Curing Willful Stupidity in America
One of my cousins insists on placing his coffee on the dashboard when he drives. He refuses to use the cup holders. Not because they’re too small. “It’s not safe,” he tells me. This after literally dousing his wife last year during a hard turn, giving her second degree burns.
With his own eyes, my cousin has observed what happens when he doesn’t use the cup holders. But he won’t change his position.
And his wife still rides shotgun with him.
So there’s really two cases of willful stupidity at work here.
Another of my relatives brags about throwing trash on the side of the road. “It helps me find my way around,” he says.
One day I finally questioned him on this logic. He admitted that he’d never actually been able to tell the difference between his trash and what could’ve been someone else’s. So littering actually didn’t help him navigate.
A few weeks later, he was back to bragging. And I had to lock myself in the bathroom for ten minutes to silently scream.
Stupidity is like the common cold
These situations don’t differ that much from our politics these days. We like to spitball theories about how we’ve wound up with such an idiot for president. Even my in-laws ask, “How did this happen?”
And I remind them. “Well, you voted for him.”
People act counter to their interests all the time. We eat unhealthy food. We drink too much. We go to bed too late. We skip the gym.
And these aren’t even the worst things we do.
Most of my relatives sound liberal when they talk about what they want. They tell me that corporations should pay their fair share of taxes. That they would support their daughter’s decision to have an abortion. That everyone deserves human rights regardless of their sexuality and gender.
But then politics come in. When the news airs, they say things like, “What was that woman doing with a man alone in a hotel room?”
Why we’re so stupid
I’m continually astounded not only by our poor choices — myself included— but also by how hard it is to make healthy ones. I actually like the taste of spinach. But I still want Pop Tarts for dinner.
Even more importantly, I want to believe my desire for Pop Tarts is rational. I’ll go to great lengths to justify Pop Tarts for dinner.
For example, they do have some vitamins.
The sugar isn’t that bad for you.
Follow this train of logic long enough, and you can see how we almost came to classify ketchup as a vegetable.
It takes a lot of work to separate my desire for pastries from my sense of self. At least at first, it does. Pop Tarts won’t make me happier. I’m not a bad person for wanting Pop Parts, but I can’t have them.
That’s a difficult paradox to reconcile: It’s natural for me to want something that I shouldn’t have. Living with that tension is tough.
We hate cognitive dissonance
True intelligence means the ability to hold conflicting ideas in your mind at once. It allows us to see things from multiple perspectives. Doing that does create stress, or dissonance.
Tolerating cognitive dissonance has a direct impact on your ability to make smart choices. If you can entertain contradictory notions for long enough, then you can pull them apart and form your own opinions.
Sometimes, you can make intuitive decisions without much debate. Other times, you need to stop and reflect on evidence.
You have to listen to people you might not like.
Doing that is hard. For anyone. As a white girl from the lower middle class, it’s not easy for me to hear that I might have privileges other people don’t. But I can entertain that notion and realize, it’s true.
I’m able to separate my privilege from my sense of self. Acknowledging my privilege doesn’t mean I’m a bad person. It helps me become a better person.
The cure for stupidity
People who live in ignorance could engage their views and behaviors from an objective position. That means disconnecting their beliefs from their identities and looking at them from different angles.
Ancient philosophers called this practice dissoi logoi. More or less, the term literally means dissonant logics, or ideas.
Thinking itself requires us to put opposed ideas into play with each other, for the pursuit of truth — however subjective now. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle co-opted this practice and rebranded it as dialectic. Same thing.
Either way, it’s something sadly missing in our current discourse. But when used well, it can work wonders.
Take my cousin, for example. He doubles down on his belief that coffee is safer on the dashboard now. Why?
Because he feels guilty about spilling a scalding hot beverage all over his wife. He can only see one way out. He says, “Trust me, it would’ve been a lot worse if we’d been using a cup holder.”
To you and me, that sounds tragically stupid. But we’re not my cousin. We don’t have to come to terms with the difficult truth — that we believed something that was wrong, and it hurt someone we care about.
Let’s approach it from another angle. Maybe it was reasonable, somehow, for my cousin to initially think cup holders were dangerous.
That didn’t make him a bad person. And spilling coffee all over his wife doesn’t make him a bad husband. Or stupid.
It just made him wrong about this one thing.
Separating people and ideas
We’ve strayed a long way from the healthy practice of dissoi logoi. It doesn’t matter what political party you vote for. Today’s mantra is “all in.” We don’t entertain opposite sides anymore.
We think it’s our civic duty to protest the essence of people.
When you can’t separate someone from their ideas, then you’ve really given up hope of ever changing their minds.
And if we’ve given up on that, we’re in big trouble.
A meaningful life depends on the ability to disassociate yourself from your views and your ideology. You aren’t the sum of your political opinions, and changing your stance on one view doesn’t mean you’re going to become a vegan, skinny jean wearing socialist overnight.
Likewise, maybe we should stop trying to change people’s minds on every single issue.
Doing that does probably convey the idea that we think someone from a different political orientation is stupid. Imagine how you’d feel if one of your friends tried to change your hair, clothing, speech, and taste in movies all in one afternoon. Let’s slow down for a change. Let’s start small, like convincing someone to try using a cup holder.