JR'S Free Thought Pages
On the Increasing Stupidity of the Strange Species Homo Sapiens
By JR, September 2021 www.skeptic.ca
There are two things that are infinite, the universe and human stupidity; but I'm not sure about the former - Albert Einstein
“The only thing that, at bottom, is worth being lived – in this life that must constantly be critiqued in order for it to be, in fact, worth living – is the struggle against stupidity” – Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living, 2013
The late French philosopher Bernard Stiegler (1952-2020) would surely agree that without art, music and humour, life would be stark; barely worth living. How else can anyone survive against rising fascism, human idiocy and the legions of addicted walking corpse cell phone zombies?
Yes, sadly many people today have been transmogrified into the walking dead, zombie solipsists with permanent ADHD. You witness these people every time you exit the house and especially while driving which has become an existential risk as idiots who either don’t know how to drive or are so distracted they cross medians and cut you off while stopped at right turning intersections as they turn left on a narrow arc and would hit you if you were at the stop line. But the list of imbecilities is endless. Watch any inane television ad in which adults are depicted as narcissistic morons constantly taking” selfies” as their undisciplined children behave like chimps on crack cocaine.
Bernard Stiegler would also concur with Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s 1944 masterpiece Dialectic of Enlightenment warning that Western industrial societies had transformed reasoning into rationalization as Karl Polanyi warned of the dangers of the so-called self-regulating market that is endlessly propped up by the nanny state. More recently Stiegler argued that this regression of reason and critical thought has led to societies dominated by unreason, illogic, stupidity and insanity. However, the analytic philosophy of the first half of the twentieth century was abandoned and transmogrified during the second half of the twentieth century by abandoning analysis, conceptual clarity, truth and the critique of capitalist political economy by the moral and epistemic relativism of postmodernism. This has rendered traditional enlightenment philosophy and its heirs helpless and disarmed, replaced by the sovereignty of crass stupidity and failed political and economic models with perpetual ongoing crises of booms-bubbles-bust and bailouts sequences crisis that are global in scope. Add to this dystopian FUBAR world the code red warnings of global warming, species extinctions, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse and we humans are in deep shit, with our days numbered.
One major source of nourishment for stupidity is the market economy which has become synonymous with theology with its “invisible hand of the marketplace” and EMH (Efficient Market Hypothesis), to cite just two metaphysical abstractions with no empirical or evidential support at all. It is not the existence of a market system per se which has this effect, but rather its elevation as the court of last appeal for all decisions and the final justification of all human actions, differing little from the invented deities of monotheistic religion. In this way, it has usurped the place of logic, reason and evidence in our chaotic immoral socio-economic arrangements, resulting in a situation of generalized stupidity. “It is in this context,” writes Stiegler, “that, having totally abandoned the task of making Europe a scholarly society, the European Commission has committed itself exclusively to constituting the European market and to submitting academic life solely to efficient causality, thereby confusing knowledge and information”. Governments are turning places of learning into mere businesses. In this way “it is thought itself that will have been destroyed, a destruction that brings with it generalized proletarianization and systematic stupidity”. Bernard Stiegler’s self-evident common sense observation that “in the Western industrial world . . . democracy has given way—and has done for quite some time—to consumerism,” which is “based on the liquidation of maturity . . . or in other words: based on the reign of stupidity, and of what so often accompanies it, namely cowardice and viciousness” seems patently obvious to yours truly.
In addition to the quantum levels of stupidity described by Steigler and defined earlier by the late Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) as “loss of reality”, are the apparent vast majority of homo saps who are on mind altering drugs. As T S Eliot once observed, “people cannot bear much reality”. This ought to surprise no one, especially in light of the childish delusions of billions of religious believers. Many people are simply too stupid to know they are stupid, the diagnosis being the Dunning-Kruger effect. I very much miss George Carlin and Robin Williams, two brilliant comedians who told the truth about drugs and most everything else about human weakness, ignorance and stupidity. It’s now a crime to expose unpleasant truths in our so-called “capitalist democracies” - an oxymoron like “business ethics” or “intelligent design” – to tell the truth. Ask Julian Assange or Edward Snowden.
Here’s a flashback to one of Robin Williams skits called “Fukitol” - the universal drug:
George Carlin on “the increase in “stupidity”:
Carlin on Bullshit Self-Help and Motivation Seminars
What would Carlin, who died about ten years ago, have to say about “Life Coaches”? Yeah, I’m serious.
