There was once a time when one of the most uncomfortable things in the world was to be branded by others as “stupid”. Historically stupidity was clearly defined and for hundreds of years, individuals who had different opinions or who were not pleasant could be ostracized and excluded using this kind of language.
That is even though back then, just as it is now, the idea of “stupidity” was only ever a communications construct. Because what was defined as stupid was always being revised – it could involve unappetising political positions, or people from different countries, workers or women and, over and over again, strangers with a different skin colour. All of these types of humans have had to deal with accusations of stupidity.
Today however it seems as though that kind of accusation is like water off a duck’s back. Instead conventional knowledge and wisdom is denigrated and hostility expressed at the intellectual of the moment. This kind of attitude can be classified as “the new stupidity” and its destructive potential for society should not be underestimated.
Historically, we first had the “old” stupidity – but that was never really about actual ignorance, rather it was whatever the supposedly smarter people defined as stupid. This kind of allegation traditionally allowed the exclusion of all those who were supposedly unwise or uneducated. Just like all the barbarians in the history of the world, these stupid “others” were seen as uneducated and uncultured. And as humanity’s knowledge grew, the lines between those who could, and apparently could not, profit from our accumulated wisdom became clearer. For the educated, there were henceforth the simpleminded and backward – the stupid ones.
Philosophers defined it like this: “A deficit in understanding equals stupidity,” Arthur Schopenhauer said. While Immanuel Kant thought: “deficiency in judgement is properly that which is called stupidity”. Under those conditions, of course nobody wanted to be called stupid in public – that’s why allegations of stupidity in public were so effective.
That impact led to social boundaries and it worked particularly well for the political exclusion of females. Men were successful at denying women the vote for a very long time, thanks to allegations of stupidity. Females were not adjudged mentally capable until the 19th century. In 1871, Charles Darwin wrote that: “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination”.
An alternative vision of anthropology applied to the feminine appeared to prove that physical frailty and over-emotionality made strength and rationality impossible. At the turn of the century German feminist and author, Hedwig Dohm, could only helplessly confirm that when it came to being denied political rights, “the woman and the idiot” were to be found in the same category.
This method of exclusion also worked well in other social debates. Social democratic policies and rising criticism of capitalism were denigrated as the popular slogans espoused by dummies. German protestants were so proud of their education that their Catholic neighbours could be categorised as medieval, overly religious and stupid. The many and varied forms of nationalism regularly fed on allegations of stupidity in other lands. No country or people was spared. At one stage, German leader Otto von Bismarck classified the French as a “stupid country”. Germans traditionally categorised their Slavic neighbours as uneducated and stupid, something that the Nazis’ Third Reich was easily able to use as part of their theories about a master race. German anti-American sentiments, part of the countless national stereotypes in this country, often incorporate an unhappy judgment on the intellect of those so-called “Amis”.
Anybody who wanted to defend themselves against that sort of defamation had a long and tedious road ahead of them. Catholics, women and Social Democrats all wanted to prove they were not, in fact, stupid. They wanted to show they were not irrational and “useless”. So they graduated from schools and universities, and rose in fields like science and politics, in order for that to be recognised. It was a difficult process that is still not finished in many social circles. But it is also true that many of those who were earlier defamed as stupid have now reached a place where they are no longer automatically classified as such.
That era in the history of stupidity seems to be behind us now – there is no longer any great urge to escape that kind of social stigma. Being accused of being stupid no longer hurts. These days, it is not necessarily something that would see you socially discredited. In fact, it’s the opposite. Today it is altogether possible to deliberately describe yourself as stupid, or at the very least, to toy with that self-description.
It is not only on social media and on television that declaring your incomprehension about some complex topic is seen as an introduction: “I’m no expert but…” Or: “I haven’t read those clever books but every child knows…”
These kinds of statements are now used to open complicated discussions about issues like environmental protection and social policies, as well as military strategies and questions about education, discussions that are often accompanied by mockery of those who are supposed to be cleverer, smarter or more intellectual.
