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Rethinking Stupidity and Self-Involvement

One of my readers challenged me last fall to write a column that didn’t contain the words “stupid” and “self-involved”. I went back and deleted all references from a column I was just finishing on the Pope’s visit to Toronto, even though the event still struck me as a celebration of human stupidity and the Pope among the most self-involved public figures I can name. But a few word changes didn’t seem to let me off the hook. Over the next few months I found myself examining my hostility toward stupidity and self-involvement. I’d come to treat both, I realized, as evils that don’t require explanation. I asked myself why those things make me angry, and what the nature and effect of their evil is.

Explaining why self-involvement bothers me is easy. I grew up in a small town where wariness and attention to one’s immediate physical and human surroundings was a crucial and sometimes an enjoyably educative life-skill. Early on, I noticed that excessive attention to oneself made people wander in front of oncoming trucks—or fists. That in itself was convincing evidence that life is better—and lasts longer—when you’re paying attention to incoming details and not to the mirror. It took twenty or thirty years before I was ready to recognize that life is way more interesting without excessive self-involvement, but all that proves is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist for this to make sense.

I also had some good reason to dislike stupidity from growing up where I did. Early on, I noticed that the stupidest people around me tended to throw fists in my direction more frequently than others. I didn’t yet understand that it was because they were having trouble coming up with more thoughtful responses to my smartass remarks and deeds. I had to spend a few years teaching in maximum security prisons before I figured out that what we call “civilization” is primarily a collection of techniques for conducting interpersonal and social business without coming to blows. Since then, I’ve had it confirmed in a hundred ways that stupidity is much more likely to be nasty and violent than child-like and innocent.

Violence is the primary medium of evil in human life. It is evil’s expressive and growth medium and its aftermath, lingering on as retribution, revenge and rancour. Violence is also what people do when they’re short on imagination and cognitive resources. If you’re too politicized to accept George W. Bush as an illustration, the movie Dumb and Dumber is a strikingly clear pop culture explication of how dumb, ruthless and violent flock together. Or, if you’re a Trekkie, there’s the brilliant episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation in which the Enterprise crew encountered a species that got into deep space by masking the ruthlessness that accompanied their severe intellectual limitations as sweet helplessness. Stupidity’s most frequently employed resource is to take the short, violent road to its goals.

I should probably admit that my private dislike of stupidity has a slightly more complicated origin. It is partly grounded in fear and insecurity. Since I’m not, by birth or sensibility, part of Canada’s ruling class, I’ve grown up with the neurotic terror that the nitwits who run the country’s economy and culture are—despite the contrary evidence—somehow smarter than ordinary people, and that maybe all those plums their mouths are stuffed with haven’t been jammed in there in order to keep the goodies in life away from Visigoths like me. I’m afraid, in other words, that I might be stupid, and that all my efforts to improve myself are in vain because I don’t have some secret component members of the Family Compact are born with: the noblesse oblige I’ve never seen sufficient evidence for; a silver spoon; a secret code; whatever. And fear, as every Visigoth knows, rarely strays far from loathing. I wish this one would leave me alone, but I guess I’m have to continue to suppress it until we can break down the manor doors and remove the hinges.

Meanwhile, I’m aware that responding to stupidity and self involvement with contempt or fear is pretty unproductive. It leads to sneering and cowering, neither of which I want playing leading roles in my everyday life. But when I look a little deeper, I find anger. And when I search for the sources of this anger, I discover it is rooted less in any transposed fear of stupidity or contempt for self-involvement and more in a sense that the history of the last half century is one vast wasted opportunity to eradicate stupidity and self-involvement—or at least, reduce their pernicious public presence and effects.

Our species has burned up a huge percentage of the planet’s non-renewable wealth over the last fifty years. We raised the standard of material well-being for a small minority, but did almost nothing to improve the quality of most people’s intellectual and spiritual lives, whether they’re rich or poor. Manipulating people to consume more has created a vast, sub-rosa cognitive industry designed to focus everyone’s attentions on their navels and other body parts far distant from the brain. Since the survival of our species—and the planet—now rests on the enhancement or refinement of human intelligence, this is, as the managers would say, counterproductive in the most serious sense.

Let me fine-grain this anger a little more. What particularly pisses me off are some of the supportive devolutions within Western social, political and educational culture over the last 25 years. Without recognizing it, most of the “developed” democracies have moved away from the educational and institutional meritocracy aspired to, officially and actually, after the Second World War, and into a condition in which all rights and obligations have been rendered secondary to the right to self-determination. Today, educators spend more energy elevating the personal and group dignity and rights of their students than they do fostering their curiosity and learning skills.

Now, self-determination isn’t an evil in and of itself, although it strikes me as a less desirable individual and species goal than achieving social justice or equality of opportunity and social entitlement. Do I have to argue that?

Wait a minute. Maybe I should argue it, because it is becoming increasingly clear that three decades of taking the value of social justice and/or equality of opportunity and social entitlement for granted has opened up a gulf between my generation and the generation of corporate-trained and propagandized youth now entering the political and cultural lists. My suspicion is that we’ve given up on social justice and equality of opportunity because we no longer think its possible to get there—one more of those unforeseen consequences of postmodernism and the collapse of the idea of history as a progression toward a better world. We’ve lost track of the truth—self-evident if you ask me—that those things weren’t ever an absolute and achievable condition but an aspiration that refined every other element of living and, you guessed it, reduced social violence. We’ve also lost track of the truth—this time arguable but not self-evident—that the pursuit of social justice, as a global project, was relatively successful in curbing the abuses of the class system during the 20th century, and moderately successful (until lately) in redistributing wealth within the democracies of Western Europe and North America. It has been an abject failure in redistributing the global pool of wealth and privilege, but that’s more the result of real politik initiatives in the last 30 years, not an inherent failure of the aspiration. The pursuit of equality of opportunity and social entitlement, in the abstract, has had similar trajectories.