 A 2018 global study has revealed that the incessant obsession with taking “smart” phone photos of oneself killed 259 people between 2011 and 2017.
Random Thoughts on Stupidity
It is very likely that stupidity will never decline; in fact some studies claim that we are getting dumber, that IQs are in steep decline. The question is why? Collectively we know more than we ever have but are living in a postmodern world of willed ignorance, techno-idiocy, obsession with and even addictions to cell phones and other devices that have not improved literacy, mathematical understanding, logic, rationality or enlightenment. Many have become the walking dead, docile zombies oblivious to the external world and what’s left of Mother Nature who has been gang raped.
Then there is social media whereby everyone, even the most ignorant cretin, has an opinion. Everyone is of course entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Too many don’t seem to understand this distinction or the notion that reality exists independent of our beliefs about what is real and true. Sorry but ghosts, goblins and gods are fictions – as are the loch Ness monster, Sasquatch and the invisible flying pink unicorn (IFPU). Get over it.
Are we locked into a golden age of idiocy? Think about the bloviating, huckster and narcissistic doltish dumb asshole Donald Trump and the imbecilic wrecking crew he surrounded himself with while president of the USA. Yes, it’s still hard to wrap your head around that fact isn’t it?
As far back as written records exist, some of the greatest minds of their age believed an age of idiocy to be the case. At the time perhaps they were right. Nonetheless, the novelty of the contemporary era is that it would take only one unhinged idiot with a red button to eradicate all stupidity, and the whole world with it. An idiot elected by the sheeple who were only too willing to choose the methodology of their own destruction.
The other great characteristic of our age is that, even if we admit that stupidity has not yet reached its nadir with a know nothing racist lying bastard like Trump, we know that it has never before been so visible, so unabashed, so outspoken, and so peremptory. It’s enough to make you despair of your average homo sapiens, 25% of who still believe the earth is the centre of the universe and even more who believe that universe was created in six days by some omnipotent invisible big guy in the sky. But who created this asleep at the wheel incurable dictatorial psychopath? Was it an invisible bigger big guy in the sky? Infinite regress anyone?
One final point on these brief off the cuff reflections: Fools, idiots and assholes are not restricted to the male of the species. Neither sex has a monopoly on complacency, stupidity, ADHD narcissism and asshole-ism, all four of which are becoming global epidemics more toxic than covid-19.We’ve all made fools of ourselves at least a few times during our lives and hopefully these episodes diminish with age, as we achieve some semblance of a reliable moral compass combined with intelligence, real knowledge and wisdom. So for idiots of every stripe, morons of all kinds including blowhards and bitches, genial dumbasses and silly twats and twits, dirty bastards and nasty ball breakers, pathetic ninnies and evil louts, dunces and dolts, oafs and space cadets, lazy slobs and dizzy dames, lunk heads and air heads, dim bulbs, scatterbrains and dingbats, lummoxes and nitwits, imbeciles, boobs, numbskulls, wastes of space and wastes of human skin, empty suits, blockheads, zeros, clowns, dummies, assholes, shit for brains, pea brains and empty-headed rubes, dickheads, dolts, pipsqueaks, jerks, lowlifes, cretins, daydreamers, pains in the ass, motor mouths, bull shitters and shit for brains blowhards - this is the chance to avoid any of these labels for the rest of your life.
Stupid people such as the above described are natural allies of every authoritarian regime that has existed throughout history and today’s financial blood suckers and the dictatorship of capital is no exception. The ridiculous QAnon phenomenon is a case in point as these conspiracy clowns are answerable to only Jesus or Trump - Jesus freaks and chumps for Trump and his MAGA pinheaded populism.
