Yesterday, I saw a very familiar conflict in my social media feed. It was so familiar, I can’t remember which of my “friends” were angry. I cannot recall their topic of debate. Something like climate change or economic downturn or war; one of those things by which our fate as a species will be decided. The point is, they disagreed. Then one of them told the other that they couldn’t spell and was, therefore, stupid. The other responded that there were more urgent mistakes to consider than spelling at a critical juncture like this one, as all people who were not stupid knew.
I am certain if I had bothered to read the entire thing, I would have found more to agree with in one apocalyptic view than the other. But I have less time these days for conflicts I have not provoked myself. Actually, I’ve now lost interest in these. The result of such “debate”, whether it is of the “respectful” kind we find in news or of the “go die in a fire” internet variety, is never persuasion. The result is that everyone gets called stupid.
I never supposed I would tire of calling people stupid. Before the internet, shaming individuals for their poverty of thought was my hobby. But when everyone got on board and there were even few writers to resist claiming a monopoly on intelligence for their class, I dumped it. Even in our oldest publications, one lot routinely calls the other “stupid politically correct virtue signallers” and the other hits back with “stupid politically incorrect opportunists”. Both arguments are somewhat correct; both are monumentally empty.
I believe it was the week journalists were arguing if a rotten newspaper had the “right” to name a mare Sportswoman of the Year that I happened to speak with colleague Bernard Keane. We agreed that calling those who did nothing but call each other stupid was stupid. We decided to think about the mare “debate” and other such stupid moments seriously.
We wrote a book about a phenomenon we agreed to call “Stupid”. Oddly, it sold rather well and so we, being self-important people, became immediately convinced that all those who had bought the thing had also read it. Soon, we came to know that many had skipped the bits that defined Stupid, which was really the entire book. We knew this, because people kept saying to us, “You’re right. People sure are dumb.”
This was not what we had meant or written at all. Keane and I are friends who disagree about many things, but on Stupid we were united. Our claim was that Stupid was not the work of individuals. Stupid described a mass process. Stupid was a widespread thing, like climate change denial or racism or media reports that began, “Statistics prove …” when statistics had, in fact, simply employed a cheap communications officer to talk up a single data set.
Stupid was a practice likely to create a poor result. Certainly, you could think of Stupid as mass stupidity or delusion, but our claim was that Stupid had to be (a) legitimised by powerful institutions, including “common sense” (b) produced by multiple forces.
It is not, say, the simple stupidity of psychiatrists that produced an influential book now capable of diagnosing every person on the planet with a mood disorder. It was a whole lot of stuff. Stupid, we said, was complicated. It wasn’t just dumb stuff people did. It had come to exist beyond them.
We didn’t write our Stupid account to make a case that the racist should be understood, the anti-vaxxer tolerated outside Mullumbimby. We had no interest in letting practitioners of Stupid off the hook. Still, even Keane, a bloke who loves to take the piss out of conspiracy theorists, seems almost sentimental when he writes that it is hard “to argue that governments are not conspiring against their own citizens when, in fact, that’s exactly what they’re doing”. He’s prepared to give even 9/11 truthers a bit of social context.
This was a side-effect, though. We were not interested in being lenient. We were eager only to make the case that Stupid is more powerful and persuasive than most of the people it afflicts. Often, people are not stupid, but coerced by the force of mass Stupid into particular actions and thought.
I know I am. My individual faculty for reason is felled by mass Stupid. I get angry at slow-moving cars, then fail to write strong words to the Minister for Slow-moving Cars. I get angry at angry people on Facebook, then fail to campaign for Mark Zuckerberg’s incarceration. I get angry that people didn’t read all the chapters in our book. Then fail to acknowledge that they were just too knackered from all the powerful Stupid.