November 15, 2012

An Obligation to Challenge Stupidity

christopher hitchens on stupidityThe first time I heard this quote, I really liked it. I'm not a fan of apathy, and this quote seemed like a perfect reminder of the importance of acting to address the wrongs around us. I still like the quote, but I recognize that it could be misused as a license to be an asshole.

I agree completely with what it says about unfairness, and I would add cruelty to the list. When faced with unfairness or cruelty, we should not remain silent. We should act. What I'm not so sure about anymore is the inclusion of "stupidity" in the list. I don't know about you, but if I spoke out or took action every time I was confronted by stupidity, it would be all I'd have time to do. Like most of you, I do not have the luxury of making a living as a social critic and provocateur.

What Do We Mean By Stupidity?

We have a tendency to use the "stupid" label to describe claims or arguments with which we strongly disagree (i.e., those with which we have a strong negative emotional response). If our feelings were a perfect reflection of reality, this would be a sound method. Since they are not, there is room for considerable subjectivity to creep in. What I consider stupid, someone else might consider genius. Who is right?

A stupid claim is a claim that is wrong, but what else is it? Not all incorrect claims are stupid, so what separates those that are just wrong from those that are both wrong and stupid? I'm not sure we can even recognize stupidity apart from our own values, attitudes, and beliefs.

Do We Have an Obligation to Challenge Stupidity?

What do you think? Do we have an obligation to challenge stupidity? Assuming we could somehow define stupidity in a meaningful way so it could be recognized, do we really have an obligation to challenge it?

I think most of us could agree that young earth creationism qualifies as a stupid belief. Do we have an obligation to challenge this belief, and if so, how far does this obligation extend? I am more likely to challenge creationism in the context of what children are being taught in a public school than I am in the context of what I might hear at a social gathering. This is because I perceive the cost of the claims as quite different in the two settings. But perhaps this is a cop-out and I should really be challenging it in any setting where I encounter it.

What about the forms of "stupidity" found today in the atheist community? Do they even count as stupidity, and if so, do we have any sort of obligation to challenge them? I'm not sure.

Picking Battles

Most of us operate by challenging the forms of stupidity we find most aversive, most detrimental, or most egregious. We are selective, choosing our battles and setting our own priorities. Without unlimited time and energy, this is as it has to be.

I let much of the stupidity I encounter go for all sorts of reasons. Many instances do not seem worth my time, attention, or effort. So yes, there are plenty of times when I am a spectator of stupidity.