Stupidity and Post-Truth
By Sebastian Dieguez, from The Psychology of Stupidity, Penguin Books, 2018
Neuropsychologist and researcher at the Laboratory for Cognitive and Neurological Sciences at the University of Fribourg
Are we drowning in stupidity, now more than ever? When you look at certain contemporary developments, you can legitimately ask the question. These days, seemingly educated people, who are entirely capable of informing themselves (if they wanted to), reject scientific recommendations on vaccination and climate, spout far-fetched conspiracy theories, vote happily for morons and support stupid initiatives, become outraged over meaningless nonsense, incessantly embrace frivolous whims, and some even decide that, as far as they’re concerned, the Earth is flat no matter what people say. Against a background of diplomatic tension, terrorism, and unending wars; the methodical destruction of the environment; and an economy that only benefits a handful of individuals who give no signs of being particularly clever, our era seems entirely dedicated to the triumph of stupidity. Participating in the shipwreck, minds that consider themselves enlightened offer pat explanations: it’s society’s fault, the Americans’ fault, the fault of pesticides, of carbohydrates, of gluten, of endocrine disruptors, of the Left, of the Right, of the elites, of common folk, of foreigners and their defective genes, of lazy professors and ideological pedagogues, of tablets, screens, and radio waves that erode the brain. . . .
But what if, at heart, all of this was nothing but bullshit?
Bullshit and Post-Truth
It’s not that stupidity doesn’t exist or that the state of affairs isn’t alarming. In fact stupidity is very likely the condition of most human beings. I propose, however, that what seems to be and very well may be the case, an ongoing global decline in intelligence would be better understood if it were interpreted as a global rise in bullshit. In reality, stupidity is not—or is not only—the opposite of intelligence. You can be very intelligent and very stupid: all it takes to convince yourself of this is to put any intellectual in a political post, or to urge an expert to talk about a subject he knows nothing about. What will be produced in such cases is called bullshit.
According to the celebrated analysis of the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt  the essence of bullshit is its indifference to the truth. Unlike the liar who must always keep one eye on the truth in order to properly distort it or conceal it, the bull shitter just doesn’t give a damn.
He blurts out everything that comes into his head the moment it pleases him, without the least concern for the veracity or falseness of what he asserts. He joyfully spouts nonsense, and in so doing avails himself of multiple strategies: evading the issue, obfuscation, changing the subject, deception, long-windedness, affected solemnity, political cant, empty talk, utter hypocrisy. . . . The particular strategy or context hardly matters. The bull shitter, according to Frankfurt, seeks only to “get away with it” scot-free by acting like he’s said something when he’s said nothing at all, in the sense that he has transmitted no relevant information. Bullshit, therefore, is a form of epistemic camouflage: it passes itself off for a contribution to discussion, while in fact obstructing its progress. In sum, it’s the opposite of the discursive process.
Why would anyone tolerate an intellectual parasite like that? The liar, once he’s unmasked, generally finds himself rebuked, despised, and scorned; but the bull shitter seems to enjoy total impunity. Frankfurt left this question open, “as an exercise for the reader,” but certain psychological mind-sets, in combination with particular socio-cultural factors, permit us to explain this curious phenomenon. On one hand, we are excessively indulgent of bullshit. When someone says something nonsensical, our first reflex is to try to find meaning in his words, to infer something pertinent that could apply to the given situation, and to apply an interpretation that satisfies this need. In this way, those who fall for bullshit often do a lot of the bull shitter’s work for him. On the other hand, bullshit also benefits from certain cultural dynamics: if poise, self-confidence, authenticity, and sincerity are valued, the simple fact of saying something clear and specific, even if it’s bullshit, not only will pass unnoticed, but can prosper. Frankfurt concluded his analysis with these words: “Sincerity itself is bullshit.” To speak “from the heart,” to express yourself “with fire and passion,” to “speak your mind,” talk “man-to-man,” be “forthright” and “trustworthy”—these constructions, these contemporary values, are much more prized than rigor, prudence, precision, and exactness; and to some extent can even replace them.
With “sincere and authentic” speakers and “indulgent” audiences—whose respective roles can easily and regularly be swapped, shoring up and spreading the prevailing dynamic with every exchange—conditions have conspired to create a critical mass of bullshit in public discourse. If this analysis is correct, it seems we have an explanation for the advent of “post-truth,” which the Oxford English Dictionary made its “Word of the Year” in 2016, defining it as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
The immediate corollary of this definition is that whoever does not share our opinion is, de facto, wrong; is trying to manipulate us; is profoundly immoral; and does not respect our beliefs, which are our truth. This produces a polarization of debate in which each person seeks to defend and impose his own point of view while discrediting the other’s, drawing attention to his own integrity, his determination, and his moral virtue as visibly as possible, even within his own “camp.” Naturally, through this infernal process, the truth and the facts—the real state of things, whatever that may be—become totally subsidiary concepts, frankly even suspect.
