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Three Friends of Stupidity
(Ignorance, Fear and Habit)
Part Four of The Power of Stupidity
(See the index of previous parts)
by Giancarlo Livraghi
This is so vast a subject that there could be no end to writing about stupidity. I have no hope or delusion that I could ever be able to deal with it thoroughly.
But some comments and questions by people who have read the previous parts, as well as some observation of circumstances, have made me curious about a related subject: which factors in human behavior, that are not the same as stupidity, can add to its power of making things worse.
These are only short notes that (as in all parts of The Power of Stupidity) I hope can provide a few useful hints for a better understanding of the forces at play and thus, maybe, help us to limit their effects and consequences.
A list of the allies, accomplices or friends of stupidity could be very long. The daily observation of human behavior (our own as well as everyone elses) shows that a variety of attitudes and circumstances can contribute to making us stupid. But three, of those many possible factors, appear to be particularly relevant: ignorance, fear and habit.
Obviously these three forces combine with each other (and with stupidity) in countless ways. The outcome isnt necessarily exponential and probably cant be measured by any standard mathematical criteria. But the effect tends to multiply rather than just add.
Maybe some readers will be disappointed when they notice that there are no graphs here using Cartesian coordinates for the evaluation of stupidity. The reason is that the criteria cant be applied to different concepts which, if at all measurable, would need to be estimated in different ways and it would be impossible to combine several unrelated yardsticks in any manageable or relevant ccordinate system.
There seems to be a mutual attraction. Fear can be bred by ignorance and vice versa. Habit is often the nourishment (or the excuse) for ignorance and stupidity. It isnt unusual for all four to join forces. And its quite obvious that all four can be (deliberately or not) exploited by whoever has the leverage to do so but we already discussed that in The Stupidity of Power.
Of course not all ignorant people are stupid and not all stupid people are ignorant. Fear can be, depending on the situation, intelligent or stupid. And habits can be healthy, or harmless, or dangerous.
As all these factors are constantly mingled and interacting with each other, I shall try, for each of the three, to start with a brief definition of the subject.
As is generally understood in any serious study of these matters, ignorance and stupidity are two completely different things. And so are intelligence and knowledge. There can be very stupid people with lots of notions as there can be poorly informed, or scarcely educated, people with a high level of intelligence.
There is also a relevant difference between formal education level and actual knowledge. A person can have spent several years at school without learning much, or anything at all, other than repetitive and conventional notions. While there are self-educated people with considerable depth of knowledge and understanding.
Therefore I dont mean to say that there is any direct and linear connection between ignorance and stupidity. But when they combine and interact the result can be awful.
One of the worst forms of ignorance is the assumption of knowledge. Just as people who never notice their own stupidity are very stupid, people who never understand that they dont know are desperately ignorant.
Socrates used to say: «the more I know, the more I know that I dont know». Thats a good reason to believe that he was very intelligent and much more knowledgeable than people who think they know it all.
A person born and grown up in the depth of a cave could be awfully upset and confused by the sight of sunshine. We are all, in one way or another, in that sort of condition.
It would be appropriate to consider, in this context, Francis Bacons views about the idols that stand in the way of knowledge. But a discussion on the nature of perception, understanding and thinking the cornerstone of philosophy would go far beyond the limits of these short notes.
There are also some interesting works of science fiction on this subject. Such as Isaac Asimovs masterpiece, Nightfall, in which the inhabitants of a planet with two suns, where night comes only once in ten thousand years, are thrown into a frenzy of terror when they see the stars (and this brings into the picture the problem of habit.) Or Neal Stephensons bright observations on metaphors, that sometimes help us to understand, but can lead us into the artificiality of a distorted and deceitful metaphoric world. As he explained in his short essay In the beginning was the command line (that I reviewed in May 2000) and more extensively in his brilliant novel Snow Crash (1990.)
