The phenomenon that is at the root of all problems.
By Peter Burns [November 10, 2021]
“Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian. Penning this sentence ten years after the accession of Adolf Hitler to supreme power, these words reflected tough lessons soaked in blood. Bonhoeffer formed part of a small circle of resistance to the dictator in Germany, risking his life for an ideal.
It was a dark time in his homeland. Total war had engulfed the world, and a totalitarian regime was controlling the country. Bonhoeffer pondered how this came to be. He thought about the nature of evil, but came to the conclusion it was not evil itself that was the most dangerous enemy of the good. Rather, it was stupidity.
For you can fight against evil. Evil gives people a queasy feeling in the stomach. As Bonhoeffer continued, “evil carries with itself the seeds of its own destruction.” To prevent willful malice, you can always erect barriers to stop its spread. Against stupidity you are defenseless.
“Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Understanding the nature of stupidity
After writing down those words, Bonhoeffer was soon arrested. He died two years later, executed in a concentration camp by Nazi henchmen. The man lived in what now seems like a completely different era. Yet, the ideas he left us with have an application in any century. For stupidity hasn’t disappeared. It is eternal.
“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature,” wrote Bonhoeffer in his treatise. And the nature of stupidity has its roots deep in the subconscious. It is driven by the fundamental mechanics of the human experience. As ancient philosophers noted, humans are social animals. It is this very sociability that is at the base of stupidity.
“We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Stupidity is a group phenomenon. An individual can act stupidly, but that has no effect on the greater whole. However, when a group acts stupidly, that greatly impacts the individual, compounding the entire effect. In many ways, something with initially positive ramifications, ended up stabbing humanity in the back.
Human nature doesn’t change as the years pass by. The inner workings of individual people are the same as those of their remote ancestors living on the savannas of Africa 50 thousand years ago. Some of these internal processes stretch even further back, millions of years into the past when primitive brains started to develop.
Numerous heuristics evolved in order to help individuals navigate the world. Among these, following the herd is arguably the most prominent. It makes sense. When information is scarce, doing what others are doing is probably the best course of action. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work all the time. In some cases it can bring about bad results, due to cognitive biases.
Herd behavior is among the pre-eminent causes of stupidity. Numerous scientific studies have shown how individual humans can be swayed by the crowd to adopt positions which go against all logic. In a classic examination of human folly, psychologist Solomon Asch looked at how individual people respond to the majority group around them.
Do they conform to the group’s view? Or do they strike out on their own contrarian (but ultimately correct) path? The results were mind-boggling, but incredibly telling for showing how stupidity arises. In the course of the 12 experiments on conformity, around 75% of the participants conformed to the majority view at least once.
This means 3/4ths of the people doing the study were pushed to say an answer which was clearly wrong, just by peer pressure from the group around them. This type of a process is at the core of how stupidity allows evil to rise up.
“The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As Bonhoeffer quipped, “the power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.” All kinds of populists, political entrepreneurs, and bullshitters take advantage of this mental state of the masses. Without support from the wider aspects of society, none of these power-hungry individuals would be able to access power.
People overcome with stupidity act as if possessed. Their logical part of the brain is shut down. Such a person starts acting as a political zombie, with whom any type of logic or discussion of facts fails. Instead, they function on the level of slogans, catchwords, and low-level rallying cries.
“In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Stupidity facilitates the process of the capture of society by spineless, evil forces. A narrative is created that incorporates simple explanations for complex problems, offering “solutions” and scapegoats. Whoever doesn’t conform to this standard orthodoxy becomes the “other”, an enemy to be destroyed.
Of course these stories would never amount to anything if people didn’t believe them. Unfortunately, they do. Stupidity wins out over reason.
Stupidity in our times
The 21st century is seeing these internal failures of the human mind unfold in full swing. The first decade saw cognitive biases create economic bubbles which resulted in the crash of 2008. The second and third decades are seeing malicious forces from different sides of the political aisle hijack the world at large.
While a combination of ideological true-believers and political bullshitters is leading the charge, all this is facilitated by stupidity. Bonhoeffer observed how historical forces and external conditions can exacerbate the problem of stupidity.
“It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The German’s reflections describe the current situation in the US and the world perfectly. Even more than 70 years later, they illuminate the forces at play. Recent upsurges of power have infected certain swathes of the population with great amounts of stupidity.
We have witnessed it in the pro-Trump rallies, which resulted in an attack on the US Capitol. We have seen it in the BLM protests, which degenerated into wanton looting. We come across it every day in the filter bubbles on the internet, which often foster vitriolic groupthink. Stupidity is an ever-present danger, lurking at every corner of the political spectrum.
Yet, argue with the individual actors using logic and facts, and you get nowhere. Their brains are locked, captive to pre-conceived notions and biases. As Bonhoeffer noted, it is wiser to abandon all attempts at convincing the stupid person. It’s of no use.