An impartial observer, watching such dynamics at work, would have no choice but to ask himself if all of this, at heart, was not a little stupid. Bullshit, post-truth, alternative facts, fake news, and other conspiracy theories: are they not all simply new names we are giving to folly?
Principles of Contemporary Stupidity
As it happens, the French translation of Frankfurt’s “bullshit” (as a noun) is “connerie.” The translation of the verb “to bullshit” is “l’art de dire des conneries” (“the art of talking bullshit”). Unfortunately, the French term “connerie” suffers from an ambiguity that does not do justice to the notion of bullshit, in the philosophical sense now intended. Without going too deeply into semantic considerations, connerie may refer simultaneously, depending on context, to lying, stupidity, hypocrisy, ignorance, and ineptitude. The realm is therefore too vast to hope to gain from it a fine understanding of the complex problems at stake in the post-truth world. On the other hand, the term “connerie” has the advantage of drawing attention to the role of stupidity in our current relation with the question of truth. For our purposes here, we may regard the terms “stupidity,” “dumbness,” “folly,” “imbecility,” and “connerie” as largely equivalent; but as stated above, one must take care to distinguish them from a simple lack of intelligence. It would seem that a certain degree of intelligence is required to produce the type of stupidity that characterizes post-truth. Making things up and defending and propagating nonsense demands considerable cognitive resources, as well as mental gymnastics that take a heavy toll on cerebral energy.
You can therefore be very intelligent, have a vast sum of knowledge at your disposal, fight fiercely against error and falsehood (other people’s, naturally), while remaining very stupid. Why? Because an individual is capable of acting without any precise goal; without exactly knowing what the value of the truth and knowledge are; without truly understanding what it means to know something; without knowing how to use his knowledge wisely; without considering the norms and methods that would ideally foster truth; without worrying about the reasons that might assure that these norms and methods are correct; and without knowing how to correctly transmit his own knowledge, or even knowing why he should bother to transmit it correctly. This type of cretin illustrates what Robert Musil calls “intelligent stupidity,” which Kant considered a deficiency of judgment—a deficiency that in his opinion, unfortunately, was incurable. Structurally, this form of intelligent stupidity can have no other outcome than producing bullshit, because the conception of truth and knowledge that motivates it is inherently defective.
Seen one way, it’s as if post-truth consisted of mining and exploiting human intelligence with the express goal of making it produce and accept the most effective forms of stupidity. In the following section, I propose three factors distinct to contemporary stupidity that, taken together, may help explain the emergence of bullshit on a massive scale, ultimately stabilizing the generalized system of imbecility that we call post-truth. To speed the process, we will designate these factors by the terms narcissism, self-delusion, and pretentiousness, which will allow us to anticipate how their interactions may mutually reinforce each other. I will then offer a few words on the resulting ethical consequences of stupidity, before concluding, alas too briefly, on the likely evolution of post-truth, and ways we can confront it.
The Passion for the Same Thing
In his penetrating analysis of stupidity, Alain Roger comes to the conclusion that it is not a question of a deficit of rationality, but on the contrary, of an excess of logic. Stupidity has a passion for tautological parallelism: “a penny is a penny”; “you’ve got to admit, religion is religion”; “I’m no dumber than anyone else.” This is stupidity laid bare, with its grotesque principle of identification, “A = A”; which establishes nothing beyond what already has been said and thought. This is sufficiency in its pure state, in sum: I say what I think and I think what I say, for the sole reason that I say it and I think it. And if I don’t agree with something, that proves that it’s wrong, or that it has nothing to do with me. The only thing that registers is what “speaks to me,” which reflects my preexisting tastes and inclinations. To put any of them in question is de facto an offense, because only an enemy would not agree with me.
“It’s my opinion, and I’m sharing it,” the ridiculous rallying cry of stupidity, would be almost funny, were it not for the fact that the term “share” today has acquired a literal and disheartening connotation, now that stupidity is “shared” and “followed” online more easily and quickly than ever before.
