“Stupidity is oblivious to negative consequences; it falls into a pit. Gross stupidity invites negative consequences; it looks for a pit. There’s an element of willfulness to it: let the oceans rise, let the virus rage, you can’t scare me.” (Garret Keizer)
This quote is from an essay in last month’s issue of Harper’s. I read it the other day and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. It’s a philosophical, even religious, reflection on stupidity. It cites Aristotle and Bonhoeffer. It tells the story of Andre Trocme, the Protestant parson who led his French village to harbor Jews from the Nazis (Trocme came to see that stupidity was a third force “seeking hegemony over this world,” in addition to good and evil). It’s a great read and I recommend it.
What I can’t stop thinking about is how reflexes for empathy and understanding can be in the service of stupidity. Ever since 2016, I have tried really hard to listen to points of view I don’t agree with and to understand the values that underlie them, but over and over again those efforts have been rewarded with increasing doses of unreality from some of the people I’m trying to understand. People aghast at the election of Trump were told to read “Hillbilly Elegy” so that they could better understand rural America. It skyrocketed in popularity and became a Netflix movie, and now its venture capitalist author is running for Senate and blaming America’s woes on “the childless left.”
“Only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity,” wrote Bonhoeffer. The people I used to try to persuade and then understand actually need liberated. So do I. We all need liberated from the powers of our time marching us into pits for their own ends.
Stupidity isn’t harmless, and opposing it isn’t elitist. Liberating our neighbors from stupidity is an act of kindness.