated by its leader - who wanted to arrest any gay athletes going to the Olympics there. And when people who hold narrow, prejudiced views about autism are in control of how autistics get treated, we suffer for it.

A prime example is the vaccines-cause-autism crowd. Despite the exposure of Wakefield's original 'research' as a fraud, after years of studies by whole teams of respected scientists who could not replicate his results, despite science showing that a) mercury poisoning symptoms are radically different to autism, b) autism is genetic anyway, c) the amount of mercury in the original vaccines is less than what we are exposed to on a daily basis in our environment, and d) the relevant additive was removed from vaccines long before the current rise of autism diagnosis rates among children born since then - and that's just the tip of the iceberg of the scientific evidence against this nonsense - still, they shrill, and yell, and agitate, and jump up and down, and rave about Big Pharma 'damaging' their children... Meanwhile, rates of preventable (and far more damaging than autism) diseases such as measles, once on the wane, are rising. Sigh.

And then there's the current fad for anti-autism bleach "treatments". The parents of the kids subjected to this often post pictures online of supposed 'parasites' they found in their child's faeces after the bleach - pictures that are actually of segments of the child's intestinal wall coming away. That's right, they're burning their kid's insides out. But if you dare try and point that out, question them, oh boy. They will not budge, no matter how much common sense and science you present them with.

One reason I can't understand such people is that I can't imagine not constantly using my mind. My mind is always busy or focussed on something, I'm never thinking about nothing, even in meditation. My mind has always been busy, since as far back as I can remember into my childhood. I got labelled a "daydreamer" and "away with the fairies" as a result, but my distraction only meant that what was happening inside my head was usually far more interesting than my humdrum day-to-day "outer" world.

And this thinking doesn't stop once an opinion has been formed, or a philosophy adopted. I keep questioning, rooting out the contradictions, the little nonsenses, the intricacies. I'm a questing being by nature. And one who believes in balancing head and heart - in my twenties, I noticed that many people tended to extremes of one or the other, and the results weren't good. Either you were cold, detached, intellectual, 'ivory-tower'-ish, scorning the wisdom of the heart (and yes, it does have some); or you were overly emotional and prone to believing silliness like the above. I decided that the best way was to meld the two, have each influence and temper the other. That way, I figured, I would come to a calm, sensible, rational place, with the wisdom of both. It didn't solve all my problems of course, but it is a stance that's served me well over the years.

So I don't understand not constantly using your mind. I don't understand why anyone would just accept crap and not question it. I don't hate stupid people or anything (though I sometimes get frustrated with them), but I so don't understand stupidity.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Penni, I read your column in the Bay Weekend on a regular basis, and finally today, decided to check out your blog. Sadly, we are surrounded by stupid aren't we?
    I too was labelled a daydreamer when a child, I have, through the years rather lost that, too busy working to survive, but after reading this, I think I need to get back to that person I once was, this blog post has certainly inspired me in that direction. Oh and FWIW - my ex- was/is the second type of stupid.