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, www.darwinawards.com — 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.

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Simple smarts

I once went on a date with a girl with whom I had the following exchange:

Me: I just started reading this new book.

Girl: What is it?

Me: The Perfect Storm. It’s great.

Girl: Great? Excuse me? Pffft. To me, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a great book. The Perfect Storm? Great? Please.

Needless to say, that was our only date. (You know how you often think of an awesome comeback to statements like that a little too late? If I were faced with that today, I’d gleefully retort, “What are you talking about? Nuts gave it an ‘A’!”) Her comment didn’t catch me by surprise, however; it was already clear from our first meeting that this girl had decided I was not a smart person. Not stupid, mind you, not unable to string together words in sentences without drooling on myself, but just not intelligent, not the way she, with her red-brick education and nice middle class upbringing, believed she was. How we actually ended up going out on a date still befuddles me.

But she was right, of course. Intelligence is one of the more nebulous, shifting concepts we have, and from my experience, if people consider you smart in a conventional fashion, you probably can’t change a tire. We all had that one person in our class who was a straight-A student, was involved in all the extracurricular activities, was accepted to a fancy private school, and typically wore her bra backwards.

At school in the Caribbean, I’m sad to say, I was that person (except for the bra thing, of course). Ninety-ninth percentile, on just about all the tests. I aced them all. When it came time for the 11-plus exam that everyone dreaded, I smashed that too, gaining entry to the country’s top secondary school. But after I received the result from my giddy school principal, she informed me my fly was open. And the day after winning a national essay competition and collecting a trophy for my efforts, I tried to change a lightbulb using a screwdriver.

How does one define intelligence? I’m excellent at trivia and bits of seemingly useless information. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which movies won the Oscar for Best Picture in the last decade or who holds the record for most wickets in a cricket season, I can tell you. (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator; Tich Freeman, with 304 in 1928. Thank you, thank you.) Ask me why I threw the house keys in the bin yesterday and put the crumpled scrap of paper in my pocket instead, I have no answer… Get my drift?

They say that Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes, and, truth be told, I’m kind of grasping onto that idea. Because there are so many things in this world that I cannot do. To some people, not being able to do them makes me a moron. To others, it’s a sign of my intelligence.

It all depends on whom you hang around and what you value. When I’m back visitng the Caribbean, I sometimes try to tell myself that I’m smarter, that I had the otherworldly insight to leave, which the sorry minions I grew up with lacked. It’s incredibly stupid and condescending, of course, but I actually had the temerity to imply this to a friend there once. She looked at me. “David, you pay thousands a month in rent and you live thousands of miles from your family and best friends. I have a mortgage that’s half that, I can see my friends and family anytime I want, and I have a proper detached house near the beach with loads of outdoor space. Tell me again how smart you are.”

To change the subject, I sprung up a cerebral monologue about snot.

There is this girl I like. I think she’s really intelligent. There is no doubt in my mind.

I was describing her to another friend recently: “She’s smart. She’s creative. She’s ambitious and she has drive. I think she gets what’s important in life. She helps people and she also knows how to take care of herself. Doesn’t take shit from anyone. She seems to have the right idea about getting the most out of life, and she wants to do it on her own terms. When I look at everyone else I know, she’s just about one of the smartest people I’ve met for a long time.”

My friend was unimpressed. “So you’re saying that she’s really nice. That’s not smart. That’s nice.”

But I’m serious. To me, that’s what intelligence is. An understanding of your place in the world, the wisdom that comes with being comfortable with who you are, an inherent sense of empathy for every speck of humanity that crosses your path. That’s smart. Being able to realise what really matters.

In other words, I’m an idiot.