With tautological stupidity, reason is caught in a trap, and becomes nothing but repetition and self-satisfaction, a triumphant subjectivity that produces clichés, received ideas, and commonplaces. Let’s take it further: a tautological statement based on the premise “A = A” may certainly be empty of all substance, but it has the property of becoming instantaneously performative. For example, the statement: “Whatever you say, an X will always be an X” (with X standing for whatever social group you despise) is profoundly stupid, and rests on no evidence, but nevertheless, “That’s the way it is,” and “That’s that.” “We listen to our customers” is another example of abysmal stupidity that works in the register of bullshit in an almost pure state, but which is not ineffective. A phrase like this one produces the illusion that the business in question does in fact listen to its customers, that it takes their well-being very seriously, and that it endeavors to ensure that they are entirely satisfied. It’s enough, literally, simply to say it, and the bullshit becomes effective because of its assertive character alone. In actual fact, of course, nothing is being done, but that’s precisely the goal of bullshit. 
Stupidity, therefore, is a constant reduction of everything to the same thing and to oneself  which explains its permanent recourse to personal examples or testimony, to “home turf,” to “experience,” to “feeling.” Authenticity, subjectivity, and sincerity not only are taken as sufficient, they allow the cretin to swell with pride and satisfaction: he thinks he knows what he’s talking about, while in reality, his single-minded, solitary belief system prompts every word he speaks. He’s unable to conceive that any external pressure on his single-minded conviction might eventually guide him, correct him or—we can dream—make him change his opinion. It’s not that a fool is incapable of supporting his case if he needs to, but that to do so, he relies on confirmation bias, that magnetic force that allows him to reinforce his opinions in every circumstance by helping him find facts that bolster his case, while neglecting or carefully reinterpreting any that contradict him. 
Stupidity, intellectual laziness, complacency, and narcissism seem to work together, converging in the triumph of intuition. My opinion and my reaction are right; because they are mine. Someone who does not sufficiently demonstrate “sincerity,” “authenticity,” poise, and conviction is discredited right out of the gate. He may well respect the truth, care about accuracy, and take a rigorous approach, but you just can’t trust someone who doesn’t seem like he’s talking “from the bottom of his heart,” preferring to laboriously lay out facts and consider their logical progression. This attitude, of course, is one of the sources of populism, explaining why people will happily support and elect a patented liar the moment they decide he’s “one of us”; always this stupid principle of identification at work, on a global scale.
Once again, these mechanisms of stupidity have little to do with intelligence.  It is entirely conceivable that people are becoming collectively dumber and dumber without the general level of intelligence dropping one iota. On the contrary, intelligence is readily called upon to support this stupid system through the establishment of a personal epistemology  that amounts to nothing more or less than the belief, carefully managed, that knowledge is a question of intuition that something is true, and that you know it’s true the second you’ve decreed that it is because you’re “personally convinced” of it—all the better if it reflects a “value” that defines you.
How Dumb I Am!
All the same, stupidity would not be stupidity if it were able to recognize itself as such. Alas, the imbecile, due to the fact that he’s an imbecile, doesn’t have the mental resources that would permit him to perceive his own imbecility. This epistemological blind spot yields the tragic limitation: stupidity is wise enough to know its own best interest, and to protect itself from assaults of rationality.
Entrapped as he is in his principle of identity, the idiot is deprived de facto of the capacity of seeing things another way, that is, from the point of view of an individual not himself, or an individual who knows more than he does. This is what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for the authors who documented it. An incompetent person may perform disastrously in a given area, but left to his own devices, will not perceive his own uselessness and will overestimate his performance. Expertise in any sphere is accompanied by a thorough, detailed knowledge of what that expertise comprises, gained through sustained effort, under the painful yoke of assiduous labor and constant reassessment. The true expert is aware of being an expert and knows his subject well; he’s also aware of what he doesn’t know and what he still has to learn: he knows his limitations. Research shows that truly competent people slightly underestimate their abilities. A fool, on the other hand, does not have even an inkling of an idea of what it would take for him to be less stupid. He doesn’t even know that he is stupid, because, obviously, you don’t have to know anything to be stupid. It would be nice to say that that’s his problem, but in reality, this problem generally becomes other people’s problem, because the idiot, not knowing he’s an idiot, is in no way bothered by his stupidity, and does not hesitate to inflict it on his entourage and beyond.
