It’s Time to Talk about Stupid

Last week a friend showed me a phone message from his daughter. He asked me, “What does ‘idk’ mean?”

“I don’t know,” I said. He looked at me with despair, “Oh my God, no one does.”

True story. And I assure you it absolutely wasn’t me who was the actual idiot in that story. And I’m definitely not deflecting my own stupidity on to some mystery ‘friend’ because I can’t stand the embarrassment. I mean I’m not stupid. Stupid is always other people or, if in myself, a momentary lapse.

If you think it might be stupid to read an entire article about stupid, think again. Because the way you think about stupid actually underpins your entire worldview.

“Always one” might be an underestimate.

Stupid’s a really simple judgement to make. Almost anyone who annoys you is, clearly, stupid. Most of the people who voted the other way to you, especially if your side lost, they’re verifiably stupid. But there’s nobody self-identifying as stupid, or standing up for stupid people, or campaigning for the rights of the stupid, there’s no country of Stupidia, or belief in the tenets of stupidity or (sorry eugenicists) even verifiable stupid genes. So do stupid people even exist? If they don’t, how come there’s always someone in front of me trying to push the door labelled “PULL”, or parking their car directly over a bay indicator line in the Tesco car park, or ignoring all the signs of a pandemic for weeks resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands? If no one is stupid how come you encounter stupid every day; or every other minute if you happen to use social media?

My First Theory of Stupid, as a liberal minded young man, was that there were no stupid people, just people who, having been denied a decent education, lacked the tools for critical thinking. In this act of arrogance, I managed to be both patronising and, of course, stupid as it meant all those privately educated Upper Class Twit of the Year, Hooray Henrys, couldn’t be idiots; which of course they were.

But then, I believed that anyone could be a Wittgenstein if only they had the right teachers, a loose grasp of grammar and suicidal tendencies. I’d baulk at the use of the S-word bandied around by smart-arse students to describe the majority of people who hadn’t made it to their ivory towers. Yet they had endless proof of stupid: the banality of anything ‘popular’ or ‘commercial’, Noel’s House Party, Beadle’s AboutThe Sun’s vast circulation based on vocabulary for six-year-olds.

Blobgenstein or Mr Witty?

Unable to defend the existence of Mr Blobby, my Second Theory of Stupid was to imagine a continuously fluctuating chain of rational people having stupid moments. Stupid was an ever-changing floating population with no fixed abode, like tourists or drivers for whom, when not touring or driving, there are constantly others to take their place. There’s always a meaningful cohort of stupid, just not always the same people.

And if we all take turns being stupid it’s a great equaliser, we all can be stupid. Except on TV or in the movies, where stupid is massively over represented by men. From Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson to David Brent and Ozzie Osborne stupid bloke role-models are aplenty while the last of the dizzy blondes was spotted sometime back in the 70s when phrases like Dolly-Birds were poptastic. I suppose it’s a small price to pay for being front of the queue in the patriarchy – because all us men certainly have the constitution to roll with constant ridicule and definitely aren’t almost twice as likely to commit suicide as women.

Role Model

I clung to my stupid theory for decades and even justified the Darwin Awards which claimed to celebrate “Evolution in Action” by recognising those who died stupid deaths, improving “our gene pool by removing themselves from it.” So Garry Hoy a Toronto lawyer who thought he should demonstrate the strength of his 24th floor boardroom’s “unbreakable” windows by throwing himself against one, just chose the wrong time to have a stupid moment. And the Texan teenager who decided to play Russian roulette with a semi-automatic, unwittingly changing 6 to 1 odds to 1 to 1, was probably drunk or something.

You are what you see.

Why was I so desperate to deny the existence of stupid people? For the same reason any good liberal denies there are evil people; only ordinary people driven to do bad things through desperation, mental illness or bad experiences. Just saying that someone’s stupid, or evil, is to ignore the whole person. You’re not asking who they are, but what they are. And if there are people who really are just stupid then we’re not all created equal. In which case, could some people really be superior to others? And if there really is a hierarchy of humanity on a scale of stupid/smart, what about other scales based on race or gender or whether you see a blue dress or a gold one? Would it be possible then to assign a value to different people’s lives? And if you could, then eventually, slavery and the holocaust become just societal opinions that were justifiably valid at the time. Like the buffoonery of Boris Johnson, stupid presents itself as a benign and affable joke, but it’s the touch paper which, once lit, blows the whole liberal perspective sky high.

James O’Brien, the LBC talkshow host and author of How to be Right, a handbook for arguing modern liberal politics, ties himself in knots trying not to call anyone stupid. For years he has listened to endless callers who voted for Brexit talking about sunny uplands whilst simultaneously admitting that their own lives will, and have, become poorer and harder under the new regime. But spare your opprobrium, says O’Brien, for the “spivs, charlatans and con-men” who sold honest hardworking people the Brexit dream. “Compassion for the conned, contempt for the conmen.”

I clung on, dear reader but in the last few years my own belief has been swept away by a tsunami of stupid: Love Island, AntiVax, Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Made in Chelsea, the return of Flat–Earthers, President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Faith in Corbyn, the 5G Coronaspreader Conspiracy, Herd Immunity, Barnard Castle Cummings not Goings, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, every evening Hancock’s Daft Hour, Covidiots, Face Mask Rebels and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. According to a YouGov poll at the beginning of this month, “One in six Britons would refuse a coronavirus vaccine.”

How could these things be true if there are no permanently stupid people?

Stupid has popped my liberal cherry. It has driven me from other people’s lives more effectively than social distancing. Now I feel like an extremist who counts bodies not lives. Now, if I’m willing to admit that there are, simply, stupid people, there are also people I can define by their greed, or their xenophobia just to dismiss them. People for whom my life is too short to be bothered to look for, or appreciate, their saving graces or all their dimensions, or real characters, or their life stories that might show how they justifiably grew from being wide eyed children, with a sense of right and wrong, in to rabble-rousing would-be tyrants or insidious money hoarders. My desire to understand, appreciate, love even, has been eroded by the never-ending deluge of dumb. There are people now who I’ll simply dismiss as venal, or manipulative. And then there are all those people who buy their snake oil, who recite their empty mantras, who believe their “fake news” and the “alternative facts” and their conspiracies.

Ask yourself.

Who are they? Or is it what are they?

A version of this article first appeared in: