Footprints

For Cultural Hybrids Seeking Home

THEORY OF STUPIDITY

09 February 2022

I recently saw a shared video in my chat group. It reported that one of the latest bombings, supposedly by terrorists, was actually financed by Bill Gates and George Soros with the assistance of Henry Kissinger. According to the video, bombings are one of the elite’s ways of destabilising a country so that they could eventually assume unilateral world power, not only economically but also politically. When I answered that this sounded like a conspiracy theory, my friend was deeply offended, taking my comment personally.

I am not a specialist, but the video was so blatantly illogical. With Henry Kissinger almost a hundred years old, George Soros well over ninety, and Bill Gates only in his sixties, the three could not possibly get together to participate in such a plan. Any simple fact check would have confirmed this. Why then did my university-educated friend not bother to confirm the video’s veracity before posting it? Why did she think that I had implied she was stupid for not being more discerning?

A series of popular podcasts currently circulating on YouTube talk about the THEORY OF STUPIDITY. The phrase originated from a German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed during World War II for having been involved in a plot against Hitler. He had wondered why so many so-called “smart” people with supposedly high IQs would fall for the sloganising of the Nazis, suspending their critical judgment. It was true that most did not participate in Hitler’s programme of genocide, probably did not even know about it, but they also didn’t ask questions. Bonhoeffer concluded it was because of cognitive failure, i.e., their failure to think! The question was, why? Why did this seemingly well-educated nation fail to think and ask questions? On a deeper level, he asserted, the issue of stupidity was not intellectual but sociological. Further, he wrote that over time, stupidity became a moral failure. (Link to video: https://youtu.be/ww47bR86wSc)

Germany suffered greatly during the years between World War I and World War II. After the Great War caused mainly by the European Powers marching blindly into mutual destruction, the Germans unjustly suffered disproportionately, or so they felt. Along with the humiliation of defeat, the victorious Allies made them pay punitive reparations well beyond what the country could afford. This caused a huge economic depression with massive unemployment, and many went hungry. Inflation was so high that a loaf of bread cost a cartful of their local currency, making their money worthless. The ordinary German felt abandoned, ignored, and isolated, as though the whole world was against them and that they did not belong to the world at all.

If this account sounds to many Filipinos like the history of a distant land, we should bear in mind that it is also happening in the here and now—in the Philippines, in America, and elsewhere in the so-called civilised world. So perhaps we could learn from what happened to the Germans.

We in the Philippines live in a world divided by class: the rich and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the powerful and the powerless. The poor, the uneducated (or poorly educated), and the powerless feel ignored and voiceless. Their problems have been exacerbated by the recent pandemic when many lost their means of livelihood. We have indeed an unusually large segment of people alienated from the rest of our society, and a considerable proportion of them are no longer passively accepting their so-called lot in life.

It is commonly believed that the fearful and the alienated often turn to wherever they can find a sense of belonging. They search for like-minded people and form in-groups, whether this be of shared lineage, geography, religion, ethnicity, or other commonalities. In a group, there is power.

How belonging to a group can determine even our perception of reality is aptly demonstrated in a series of experiments done by social psychologists. One such study conducted by Solomon Asch formed two groups. One group consisted of Confederates (i.e., they cooperated with Asch); the other group were the Subjects of the experiment. The Subjects did NOT know that the former group were Confederates. At the start, the Subjects were asked to look at a couple of lines and decide which line was longer and which shorter, which thinner and which thicker. The scientists found out that when by themselves and before the Confederates joined them, the Subjects correctly answered the questions. However, when one (1) Subject was made to join nine (9) Confederates, the Subject sooner or later agreed with the decision of the Confederates, confirming that the shorter line, for example, was longer. Initially, the disparity between the lines was slight, but as the Subject’s commitment to the group’s decision grew, the discrepancy between the two lines likewise increased, so that by the end of the experiment, the Subject agreed with the Confederates even as an objective observer could readily see what was obvious. That, concluded the experimenters, shows how group pressure can lead to the emergence of a herd mentality. When one joins the herd, they form a “group think”, i.e., they respond to issues only with one voice. In the case of many Germans after World War I, joining such a group also became a way they regained their self-respect.

Nowadays, social media readily provides us with these “Confederates”, delivering a daily diet of simplistic slogans and catchphrases. The channels are our Smartphones, which in turn gives us a false sense of being permanently connected to the world, when in fact, through the algorithms imbedded in our phones, we are being largely prevented from seeing the viewpoints of other potential reference groups. Thus, whilst our social media groups present us with a new sense of agency and power--we assume we are no longer helpless-- we are also surrendering our individual judgments.

Then comes ideology or ideals on how to develop a just societal order—both economic and political. In a feedback loop, herd behaviour encourages the formation of ideologies as ideologies encourage herd behaviour. Herds, in turn, become easy prey to authoritarian leadership. To be convincing, these leaders need only appeal to the herd.

There are numerous examples of this phenomenon: from Germany’s experience after World War I, to the Trumpian Americans of 2022, and yes, to many Filipinos of today. They become “stupid” people. They listen to “theories” and “news” from social media —voices of friends and strangers alike—repeating in a vicious cycle similar simplistic messages. With no varied sources of information, many become casualties of concocted “news” and false ideologies. No longer able to use their analytical skills, they believe and mouth the same misinformation to spread and convince others in their chat groups to “see” the light.

Bonhoeffer claims that “stupid” people, innocent victims they may be, are nevertheless dangerous. The reason is that, once they are committed to a particular ideology, they become very stubborn--one can no longer reason with them. Moreover, unlike Machiavellian characters, "stupid" people are unpredictable—one can never know which way they may head--therefore, the difficulty to muster counterarguments.

I observe Philippine society today, the inequalities of our hugely p0larised nation. The amelioration of this situation is nowhere in sight so long as there is a dire lack of government attention to education. Poor access to educational facilities and poor teachers training programmes produce substandard schools. No wonder that in the 2018 survey of 79 countries done by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Philippines scored last in reading, and second to last in both math and science.* As if to add insult to injury, the shut-down of in-person schooling for the past 23 months--one of the longest lockdowns in the world--is exacerbating an already bad situation. What about online education? Due to a variety of reasons, including the lack of internet access and supply of computer tablets, last year's online school participation was approximately only 15% of some 30million Filipino students.

As though our societal problems were not enough, might these low academic achievements reflect our failure to develop critical thinking in the first place? Might they naturally make us easy prey to the simplistic messages we get from our daily diet of texts, Facebook and Instagram postings, chat group exchanges, and other forms of abbreviated communication done through social media?

Where to from here? To protect ourselves from being "stupid", we should learn the virtue of discernment. We have to learn to appreciate reading longer articles and books, as they are our vehicles to explore the nuances of messages for which social media has no space, both literally and figuratively. Most importantly, as citizens of a democratic country, we should address our societal problems by holding ourselves accountable for the kinds of people whom we place in powerful positions--that they reflect the values we hold dear.

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*See: https://www.deped.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/PISA-2018-Philippine-National-Report.pdf