When did it become fashionable to be stupid? Or rather, when did it become acceptable, or profitable, expected, or newsworthy? Because these days, I feel overwhelmed by stupidity: stupid behavior, stupid decisions, and then stupid excuses. Maybe it's the 24/7 news cycle or a case of over-active PR machinery. There's too much stuff going on that masquerades as news. But some days, it's just WTF times 2 -- or maybe times 200.
Stupid has several connotations; it's a hurtful word, which is why I hate using it. But these are mean-spirited times, my friends, and that occasionally calls for mean-spirited words. As I apply it, stupid refers to (but is not limited to): willful ignorance, determined obstinance, self-serving incompetence, deliberate misrepresentation, purposeful insensitivity, or wholesale rudeness. It's the impulse to act like a jerk and I promise you, I'm not exempt. And let me make this perfectly clear: this epidemic is not restricted to one particular party, gender, religious group, or age bracket.
You want examples?
- A recent series of polls shows near unanimity among scientists when it comes to belief in evolution by natural selection. Only a third of the American public accepts natural selection. Of the majority who don't, 28% also insist that scientists themselves are divided on the subject (if this is confusing, read the beginning of the paragraph again. Meanwhile, more than 70% have great respect for and trust in science, although only one in four know what "scientific theory" means. [source: Pew Research Center]
- Andrew Young, John Edwards’ one-time assistant, claims he went along with Edwards' fantabulous story of paternity in order to protect Elizabeth Edwards. This may explain why he seeks to sell the purported sex tapes of Edwards and his mistress.
- Mark McGwire gets ready to teach the next generation of St. Louis Cardinals after sort of, kind of coming "clean" about past steroid use. St. Louis fans are expected to give him the baseball equivalent of a "Hail Mary" either for the steroid use or for lying for ten years; it's not clear.
- Members of a Baptist church whisked into Port Au Prince, picking up children, forgoing paperwork or background checks that might have established whether the children were, in fact, orphans or whether they had any family members looking for them.
Notice I've included no examples that deal directly with politics, and I've kept hands off the media for now, although I have piles of bones to pick, starting with the sensationalism that passes for analysis and ending with the substitution of close-ended talking points for serious debate.
The first example could be an instance of misunderstanding or misinformation; the last could be excused as well-intentioned, albeit foolish. For that matter, the dalliances of public figures could be seen as nothing more than a series of character flaws -- and don't we all have them? No one is intending any harm; no one is setting out to hurt anyone. They're just not thinking.
An acquaintance of mine, an educator, wrote a timely op-ed in the New York Times about changes in measuring the success or failure of how we educate our children. At twelve years of age, children, should be able to "read a chapter book, write a story and a compelling essay; know how to add, subtract, divide and multiply numbers... use evidence to support an opinion...and engage in an exchange of ideas." But schools don't teach that way; they teach to the test, which is to say, they encourage children to memorize, rather than to put experiences together in new ways.
Are these children who will grow up to be curious about other points of view, new ideas, change? I'd say no. In fact, political pundits have been saying Americans don't like change. Since when? Ten years? Twenty? I always thought I lived in a society that was not only capable of change but also open to it. Clearly I've been fooling myself.
We are in the middle of a crisis in this country. Absolutely, it is economic: we are on track to be carrying a huge deficit on our collective backs. We may find it hard, even impossible, to retain our sole superpower status. Deficits restrict programming because they restrict available funding. The country that put a man on the moon might be grounding its space program.
If we can't spend large, does that mean we have to think small or not at all? Are we supposed to accept only those changes forced upon us by economic necessity and push away anything else as too threatening to consider? What about a change in the way we teach? Or the way we communicate? How about a meaningful difference in our determinations about what we think the government owes us -- or what we owe our government? What about a change in the way we earn and invest, spend or save? Or think.
I'm sick of celebrating stupidity, even if it's supposedly so we can all feel better about ourselves. I'm tired of the stupid amount of time and energy devoted to being contrary, rude, divisive, or dismissive. Something's got to change; we have a chance not only to be part of the change but to insist on it, or let another opportunity slip away.
We cannot be that stupid.