We keep telling ourselves that we are in the age of information, but the fact is that we are poorly informed. Because most of the information is deliberately manipulated. Because information management is often careless, repetitive and shallow handled by people who are ignorant on the subject and dont bother to check their sources as thoroughly as they should. Or because our mental filter, or instinctive laziness, makes us perceive and understand only what fits our usual beliefs and biases.
There is a mischievous reciprocity of ignorance. When people mutually adjust to other peoples (real or assumed) ignorance, the level of dialogue spirals downwards. The amount and the quality of information exchanged tend to zero or become negative, reinforcing false or distorted notions, increasing prejudice, commonplace and errors of perspective.
To avoid the effort of thinking, we often fall back on comfortable misconceptions that find easy agreement (and, here again, we follow the path of habit or we fear the danger of having to tackle a difference of opinion for which we might not be adequately prepared.)
Some observations on this subject are in a short article The Vicious Circle of Stupidity (October 2002.)
At this point it could be appropriate to consider several more unpleasant friends of stupidity and ignorance. Arrogance, egotism, selfishness, carelessness, presumption, servility, imitation, prejudice, meanness, unwillingness to listen and to understand... etcetera... lurking almost everywhere in human behavior and communication.
Another dangerous factor is the principle of authority. As something is stated by someone who appears to be an authoritative (or authorized) source, we are led to believe that it is unquestionably accurate and believable. More often tan not, its true that someone knows more, about a specific subject, than we do. But assumed authority isnt necessarily real competence. The opinions of so-called experts are biased by their cultural or scientific perspectives. Thats unavoidable and legitimate as long as we understand that there is no such thing as a totally objective opinion. But they can also be influenced by constrictions or interests that arent transparent.
Of course we cant verify everything and its often necessary to trust someone elses judgment. But its better to keep our eyes open and never miss an opportunity to understand and to look under the surface of appearances.
One of the tools to avoid an excess of ignorance is insatiable curiosity. A desire to know and understand even when, at first glance, it seems unnecessary. Instinctive curiosity (along with an ability to listen) is a lively, amusing and pleasant friend of intelligence.
The bravest people in the world teach us that its healthy and useful to be afraid. Believing that there is nothing to be feared isnt courageous, its stupid. Fear, as knowledge of dangers and risks, is a form of intelligence. Of course that is not the sort of fear that can be an ally and an accomplice of stupidity.
But there are widespread types of fear that have nothing to do with a real understanding of what can be dangerous or unsafe. People can be afraid of being, of thinking, of understanding, of knowing (fear of knowledge is a nasty form of ignorance.) People are often scared of having their own opinion its more comfortable to follow mainstream bias and prejudice. There is fear of shadows and fantasies, of imaginary problems.
Many people are also scared about revealing their feelings (that is not to be confused with shyness... being shy is often a symptom of sensitivity and intelligence.)
Are these rare or unusual situations? Cases of psychological disease, or exaggerations of small problems? Lets look around, and look at ourselves. We shall find that unreasonable, unjustified fear is much more widespread than it may appear. And nobody is totally immune. Quite often, by running away from something that we had no reason to fear, we fall into a real trap that we hadnt noticed.
One of the basic learnings in life is the control of fear. Knowing how to have steady nerves and a clear mind in the face of real danger. And getting rid of imaginary fears.
Many children, and some grownups, are afraid of darkness. That isnt totally unreasonable. It makes sense to move more carefully when we cant see where we are going or what we are doing. But that doesnt mean that we must be afraid of darkness per se. And there is darkness that isnt in the environment, but in some part of our mind that we dont understand and that, of course, makes us uncomfortable and scared.
There is also fear of responsibility. It can be scary to take decisions, to have opinions of our own, to lead, to be held accountable. That is a (intentionally or unconsciously) a form of cowardice. We find imitation more comfortable than choice, fashions an trends more reassuring than taste. We think its safer to adjust to prevailing opinions than to have any thoughts of our own. We prefer to follow other peoples authority than to accept responsibility. So when something doesnt work we can put the blame on someone else. Its pretty obvious that this type of fear is related to ignorance and habit and leads to stupidity.
