Thursday, 9 December 2021

Liberation from stupidity

 Today I responded to the UK government consultation on banning conversion therapy and said that the proposals as they stand risk preventing charities and support groups from providing direct help to transitioners especially children. It's a waste of time, though; governments do what they want whatever the public thinks. Given that my European ID card arrived in the post today, I think it's time I stopped worrying about what's going on in my previous country. 

Note that the consultation deadline has been extended from tomorrow to 4 February 2022.

My charming sister, the one who hates LGBT folk, wrote me another homophobic/transphobic email rant last week in which she was explaining why she doesn't want to give anyone Christmas presents. Having thought long and hard about what to do about combating her hate, I concluded that Dietrich Bonhöffer and Carlo Cipolla's observations are very apt. 

Who are they and what did they observe?

Well, this passage from a letter ("After 10 Years") written from a German prison in 1943 by Dietrich Bonhöffer, a Lutheran pastor who vocally opposed the Nazi régime that transformed Germany from a land of musicians and scientists into a murderous war machine, is eloquent and incisive. The problem with society from time to time, he perceived, and as we have seen in the last few years in various contexts, is not so much malice, which can be combated since most people find it repellent, but stupidity, against which reason and force are powerless. His argument is here (or skip to the short video below):

"Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenceless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. 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.


"If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect, yet stupid; and others who are intellectually quite dull, yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect, but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. 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. 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. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. 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. 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. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.


"Yet at this very point it becomes quite clear that only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity. Here we must come to terms with the fact that in most cases a genuine internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it. Until then we must abandon all attempts to convince the stupid person. This state of affairs explains why in such circumstances our attempts to know what ‘the people’ really think are in vain and why, under these circumstances, this question is so irrelevant for the person who is thinking and acting responsibly. [...]


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."


There is a recent and very good summary of this thought in a video that puts it in context:

You can compare Bonhöffer's thought with that of economist Carlo M. Cipolla's 1988 satirical (but serious) essay on stupidity ("Allegro ma non troppo"). There are 5 fundamental laws of stupidity:

1: the number of stupid people around is always underestimated

2: the probability of anyone being stupid is independent of any other characteristic they may have (e.g. status or academic ability)

3: a stupid person is one who harms others but does not derive a benefit for themselves from that harm (unlike, say, a criminal, a 'bandit')

4: people who are not stupid always underestimate the power that stupid people have to cause harm, so dealing with or associating with stupid people is always a costly mistake

5: stupid people are the most dangerous people around, more so than bandits because you can at least understand bandits' motives and take protective measures

These laws are reflected in 4 types of person:

- Intelligent people, who benefit both themselves and others

- Hapless people, who benefit others but at a loss to themselves

- Bandits, who harm others to gain something for themselves

- Stupid people who, as in 3 above, hurt themselves in hurting others.

I have spent a lot of time discussing the disturbing rise of narcissism with a friend of mine who happens to be a clinical psychiatrist and who deals mainly with children, including transgender children. In a field that is - thankfully - increasingly being explored by mainstream psychology, the current thinking is that narcissists, psychos and stupid people are best left well alone. You can't (and mustn't) try to reason with them. Yet other scientists feel that you might as well at least combat stupid people - e.g. the fake news brigade - and make them sweat for their stupidity. That was my feeling back in July. The trouble is, they can be vindictive and get more extreme when thwarted. Bonhöffer suggests that liberation from the context that created their stupidity is the solution, whether that context is populist political movements, fundamentalist religious notions, oppressive family dynamics, toxic workplaces or whatever. 

I'm still thinking about this as I feel some responsibility for the family I came from. They gain nothing from attacking LGBT people but, in doing so, only isolate themselves more from society that increasingly accepts LGBT. By these definitions, they are stupid. Having been infected with stupidity they are now dangerous and best avoided. Maybe avoidance would represent liberation for myself as well, instead of this lifelong shadow their transphobia has had over me.


Sue x



  1. It's truly unfortunate if it's true that there's nothing we can do to take action about people acting stupidly. I'm not sure how one would go about "liberating" a person from it.

    It's one thing to isolate yourself from them. It's another to let them go about their business, spreading lies and intentional misinformation. (sigh)



    1. It's a dilemma, I agree, Christine. The suggestion is that the source of the ongoing infection needs to be eliminated, such as the removal of a regime or organisation or boss, etc. That takes away the chief source of supply and the infected can then heal and think and act normally again.

      How I can remove my family members from their sources of toxic supply is what's trying my intellect at the moment.

      Sue x

    2. Fire? 😉

      Or to put that in Daily Heil terminology: "Transgender bloggers threaten devout Christians by burning!" 🙄

  2. What an amazing post. Thanks for sharing both of those gems. You can't argue with stupid can you.

    It's tough in that alone, an idiot seems a threat to themselves, but en masse, that's quite another story.

    I feel it's frustrating as certain acts are complex and there's a lot of nuance or grey areas. The latter rarely have an easy or obvious answer. Yet, that's usually a few stupid ones. It seems certain folk back them and become attached to the doctrine (would recommend the website Know Your Bias) and cannot move on.

    1. Thank you for your kind endorsement, Lynn. And thank you for mentioning the Know Your Bias website that I wasn't previously aware of.

      Bonhöffer particularly saw stupidity as a sociological problem, that people together are more likely to become stupid than people on their own. There are degrees of stupidity, obviously, and - if recent science is right - every individual has some sort of irrational belief. It's just that some, like my sister, have a lot of such beliefs and they get reinforced by her regularly associating with persons who support and supply it.

      Sue x

    2. I do struggle with the idea of stupid. Feel free to make your own jokes about that 🙂

      What I mean is, does it help draw people away from something you, or perhaps society, experts*, etc, consider a dumb idea or behaviour?

      Do such folk consider they are being judged, which may be ironic if their 'stupid' is judge and indeed hate on others?

      If they feel judged, where does that leave us? Will they listen, reflect, retreat to a place they can be supported, or something else?

      * Mind you, there's that infamous quote “people in this country have had enough of experts”.

    3. When it comes to certain religions, the adherents are indeed being judged, constantly, by their god(s), their priests and other members. They act to please the deity - and failure to do so often has luridly imagined consequences - so if that religion has decided that, say, LGBT people are the worst people then those people must be attacked. One could draw an analogy with Nazism that decided, for no rational reason, that "International Jewry" - simultaneously Marxist and exploitatively capitalist (go figure!) - was the problem (or rather the scapegoat). Persecute Jews and you are doing the best for Germany; Persecute LGBT people and you are pleasing the deity and improving the purity of the religion in the eyes of that deity. The fact that individual adherents can't see the evil they do and how it actually harms them, society and their religion, too, is what my theorists would regard as stupidity. Stupid is as stupid does, said a fictional philosopher from Alabama. But, yes, judgment and fear of condemnation are very much a part of the package in this case.

      It's also the case that people have a very difficult time trying to admit that maybe what they once thought needs to change. The idea that maybe they have been wrong or unjust is something that wounds the ego to admit. So getting more extreme in their muddled views is many people's way of protecting their increasingly besieged egos.

      Sue x

  3. Your Sister does NOT Deserve YOU ..NO is bad enough from other peoples views/judgements being very SNOTTY NOSED .When it is one of YOUR OWN FAMILY .,What a DISGRACE .,.MARK.X