Therefore, it’s not (uniquely) out of sheer perversity that we adopt an epistemology calibrated on subjectivity, intuition, “authenticity,” and “sincerity.” This is also a reliable way to avoid ever being in the wrong and to conceal one’s own stupidity from oneself. Stupidly mired in his impermeable ego, immune to the slightest discovery that might alter his stupidity, the imbecile quickly becomes incapable of detecting, recognizing, and identifying his own stupidity. Even worse, he uses all his intelligence not to assess the quality of new information or to question the validity of his beliefs, but to determine whether new information aligns with his earlier preferences and to reject anything that doesn’t suit him. Stupidity works tirelessly to defend itself, and to no other end.
This pernicious singularity of stupidity has consequences. As we’ve seen, not only is stupidity invisible to itself, as the fool is incapable of recognizing that he’s a fool and overestimates his abilities, but this propensity constantly leads him to denigrate true intelligence (which he would be hard-pressed to recognize), reinforcing his stupidity. A person who possesses valid beliefs and correct information has only one thing to say: the truth. The imbecile, in contrast, is possessed of an infinite quantity of nonsense, since there’s more than one way to be wrong. There could never be enough time for those who have reliable means of access to the truth to correct all the stupidities unleashed by cretins who feel entitled to give their opinions on everything and anything, and who have the economic means and the gumption to do so. This is what is called the “bullshit asymmetry principle”: bullshit can be produced on a grand scale by anyone at all, at next to no cost, while those who are both able and determined to debunk bullshit are few, and must expend great efforts in combating it.
Stupidity in Disguise
Stupidity is characterized by forms of narcissism and self-delusion that mutually reinforce each other, fostering the spread of stupidity throughout the population. It’s helped along by the cockiness of the overconfident cretin, who brushes off all displays of prudence or intellectual rigor in an environment where it’s widely accepted that knowledge is chiefly a question of intuition and “sincerity.” In sum, the person who speaks the loudest and with the most “conviction” and “passion” comes across as the one who has the most to say and gets the most attention.
However, competition in this area is steep; even imbeciles have to find a way to stand out from other imbeciles. And this is where the most troubling feature of stupidity emerges: it attempts to pass itself off as intelligence. Convinced of his wisdom, the idiot airs his idiocies as if they were pearls of wisdom, groundbreaking observations of incredible depth, the fruit of intense reflection, and clearly expects to be taken extremely seriously. One ingredient of his tool kit is false logic: rather than actually reasoning to come to a conclusion, he works backward, first stating the conclusion, then cobbling together the “reasoning” that infallibly proves it. As Flaubert said, “Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions.” True; yet as Flaubert’s characters Bouvard and Pécuchet demonstrated, stupidity also arises when you (wrongly) suppose that you’ve come to a conclusion by proper means.  Strangely, this happens quite a lot, allowing the worst impostor to mistake himself for a minor genius, a giant of philosophy, or a leading light of neuroscience.
Just as pseudoscience enjoys donning the trappings of science, even though it despises it; just as fake news presents itself as real, verified news while reviling mainstream media; and just as conspiracy theories try to pass themselves off as rigorous, conscientious investigations into the truth without making the slightest effort to draw on facts, stupidity can only survive and prosper by taking on the appearance of its greatest enemies: reason, knowledge, and truth. This requires a certain talent for mimicry, which is to say that the “reasoning” exhibited by the fool must resemble a legitimate exercise of thought, and above all (and this is the goal) must allow him to preserve and broadcast his idea of himself as a person of irreproachable morality, as a provocateur who’s not afraid of speaking his mind, as an intellectual who cannot be questioned, or as all three at the same time. Shown for what it is, this behavior is nothing but pretense and arrogance.
Stupidity, therefore, operates through mimetic parasitism: it exploits the virtues associated with the quest for authentic products of human reason through pseudo-rationality.  This requires a certain kind of intelligence, as Robert Musil observed, making stupidity “less a deficiency of intelligence than an abdication of it, in regard to the tasks it pretends to accomplish” and “a disharmony between the biases of feeling and a mentality that is incapable of moderating them.” When you have nothing interesting to say, unfortunately the possibility remains of imitating the superficial appearance of something that would be interesting to say. And if this practice becomes the norm in a given society, you can effectively speak of “post-truth.”
Stupid and Evil (and Connected)
Post-truth is nourished by two individual factors whose beliefs and behavior are largely motivated by a relationship with knowledge that rests on intuition and feeling, a form of stupidity characterized, not unlike religion, by self-delusion. This means it cannot be challenged, while it strains to resemble a rational, frank, and pertinent concern for truth. From this very broad point of view, it becomes clear that bullshit, fake news, conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts,” along with the unintentional “sharing” of them, are contemporary, exacerbated manifestations of good old eternal folly. It’s not a big surprise: anyone can see—except, of course, for fools—that post-truth definitely enfolds a prodigious pack of lies.