This approach is in keeping with the tradition of hostility towards intellectuals that became particularly apparent and aggressive at the beginning of the 20th century. The intellectual became a figure of division and hate, particularly for totalitarians. When Communists put to death other Communists in the Soviet era, one of the ways they defamed their victims was describing them as intellectuals. Germany’s National Socialists, or Nazis, were particularly enthusiastic about attacking any and every form of apparent intellectualism, not only in politics but also in culture. Calling art “degenerate” was no different from describing somebody as “unnatural” and it was all connected to brainy creative endeavours. At the same time these attacks were often related to anti-Semitism too.
The “spirit” of intellectualism infuriated the Nazis and other fascists and they saw it as the opposite of much hazier qualities, of “feeling” and “believing”. Instead of intellect or knowledge a “healthy national attitude” – whose twin was “healthy common sense” – should take precedence, they said. What the Nazis’ Third Reich historically did for stupidity cannot be underestimated. A large part of a hostility towards intelligence remains, and with it there lingers not only a deep affection for “healthy common sense” but also scepticism about science and in particular, the arts and humanities.
The “new stupidity” is related to all this. It evinces a latently aggressive attitude towards science and intellectualism that also has consequences for political culture. And as it carries with it a blatant hatred of a kind of caricature of the “elites” – those who are apparently trying to impose their will on the “real” people – it is an integral part of modern populism.
The latter is well known to be an enemy of democracy, as is the “new stupidity” because it questions the separation of powers and the competencies of established institutions, not only in parliaments but more frequently, also of an independent judiciary. The “new stupidity” insists on not recognising their findings or decisions.
Established politicians have also used this attitude for their own purposes. One example is the reaction of Germany’s transport minister, Andreas Scheuer, to faulty calculations about the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by diesel-powered vehicles. Previous, and still valid, findings about the health-endangering potential of vehicular emissions were shaken by that case and many people are no longer certain as to whether strict measurement processes and bans are actually appropriate. Yet again, expertise was attacked for calculated political reasons.
US President Donald Trump is one of the leaders of this movement advocating the “new stupidity”. When he refuses to recognise anthropogenic climate change, he provides a battering ram to other flaky climate change deniers, such as the president of the International Ski Federation, the FIS, who denies the idea of global warming because snow fell on some ski resorts.
This certainly has something to do with the fact that, while many people feel emboldened to dismiss scientific knowledge, they also don’t feel in the least bit socially excluded for doing so. Attacks on less well known research are also aided by this. Besides global warming, the topic of gender studies is another significant example. This area of studies is not just being attacked in places like Hungary, where there is unbridled antagonism toward scholarly pursuits right now, but also in Germany.
Here the far-right political party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has suggested that state money be pulled out of gender studies. The reasoning behind this is that this is not a genuine field of research. They are not correct but such statements have political impact nonetheless. This has led to a regrettable discussion among the associated scientists, who have increasingly become a target for outrage and aggression, as to whether it might not be better for them to publish their research anonymously.
Just as populism is a natural habitat for the “new stupidity” so is any kind of religious fundamentalism. The main idea being that belief comes before knowledge. Christians don’t need to point a finger at any kind of sect or at Islam; they themselves have a long and unholy tradition of decrying worldly knowledge quite deliberately, in the service of an otherworldly being. The so-called Creationists who deny evolutionary theory are an irritating example of this remnant of evangelical Christianity. There are also more esoteric belief systems that willing subscribe to this kind of religious fundamentalism – because after all, if you believe, you don’t need to know.
You can recognise the “new stupidity” by its opposition to knowledge and intellectualism and by its anti-democratic positions – and there is nothing at all cute about it. And it is about more than poking self-indulgent fun at those who like to think of themselves as smarter. In terms of politics and society, it is a destabilising factor that shouldn’t be underestimated because what it does is pull the ground out from under political negotiations.
Diesel-powered vehicles are unhealthy? Human activity is leading to global warming? Gender studies offer a contemporary addition to our understanding of societal realities? Those who ignore such facts will behave differently, and that behaviour won’t be rational.
However we are not powerless in the face of this phenomenon. The “new stupidity” can only claim as much mental space as society allows it. When it comes to the survival of our shared democratic values, it is our response to knowledge, our recognition of liberal scientific endeavour and research, our appreciation for teachers and our advocacy for intellectuals, artists and journalists that will be decisive.