An Experiment in Counter-Stupidity

Originally I had proposed to do my third book on the history of human stupidity. It would basically be an offshoot of the transgression part of the 48 Laws, each one of those being a form of stupidity. I had the book mapped out in an interesting way, but the publishers felt it was too negative, and so I plowed ahead with the more general idea of a book on War and Strategy. This was probably for the better, but I will return to the idea of stupidity some day and make that book.

It is all centered around the Greek concept that more harm is done in life through incompetence and stupidity than outright evil. Stupidity is seen as a form of imbalance. Animals have their instincts to depend on in danger. We have our reason and rationality. When we lose those reasoning powers, it is like falling between two stools: we cannot depend on our instincts, and we cannot depend on our intelligence. We fall and create waves of problems. I have developed this concept in Strategy number 12, but a full treatment awaits my book. I would want it to be the ultimate analysis of the universal phenomenon of stupidity, full of historical examples, and both tragic and funny.

One of the most obdurate forms of stupidity is the frozen idea. We all suffer from this. What I mean is the following: we develop some idea about life. This could come from things we read and hear in the media, or from our own experiences. These ideas freeze into an opinion about something. As time goes on, this opinion of ours tends to lose touch with reality. Sometimes we hold on to such opinions because to admit they were wrong or irrelevant causes us emotional turmoil and anxiety; out of vanity and laziness we don’t ever want to admit we were mistaken. Listen to people in their 60s or 70s; almost every idea they express is some kind of hardened cliché formed in their youth.

I was recently on a little vacation in the Bay Area, and feeling in need of some mental therapy, I decided to run a little experiment on myself. I would try to do and think everything the opposite of how I normally approach things. To help me in this matter, I placed the one ring I wear (inherited from my father when he passed away) on a finger on the right, instead of left, hand. This would be very noticeable to me and make me constantly aware of something different. It would remind me, physically, to stay on the contrary path. As a side experience, it caused me to evaluate my normal reactions to things, to highlight them and make me aware of how mechanical I can be in response to other people.

During the trip, I would find myself feeling irritable by something someone said (I was traveling with family). I first forced myself to feel the opposite, a sense of joy at their expression of the obvious. Or maybe it was not so obvious. Maybe there was a strange bit of wisdom contained in this cliché they were uttering. In any event, it was exhilarating to play in this way, and to watch how this would build its own momentum. Acting and reacting differently, even if forced, made me feel different and that was therapeutic.

This went deeper and deeper. I had to sing or dance when normally I wanted to crawl into the bed of my hotel room. I had to read the hotel magazine when I was craving the deeper ideas of the book I was currently reading. This hotel magazine, crammed with the most banal articles, would be a real challenge to me: could I find it interesting in some way? Yes, yes I could.

I would say no when I wanted to say yes, and vice versa. This caused some culinary quakes: I had to eat things I had been telling myself were bad for me or that I was repulsed by. I had to turn off my cell phone, not check my email. Everything had to be upside down and I just let this take its course. The people around me were aware of me acting a bit strange, but they are used to that.

Well, many interesting thoughts came to me during this experiment. An idea for a new philosophy of living, a new book to work on, a new way of adjusting to the world. I could write endlessly about the results. But I will share one revelation: As we all know, the Bay Area is the center of world political correctness. It generally works in the following way: every choice in life is scrutinized and double-checked for how it fits into a neat set of moral and/or value slots that occupy the mind.

These slots pertain to the environment: driving a Prius, recycling, not reading a lot of newspapers that involve cutting down trees, a huge preference for public transportation, a constant discussion of global warming, on and on. Nearby slots would include food: everything organic, coffee picked the right way, not wasting too much water, frequenting the right stores. This is located near the shopping slot: better not buy at the big chain bookstores; support the little guy (City Lights, not Barnes & Noble), buy your clothes here, not there; a look of Urban Outfitter shabby is better, because it denotes a casual attitude, not too tied to material things.

Some cities and places are inherently correct: the Bay Area, Oregon, Santa Fe, anything in Mexico or Third Worldy, Minneapolis, blue states, being from Canada. Some places are inherently evil: Southern California, anything in Texas (besides Austin), much of the South and certainly Florida. Certain writers are inherently cool and dripping with wisdom: Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, to name a few. They could fart and it would smell like wisdom. You must know the right radio stations. Perhaps it is wise to not own a TV. Your children must be fed the right selections: food, clothing, music.

The mind becomes a cavern full of these slots. Now why is this related to my experiment in counter stupidity? Well, because I detected dozens of such slots in my own mind and value system. And it troubled me. All of this becomes a block against experience. Instead of questioning yourself or others about what they are doing, you have a readymade system of choices to abide by. You are not challenged by life, not called to think too deeply. Instead of noticing the world for what it is, each event being unique and educative, you can exist in this bubble.

And this extreme correctness, what I call the New Prudery, is nothing more than a variation on stupidity. When I am around New Prudes, and they are everywhere these days, a contrary spirit raises its ugly head in me and I have to express the opposite of the values and clichés they are peddling. But maybe I should try the opposite and become an extreme Prude, for a day.

When we were children, it was possible to experience the world in an immediate fashion. Our brains were not stuffed full of judgments and predigested opinions. We could look at the world around us with a bit of wonder and excitement at the smallest thing. As I said in the WAR book, what we would really like to get back from our youth is not our good looks, or carefree life, but the mind–elastic and open–we once possessed.

It is hard to fight the weight of stupidity as it crushes us with the years, but only good things can come from the effort.

Postscript: I include this link to a translation of Flaubert’s brilliant “Dictionary of Received Ideas,” which comes at the end of his equally brilliant novel, Bouvard and Pecuchet. Flaubert was greatly interested in the study of human stupidity, or la bêtise humaine. Many of the entries in this dictionary are quite dated, but sadly, many are not.

Click here to read Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas.

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