Stupid people

I used to have a poster that paraphrased a quote from the movie The Sixth Sense. It said: “I see stupid people. They’re everywhere. Walking around like regular people.”

It’s true. They really do seem to be everywhere these days — at work, on TV, in the cinema, in Parliament… They’re even at your local bookstore. And they are our newest cultural icons — idiots.

Everywhere you turn these days you find real live adults doing inexplicably stupid things. Take shows such as Fear Factor, for example — why on earth would people want to cover themselves in 200,000 bees, dive in a tank filled with 1,001 snakes, or jump off moving trucks? MTV enjoyed such success with its Jackass stunt fest that they followed up with three Jackass movies. Its tag line: “Same crew, same cast, same level of incompetence.”

Buffoonery has always been a staple of popular culture, but stupidity was usually an unintended consequence. We watched and asked, “Don’t these people know how stupid they are?” Today, idiocy is centre stage. It is the attraction, the point. We watch and say: “Look at these stupid people.”

Thus the popularity of Sky One’s An Idiot Abroad, or the runaway success of The Darwin Awards and The Darwin Awards II, which “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” These best-selling books — and the popular Web site that spawned them, — offer a cavalcade of dearly departed nutjobs, such as the 18-year-old man vacationing in Hawaii. He ignored the signs warning “Hazardous Conditions — Do Not Go Beyond This Point” to get a better look at Halona Blowhole, “a rock formation that shoots seawater 20 feet into the air.” If you’re familiar with Wile E. Coyote, you know how this story ends.

A visit to the bookstore throws up titles like The 176 Stupidest Things Ever Done and Stupid Sex: The Most Idiotic and Embarrassing Intimate Encounters of All Time. And don’t forget Duh! The Stupid History of the Human Race or John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always. Even academic presses are also getting into the act: Yale University Press has published a series of essays edited by Robert J. Sternberg entitled Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, and the University of Illinois Press has weighed in with Stupidity, Avita Ronell’s cultural history.

So why the fascination with morons? I think the answers involve the convergence of intricate forces that have placed intelligence at the centre of our culture.

For most of our history, “can-do” and “common sense” were the chief virtues. People engaged in farming, manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs that relied on skills learned by watching their parents or on the job. Their abilities were identifiable, the quality of their work apparent. Silver-tongued personalities were admired but distrusted. Book learning was dismissed as impractical, and nerds were disparaged as denizens of the ivory tower.

We have done an about-face since the 1960s. Higher education has become the key to success in a global economy in which mastering a trade no longer guarantees steady employment. Workers must now be “retrained” so they can toil in service-oriented fields that require general smarts instead of specific skills. Intelligence has become the coin of the realm.

Problem is, as I wrote in a previous piece (Simple Smarts),  intelligence — which involves not just intellect but emotion and personality — is hard to define and even harder to measure. The brilliant mathematician might not be able to write a coherent sentence; the soaring poet may be unemployable because he’s so, well, weird. It is easy to know if you can fix a car, plant a crop or sew a shirt; but what does smart really mean — especially when we all know how stupid we can be? And if we have reason to doubt our own brilliance, how can we trust the world to bank on it?

Anxiety and democracy go hand  in hand — it’s tougher to know your place in a fluid, relatively classless society. But a democracy based on the subjective concept of intelligence is a recipe for extreme agitation.

So we seize on various mechanisms to give us some bearing. The cult of self-esteem, which holds that everyone is gifted and talented, that all opinions have equal weight, is a national religion. The worship of Mammon is an equally popular faith because pounds and pennies seem to provide an objective scorecard of success.

And the powerful trumpet the idea of “meritocracy” — the dubious notion that it offers a level playing field to all — because it justifies their exalted positions. They tell themselves, “I rose strictly through merit.”

In the new economy, merit is based on intelligence. When brain-power rules, those who disagree with us must be stupid. Thus, Michael Moore did not title his hugely popular diatribe against Republicans in America, “People With Whom I Have Honest Differences,” but Stupid White Men.

The age of the moron, then, is another coping mechanism for anxious souls in a culture of intelligence. In times when many people worry about their place in the new economy, Fear Factor, Jackass and The Darwin Awards allow us to tell the world who we are by who we are not.

We love idiots because they insulate us from our own fears. In short, stupid people make us feel smart.