July 29, 2002
Fanfare for the Common Man

I've already gone on record that it's not evil I'm worried about, it's stupidity. But I find myself stuck in a quandary. If we all have the same brains, if I can't fall back on race, religion, gender, or sexual preference, then how can I account for a world that is quite patently covered thicker than mayflies on a Louisiana houseboat with stupid people?

First, we have to qualify our terms here. We're all stupid once in awhile. You get distracted and don't notice the light turned red, or you whack an oven-hot pan on a counter and grab it with your bare hand, or you tear the house half-apart trying to find keys that are sitting in plain site on the dinner table. These kind of "stupids", and hundreds others like them, are just part of the human condition.

There's also the stupidity of youth. People who have the intelligence of a person but the wisdom of a squirrel on crack generally shouldn't even be allowed outside the house. And in most "traditional" cultures, they're not. What to do to keep stupid kids from doing stupid things is a problem "modern" cultures still haven't figured out. (See War and Peace for more on this topic.)

What I'm talking about here is the kind of stupidity that burns a cross in a yard, or keeps Ms. Cleo rich, or thinks Jews are at the root of a vast, global conspiracy, or decides skin pigment determines intelligence, or believes praying to the wrong god makes murder a blessing.

Actually, I don't think there really are all that many truly stupid people out there. Oh the pundits may rend their shirts at how ignorant the masses are, but time and again I've found that everyone can be amazingly intelligent about something.

This was not an insight I won easily. It took getting pole axed many times over many years before I clued into the fact I wasn't nearly as smart as I thought I was; and most people were quite a bit smarter than I had allowed. Once I learned to nurture my spiritual side I was deeply ashamed that I once thought myself better than these so-called "common" people.

So if everyone is smart, why do they all seem so stupid?

Most folks want only a few things: a steady job, a full belly, a comfortable home, and safe, happy kids. There are millions, perhaps billions of people all over the world who find deep satisfaction and personal fulfillment with just these seemingly simple things.

There's also the matter of leadership, and the fallacy of the "expert". Trusting our own judgment seems to be something that doesn't come easy to our species. When confronted with strange, frightening, puzzling, or just downright unusual things, most folks will seek out a person whose opinion they already trust. Across all cultures, this person tends to be a religious leader of some sort. This is the person the society "pays" to be wise while everyone else is busy making a living. And when that person is in fact wise, learned, and holds the interests of the community above themselves, the system works pretty well.

Unfortunately history has proven that leaders of any sort are usually the people you should be least likely to trust. Belief is much more powerful than wealth, and power not only corrupts, it attracts the corruptible like an ambulance driving past a lawyer convention. Power plays its own games, with its own rules, and it's a very rare bird indeed who doesn't start seeing people as pawns in a chess game.

My grandmother, who was as smart as they came and was nobody's fool, believed that communism was a plot to turn America's children into atheists. One of my best friends in college had a father who managed to keep up a farm, a regular job, an alimony payment, and still practice enough to play a mean steel guitar. He went to court to get custody of his step-grandson because his new wife's daughter was gay and they didn't want her "recruiting" the boy. These weren't things they cooked up on their own, they were given to them by men who had agendas far beyond the well-being of their souls.

Education is also a problem. In many ways the mind is a kind of muscle; it takes training and practice to learn to use it well. Education doesn't just teach you stuff, it teaches you how to learn stuff. You may think your local preacher is selling you a bill of goods, but if you've never seen the inside of a library, let alone learned how to use Wilson's Guide to Periodical Literature, how are you going to tell? If you don't even know how to read, how are you to know you can't get bigger boobs (or wangs) from a pill?

There's also more than a little laziness involved. It's a lot easier to ask someone what to think than to figure it out for yourself. Thinking critically is hard, especially if you don't practice at it. There's always this point when you're trying to learn something new where you look up and realize just how far you'll have to climb to reach where you want to go. Many people just aren't interested enough strap on a helmet, grab a rope, and start up.

We also have to deal with what is essentially a failure of nerve. It takes a lot of courage to question your own beliefs, let alone modify or change them. Most people, even scientists and engineers, would rather defend what they "know" to be true than accept proof to the contrary. A value system is a very comforting thing, something people fall into easily, like a set of flannel sheets. It's frightening to have things you love, even if they're just ideas, attacked. Fanaticism is a tragic, if understandable, result.

But this is far from a hopeless situation. Unlike the equipment between your legs or the coloring of your skin, minds are things that can be changed. Like learning to play tennis, the more you practice thinking critically the easier it gets. The sense of freedom you acquire from being able to pick apart an argument and find the reason it is wrong is tremendous. The feeling of accomplishment you get from building a new idea from the blocks of your own knowledge is almost breathtaking. The ability to defend that idea against all comers is the triumph that makes climbing the mountain worth the struggle.

Because let me tell you, the view up there is amazing. And, as with any great journey, all you have to do to start is put one foot in front of the other.

Let's go for a walk...

Posted by scott at July 29, 2002 05:33 PM

eMail this entry!

ALRIGHT! Much clearer and easier to understand. I love your essays! You make me think which is not an easy thing to do.

Posted by: Pat on July 30, 2002 11:19 AM

*Walks up to Scott, Walks around him, Rubs chin, Gets board and WHAP knocks him off of his soap box* Interesting read. Learning to question why things are the way they are is always the first step on the road to enlightenment. *2 + 2 is 4, Why??? Because it is, Yeah but WHY??* Scott=Zenmaster of NAMI :-)

Posted by: Jeff on July 30, 2002 12:44 PM

I think you have a point there. The sad thing is that a lot of people are "intelligent" about really stupid things. Like football and Big Brother, which really aren't worth being too intelligent about, are they?

Posted by: mills on July 30, 2002 01:52 PM

ROTFLMAO @ Jeff's post. A lot of the time I forget you two are alike in many ways, and that Jeff is a talented writer also just doesn't have the time anymore.

Posted by: Pat on July 30, 2002 02:27 PM


I think you're mistaking knowledge for intelligence. People that know a lot about something obscure and useless actually give me hope. It means they know how to learn, and will probably (hopefully?) be able to think critically when it really matters.

And thanks for commenting! Welcome to the site!

Posted by: scott on July 31, 2002 08:10 AM
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