“We must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“Brexit is Brexit” was the slogan often repeated by those in power in the UK. What Brexit actually meant, no one knew. Not even them. The impossibility of the entire Northern Ireland situation should have helped them smell the coffee from the get-go, but it appears as if people were on drugs.
Even now, when it became apparent that quitting the EU has meant empty shelves, disrupted supply chains, and more red tape, the Brexiteers haven’t woken up to reality. The same Brexit slogans and chants are still being shouted. The European Union is still the big bad bogeyman at fault with everything. The same thought patterns as in many a cult repeat themselves.
When Leon Festinger studied a UFO cult back in the 1950’s, he came across a curious thing. The cult leader, Dorothy Martin, a housewife from Chicago, foresaw that the world was going to end on the 21st of December, 1954. Seeing that we are still here, it is evident the prophesy was BS. Yet, many people believed it and gathered on that fateful day in a non-descript house.
They sat there, waiting for doomsday. To their great astonishment, it never came. When the hour for the end of the world arrived, nothing happened. What amazed the researchers who infiltrated the group were the reactions of many of the members. Faced with this apparent negation of their beliefs, many of the faithful did not abandon them.
Instead, their belief in Dorothy Martin’s BS grew even stronger. Festinger and his fellow researchers called this the backfire effect. Journalist David McRaney has a great definition of it. “When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.”
Stupidity in full view. Yet, the case of the whacky UFO cult is nothing out of the ordinary. These types of processes are at play every day with ordinary people. Ordinary people get constantly confronted with facts that prove their dearly held beliefs are not true. Yet, most just ignore them.
This effect is magnified many fold in today’s age. The world is full of chaos. There is too much junk passing around masquerading as information. This makes people confused. Another German who lived through the dark times of Nazism, psychologist Erich Fromm described how trash polluting the ether can mess with a person’s psyche.
“The result of this kind of influence is twofold: one is a skepticism and cynicism towards everything which is said or printed, while the other is a childish belief in anything that a person is told with authority. This combination of cynicism and naïveté is very typical of the modern individual. Its essential result is to discourage him from doing his own thinking and deciding.” — Erich Fromm
Of Jewish descent, Fromm experienced the stupidity of other people on his own skin. Forced to flee his homeland, the psychologist ended up spending his lifetime studying the behavior of people in chaotic times. He posited that the individual’s use of mental escape mechanisms was at the root of psychological conflicts.
Fromm tried to understand the laws that govern society. He argued that modern society brought with it freedom, but this very thing was also the seed of its destruction. Individuals received a new sense of independence, but this filled them with anxiety and doubt. People end up getting alienated, and seek a sense of security with other like-minded people.
This is what promotes the rise of authoritarianism and other sick ideologies. In a way, you could argue that this sense of alienation leads to a rise in stupidity.
“The sick individual finds himself at home with all other similarly sick individuals. The whole culture is geared to this kind of pathology. The result is that the average individual does not experience the separateness and isolation the fully schizophrenic person feels. He feels at ease among those who suffer from the same deformation; in fact, it is the fully sane person who feels isolated in the insane society.” — Erich Fromm in “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”
We are living in an insane society. On one hand, you have people believing Trump won the presidency, despite evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, you have people ruminating on the eternal sin of “white people”, whoever they are. As an individual who tries to use reason and common sense, you often end up feeling isolated amid all the madness.
Stupidity reigns supreme
In his book “Fall or, Dodge in Hell”, novelist Neal Stephenson has one of his characters say a very telling phrase, “the mass of people are stupid, so gullible, because they want to be misled.” This captures perfectly why stupidity reigns supreme.
“The mass of people are so stupid, so gullible, because they want to be misled. There’s no way to make them not want it. You have to work with the human race as it exists, with all of its flaws. Getting them to see reason is a fool’s errand.” — Neal Stephenson in “Fall or, Dodge in Hell”
The average person acts as if they willfully wanted to be misled. They fall for lies, cons, and half-truths. The political entrepreneurs, the populists, can come and play them at will. The power of the bullshitters is a direct result of the stupidity of the masses who fall for their BS.
As Bonhoeffer sat in his cell writing his personal reflections, waiting for his final day, the world around him was stuck in madness. While overcome with despair, he did see flashes of light. For him, the majority of people were not stupid in every circumstance. Rather, it was a matter of what those in power expect.
“But these thoughts about stupidity also offer consolation in that they utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance. It really will depend on whether those in power expect more from people’s stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom.” — Friedrich Bonhoeffer
For Bonhoeffer, stupidity was not the problem of the individual. Instead, it was a matter of groups of individuals coming together. Madness finds its force in crowds.
This echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous aphorism, that while insanity might be rare in individuals, it is generally the rule in groups, parties, nations, and epochs.
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Peter Burns is a curious polymath who wants to know how everything works.