This enumeration unfortunately answers none of the questions I want to ask myself. Is social justice necessary to the advancement—or survival—of the human species, and the preservation of the planet? Yes, because neither can be achieved without an end to the rancourous competition for entitlements and physical resources that is the source of interhuman violence and the assault on the planet.

Then there’s this question, chilling the air like an iceberg sitting just off the coast: Are human beings really equal? Among the implications of coming to understand that a much larger degree of human potential is locked up by our genetic makeup and isn’t alterable by favourable social and education environments seems to indicate otherwise. Anyone faced by a psychopath or a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome victim has a hard time blinking blue eyes at that one given what we now know.

Then there’s this question: does the pursuit of equality in a world modeled on the marketplace serve anything except the gods of social opportunism? I have to admit I’m beginning to wonder if it can. I also note that the egalitarian excesses of the last 200 years have been as violent and stupid as the attempts to resist it, or, as in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, to rejig equality to serve specious definitions of the deserving. In terms of quality of life and the raw numbers of undeserving dead, what’s to choose between communism, fascism—or, for that matter, the real politik treatment by Western democracy of the rest of the world?

The movement toward self-determination began as a liberal project, spent a century and change as the fundamental ground of the left and has recently been seconded by the political right and by capitalism, which is willing to destroy the planet to defend individual and group rights to consume the products the corporations manufacture. Yet a sizable portion of the bullying social bullshit being foisted on us today remains the product of the left, which, with its will undermined by cultural relativism, has become willing to separate the word “universal” from “social justice” and “equality of opportunity and social entitlement.”

When self-determination is applied on a global scale, without, as Woodrow Wilson dreamed in 1918, a coherent sense of global solidarity but rather almost exclusively within the metaphorical boundaries of market rules, it becomes an incitement to violent competition in every arena, and by extension, causes a generalized dumbing-down of human interactions. While self-determination does offer a virtual infinity of means to individual empowerment (most of which seem to boil down quickly into a right to feel superior to others and to ignore their concerns as merely “competitive”) it has produced a strange sort of dictatorship of those who can shout louder than the rest. This condition leaves me, as a person who was taught that shouting is a failure of intelligence, feeling victimized—and thus ironically in synch with the shouters and their wish to see everyone else’s behavior as a potential or actual abrogation of their potential for self-determination.

Let loose in “underdeveloped” societies, unlimited self-determination has resulted in all sorts of lunacies, with ground zero currently somewhere near the government palace in Monrovia. About 18 months ago the Americans were trying to bomb it out of some Afghani caves, and a few years before that it was at Hutu HQ. Less lethal nodes are plentiful, and they flicker on and off unpredictably. Fairly often, those nodes show up in the White House, the European Council and at G-8 meetings.

In the West, self-determination has created a moral vacuum in which, for instance, the oppression of women can be viewed as a competitive tactic and not a universal immorality; where clitorectomy is okay if it isn’t publicized or done by Europeans; that CEO piracy is an acceptable business practice so long as you don’t get caught. It has rebirthed racism and its equally ugly twin racialization, and it has nurtured innumerable chauvinisms among groups and individuals who recognize it as a way to hide the fact that they’re trying to crawl over other people’s backs to get more than their fair share of the gravy. Less seriously, it has created a social climate in which once radically intelligent and wary gay people get married, join Rotary Clubs, have square-dancing conventions and engage in other dysfunctional and boring activities that, er, dignify the lives of their heterosexual counterparts.

Maybe it’s time everyone looked at the increasingly sharp edge on the back side of the self-determination sword, because increasingly, that’s what we’re getting. The right to self determination has been used by cynical governments in recent decades as an excuse to dump all the crazy people on the streets, and to vastly increase the number of otherwise “challenged” people out there—those with poor education, genetic damage, and vast numbers of others the New World Order has ground in its gears. Millions of people are now drowning in the mainstream in attempts to exercise their right to self determination where they have virtually no shot at achieving meaningful or secure success. This all seems to me much more likely to create frustration, rage and partisan hubris than human dignity—along with more police shootings, street attacks on the innocent, and homeless people freezing to death during the winter because circumstances have rendered them too deranged—and self-determining—to come in out of the cold.

Excuse me, but I thought human dignity was supposed to be grounded in a sense of solidarity with the whole, and that equality was supposed to have some basis in fair and generous treatment of others, not merely a lining up of everyone to race from the steel gates of economic, inter-ethnic and other sorts of destructive competition.

Along with this has come a parallel shift in Western educational values, which have been rejigged in order to train young people to have nice, safe days even if it costs them the intellectual flexibility and tolerance of difference that was the goal of liberal education. Being comfortable within one’s own self is nice, and personal safety is wholesome, but the side effects have been debilitating: physical idiocy and the lowest common denominator in social and cognitive pursuits. Add to this the infused cultural and personal narcissisms, and what we’ve created, unintentionally or not, is a production line for stumble-bum xenophobic sociopaths in search of insults to exploit. If given a hammer, they’ll be much more likely to hammer out their own thumbs than freedom, justice, or the love between brothers and sisters all over this land.

If this makes me sound like a communist despite my skepticisms, it’s because I still believe that public education is supposed to make people into competent and informed citizens, and that any societal current that works against this is fundamentally anti-democratic, counterproductive and goddamn it to hell, stupid and self-involved. Both of which I continue to dislike, notwithstanding the above, all the way to the border of common sense and sound judgment.

2467 words//September 9, 2003

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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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