A basic tool of intelligence is balancing two risks. At one extreme of the spectrum, the fear of being inadequate, and thus not doing what we can. At the other end, the delusion of being able to do what is beyond our ability and competence or, in a particular circumstance, cant be done. Finding the right balance in each specific case isnt easy. But we should keep trying. Giving up too soon or too easily is harmful to us and to other people that is to say, stupid. But so is overestimating our talent, our judgment or our understanding of situations or assuming that we never make mistakes.
Just as its stupid to think that we are immune from stupidity, and ignorant to think that we know everything, courage isnt the delusion of never being afraid. Even the most reasonable and well-balanced person has some hidden and unjustified fears, some areas of insecurity and those weaknesses are more harmful when we arent aware of their presence.
Its interesting to notice how some people, who in ordinary life are easily scared, can suddenly reveal, in the face of real danger or when they help someone else, unexpected and extraordinary courage.
Its impossible to eliminate fear. But we can be aware of it, control it, limit its damages. Understanding our fears, and those of other people. is a way of being less stupid. Above all, we should nor be afraid of fear. That is often easier that it seems.
Fear, ignorance and stupidity nourish each other. Reducing one helps to control the other two.
Here again let me start with a short definition. Not all habits are stupid. Some can be useful, efficient, comfortable and cozy. Changing for the sake of change can be fun, but things dont always improve by just changing. But the force of habit can be blinding, especially when its combined with stupidity (or ignorance, or fear.)
Habit is (or appears to be) reassuring. Behaving and thinking as usual gives us a feeling of false security. Habit is related to another friend of stupidity: imitation. Doing as others do saves us the trouble of thinking, knowing, understanding, deciding, being responsible of our behavior.
Habit is obviously related to fear. We are afraid of stepping out of the usual path. We are afraid of what is usually considered dangerous or improper even when its quite easy to find out that it isnt.
A way of keeping people in blind obedience is to generate fear of the unknown and to make appear as frightful whatever doesnt suit the wishes and whims of power. «Ill call the bogey man» is a perverted tool of authority often used with grownups as well as children.
It can be quite difficult to realize how much we are influenced by such forms of bad education sometimes deliberately set up and cultivated by those who want to undermine our freedom of thought and behavior, but also mindlessly nourished by an accumulation of commonplace and widespread habits.
Things can work also in the opposite direction, wen habit encourages us to rely on things, people or situations that arent safe, reliable or reassuring just because they are usual. Small misunderstandings or large disasters, minor accidents or great catastrophes are often the result of false security induced by habit. This is a way if unleashing the awful destructive power of stupidity.
Its pretty obvious that habit can relate to ignorance. Many bad habits are the result of lacking or inadequate information or poor understanding of why and how something originally became a habit. Just as often, habit is the cause of ignorance, because we dont look behind appearances, we take things for granted, we accept the usual without trying to understand what it is.
Obviously habit is an enemy of innovation. But that isnt as simple as it sounds. One of the bad habits is to assume that new is always better. And to jump to new solutions or devices before we have had a chance to understand if they serve any useful purpose or if that particular choice fits our specific needs.
The habit of chasing innovation for the sake of being up to date is just as bad a staying with old ways when they are no longer the fittest. And it relates quite closely to ignorance and stupidity as well as to the fear of being, appearing or feeling different.
Fear has been for many years a way of selling useless innovation not only, but especially so, in information technology. «If you dont buy this you will be left behind» is the threat that led companies (as well as people and families) into buying lots of stuff that they didnt need and that they were not prepared to manage. The result isnt just a monumental waste of money, but also the cause of countless inefficiencies.
There is ambiguity also in the concept of good manners. Kindness and courtesy are good qualities (and closely related to intelligence.) When they are genuine and sincere, they can help us to understand other people, to listen, to learn, to share and so to reduce ignorance, fear and stupidity.
