A theory of stupid

Photo by Andrea Lightfoot on Unsplash

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

When I read the quote above it’s difficult to imagine how on earth we might achieve the status of being a ‘moral society’ when we consider the prevalence of inequity and injustice that exists in so many areas of our society and world – along with the evidence of corruption, dishonesty, lack of integrity and failures in leadership at so many levels.

It’s easy to focus simply on what we see as the problem and find someone to blame for it all. Blame is, after all, is the fodder of politicians around election time – with problems orchestrated, blame apportioned and ‘quick-fix’ solutions promoted in order to win favour at the ballot box. Seldom to we engage in an informed and constructive debate that looks beneath the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the problem or issue we can see or is affecting us, to explore the underlying conditions that gave rise to that in the first place, and the underpinning mental models and beliefs from which they arise.

In this process we too often focus our attention on those we see as the ones responsible for the dilemmas – the decision-makers, politicians, business and community leaders etc. And often this perception is justified – we are constrained by particular policy for example, alienated because we don’t qualify for a particular support or impacted because of a decision that affects us in a negative way (e.g. being made redundant at work, losing a home due to the rise in interest rates or being unable to meet transportation needs due to rising cost of fuel etc.)

We see this sort of behaviour in various jurisdictions around the world (including NZ) – with political leaders being held to account for all sorts of problems, whether they are responsible for initiating war or suppressing the rights of citizens, or are trying to introduce policies and legislation that isn’t welcomed by some groups in society (e.g. reducing CO2 emissions, capital gains tax, anti-racism legislation etc.)

But becoming pre-occupied with this sort of ‘blame’ mentality seldom leads to any sort of constructive solution-finding. More likely, we become consumed with negativity and end up feeling overwhelmed with the feeling that there’s noting we can do that will make a difference, and so, like sheep, we simply follow the leader and comply with what we’re being told to do. Worst case is that we end up suffering from depression or more serious mental health issues arising from our feelings of personal powerlessness.

So how do we achieve a state where we have good and effective leadership, where decisions are made and agreements reached on the basis of a strong sense of moral purpose? And what is the responsibility of every citizen in this process?

In a country or organisation led by those who are patently corrupt or even ‘evil’ this can seem impossible. It’s the challenge contemplated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who spent that last 18 months of World War 2 in prison (until his execution in April, 1945) as a result of his opposition to the Hitler regime. While imprisoned by the Nazis for his involvement in the resistance, Bonhoeffer continued to write prolifically. His prison writings reveal a profound moral and spiritual struggle, as well as a keen analysis of the political and ethical implications of the Nazi regime.

In an article titled We have more to fear from stupid people than evil ones, Oxford University lecturer Jonny Thomson references Dietrich Bonhoeffer saying that “stupidity is worse than evil because stupidity can be manipulated and used by evil.”  Thomson’s article and the short video below provides a succinct overview of this thinking…

The transcript of this video can be found on the Sprouts site here.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer wrestled with how it could be that so many people could end up being persuaded to submit to such a corrupt system. Reflecting on this he argues that stupidity tends to go hand-in-hand with acquiring power — and that being in power so often means we surrender our individual critical faculties.

Thomson sums up the Bonhoeffer perspective by saying…

Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work. Like sheep in a field, a stupid person can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things.

Jonny Thomson

So while Bonhoeffer identifies the perpetrators of the terrible things going on around him at the time as ‘evil’, the more serious problem he sees is the ‘stupidity’ of the population who have bought into the ways of thinking and behaving that are patently dehumanising and corrupt – victims of the relentless campaigns of mis-information and propaganda.

This is an important message for educators. In an era of mis-information and conspiracy theory, our focus should be less on the evil of the messaging and more on addressing the “stupidity” [where stupidity equates to the lack of critically-informed engagement] that causes people to subscribe to these ideas in the first place.

Instead of focusing on the “evil” of the messaging or the messenger, we should be addressing the “stupidity” that causes people to subscribe to these ideas in the first place.

The recently announced TVNZ series Web of Chaos looks to provide some interesting insights here. It promises to provide a deep dive into the world of disinformation, exploring why it’s spreading at pace throughout Aotearoa and the world, with specialists warning of striking consequences for social cohesion and democracy.

Promoting critical thinking and media literacy among our young learners is therefore and essential in our modern world, where misinformation and conspiracy theories can spread rapidly. Here are some practical ways teachers can support learners in understanding the dangers of disinformation and conspiracy theories and help them become more critically engaged in current issues:

  1. Critical Thinking Skills: introduce activities and discussions that challenge students to consider issues from multiple perspectives, and to analyse information critically. Encourage them to question claims, examine evidence, and consider alternative viewpoints.
  2. Media Literacy: teach students how to evaluate the credibility of sources, identify bias, and distinguish between fact and opinion. Encourage them to use reliable sources for research and information.
  3. Debunking Activities: introduce activities where students can collaboratively research and debunk popular myths, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. This will enable them to understand the process of fact-checking and critical analysis.
  4. Guest Speakers and Workshops: invite guest speakers, such as journalists or experts in media literacy, to hold workshops and discussions with students about the dangers of disinformation and the importance of critical thinking.
  5. Current Events Discussions: engage students in discussions about current events and news stories. Encourage them to express their opinions while providing guidance on analyzsng information from diverse sources.
  6. Fact-Checking Tools: Introduce fact-checking tools and websites that students can use to verify information before sharing or accepting it as true. Teach them about the importance of reliable sources and the consequences of spreading false information.
  7. Encourage Source Diversity: teach students the value of seeking information from various sources with different perspectives. This will help them gain a more comprehensive understanding of complex issues.
  8. Create a Safe Environment: foster an open and non-judgmental classroom environment where students feel comfortable discussing their beliefs and uncertainties. Encourage respectful debates and conversations.
  9. Social Media Awareness: discuss the role of social media in spreading disinformation and how algorithms can create echo chambers. Encourage responsible social media usage and critical evaluation of information found on these platforms.
  10. Role-Playing Scenarios: use role-playing scenarios where students can act as both creators and consumers of disinformation. This will help them empathise with the impact of false information and understand the responsibility of media literacy.

4 thoughts on “A theory of stupid

  1. A great read. Thank you! “Stupidity” might be more dangerous than evil, but we can combat it by promoting critical thinking and media literacy. Let’s empower young learners to question, analyze, and debunk misinformation. Together, we’ll shape a brighter, more informed future! Thanks, Matt

Leave a Reply