Even formal ceremony or ptotocol isnt always useless or meaningless. And its important, in any case, to respect the customs and manners of other people, even when we dont share or understand their lifestyle, so as to avoid dangerous and useless misunderstandings.
But when manners become a prison, prevent us from communicating and understanding, we should not be afraid of breaking the rules. Its always better, in any case, to understand which rules we are following and why. To know when we believe in what we are doing and when we are just following conventional habits.
It isnt always necessary or useful to break habits or rules. But if we accept rules and habits too easily, whithout understanding their reason and meaning, we can be locked in a state of blind obedience that makes us ignorant, stupid and useless to ourselves and others.
Imagination, curiosity and a taste for diversity are nourishment for intelligence. Habit can keep us away from these vital resources. Habit can make us blind when it prevents us from noticing signs that are around us and dont fall into the usual pattern.
It isnt easy to break or change habits. Our brain structure, as well the cultural and social environment, tend to push us back into habit even when we have been able to break out of it. One of the ways of breaking the vicious circle is to replace old habits with new ones. For instance, to get into the habit of being more curious, open and available, of noticing things that we werent seeing because they didnt fit into our established perception framework.
Of course humor and irony are tools for intelligence. But many jokes are mere habit. This isnt just a because old jokes are repeated endlessly. Its also a matter of cultural bias, reinforcement of conventional clichés. Humor opens new perspectives when in breaks away from convention and habit. And when we make fun of our own silliness (and habits.) Taking ourselves too seriously is a way of being stupid.
While I was working on these notes, a question was lingering in my mind. Is laziness stupid? The answer is yes, when its mental laziness lack of curiosity, unwillingness to learn, staying with habits. But there are behaviors that can appear lazy or idle while they are remarkably intelligent. Staying away from unnecessary and confusing haste. Taking the time to think, to rest, to relax. Letting a problem lay in the back of our mind while we concentrate on something else (or we break away completely for a while, to do something that we enjoy) is often a way of finding the best solution.
Many great discoveries and improvements of thinking were perceived ad idle thoughts by the prevailing culture at their time. In any case, they were made by people who could afford to be idle, to be free from the burden of daily toil. But only a few could afford that privilege. Now that, in modern society, leisure time is much more widely available, a lot of that time is wasted in repetitive behavior that we dont particularly enjoy, that doesnt open our minds to the pleasures of freedom, but keeps us in the slavery of routine and habit.
We should try, every day, to break a habit. Even a small one. Finding a new way of going to the same place (in the streets as well as in our mind) can bring refreshing surprises.
Mental exercise is not the endless repetition of the same calisthenics. Its looking constantly for something that we didnt know or we hadnt noticed. Or finding different ways of thinking about the same things. As many intelligent behaviors, in addition to being useful it can be amusing and pleasant.
* * *
A list of the friends of stupidity could be endless. But I hope these short comments can contribute to understanding how stupidity, ignorance, fear and habit can combine in many unhealthy ways.
As in the case of stupidity, things get worse when these attitudes are shared.
Ignorance spreads faster than knowledge. Prejudice and misinformation, as well as ridiculous nonsense, are often taken as true just because they are widely repeated.
Fear becomes catastrophical when its shared by a mass. Large numbers of people in a frenzy of fear (or anger) can be extremely dangerous. Even in relatively small numbers fear can spread from one person to another when they have no reason to be afraid or make things worse in a case of real danger.
Social or group habits often become mindless obedience, mental slavery, with results ranging from boring monotony to harmful behavior or serious crime.
The combination of these forces can produce obnoxious results. But, on the other hand, breaking one, or reducing its impact, can help us to limit the effect of another.
When we find ways of being a bit less ignorant, less scared, less conditioned by habit, we have a better chance of being less stupid and thus more helpful to other people, as well as more comfortable with ourselves.