It remains for us to examine a few of its manifestations and consequences. We have seen that stupidity implies a usurpation of the intellectual domain, but this would not be terribly serious if stupidity did not also extend into the domain of ethics. “The fool,” according to the philosopher Pascal Engel, “is guilty of not respecting the truth.” His deficit of intellectual virtues translates into a moral vice. Worse still, the man who considers himself a “wit,” the bull shitter par excellence, who pretends to respect the values of intelligence and seems to concern himself with the truth and with making sense, in reality only mimics these qualities to gain access to a sphere where he can pass himself off as an intellectual, or just shine a little in society with very little effort. A person who is not a bull shitter, but just isn’t all that bright, if you want to put it that way, may well respect the truth and the sort of intelligence that produces it. The bull shitter, the snob, the conceited twit, and the fool have contempt for such simple souls and exploit them, not out of any concern for the truth in itself, but out of self-regard. The variety of annoying bull shitters is infinite: there’s the blowhard who acts like he’s expressing new and interesting thoughts or divulging a radical, prodigiously audacious idea; the hypocrite who acts virtuously only so he can tell everyone about it; and, a corollary, the self-righteous moron who expresses moral outrage with the sole purpose of broadcasting his outrage, a very common phenomenon lately, known as “moral grandstanding.”
The fool immediately responds to a given assertion or event by feeling and displaying his disapproval, his rejection, his outrage and his anger . . . simply because he has decided that this is what he needs to do, and that it will be useful for him. He will share his reaction with the largest number of people possible, to help him define himself as an individual. This attitude triggers a mechanism of self-polarization, because keeping track of all the possible causes and motives for indignation requires vigilance at all times, producing an escalation of outrage that is aimed at heightening his profile in the competitive arena of stupidity.
Apart from the specific types of annoyance that each brand of bull shitter inflicts on his targets, it must be marked that the overall effect of bullshit, fake news, “alternative facts,” and the post-truth world that contains them does not consist, properly speaking, of inciting false beliefs. That was the result, intentional or not, of old-style rumors and propaganda. Today, it has more to do with completely destabilizing our relationship with the truth and eroding faith in the democratic project. To believe in nothing, to not even imagine the possibility that knowledge could be obtained that would come close to establishing a common basis for truth, is probably more pernicious than simply believing in false things, which at least stand the chance of being corrected one day.
All of this amounts to staggering stupidity, which offers almost no grounds for optimism. And yet, we must note that the very existence of post-truth supposes a backdrop of truth, a context in which truth might thrive, if only in the attempt to imitate it. The counterfeit can only cause damage up to a point; beyond a certain threshold, if there’s practically nothing but counterfeit money in circulation, it’s no longer of any use to anyone. The question that now confronts us is how far stupidity can go, and to what extent it can proliferate through technological platforms that seem to have been conceived to exploit, increase, and broadcast it as far and as fast as possible.
Will this be enough to encourage the younger generations to develop their critical thinking, or to train them to decode information, knowing that the problems they’ll face down the line are not the same ones they’re facing today? Stupidity, as we’ve seen, has already adapted to mimic “critical thinking,” and even seeks solutions to some of the problems that it itself has created, without, of course, regarding itself as the cause. Is it possible for the epistemological authorities of science, the press, and justice to join this battle by, for instance, proposing greater data transparency, clearer communication, assiduous fact-checking, and laws that discourage and restrict manipulative and malevolent peddlers of misinformation? Probably; but keep in mind that the post-truth world will make mincemeat of each of these initiatives, immediately recycling them through its benighted system that generates erosion of confidence, generalized suspicion, and indifference to facts.
There is still a third option, which would be to beat bullshit at its own game (along with the stupidity that underlies it) by exploring fakery and folly in creative ways. This is the work of satire and fiction, since; after all, a post-truth world implies a post-fiction world. Not to care about truth is not to care if truth is fiction. Perhaps all we need to do to become a little less stupid is to reclaim our taste for the ingenuity of the human mind and to show more intellectual modesty by using our brains to work on behalf of intelligence, not stupidity.
1. Armand Farrachi, Le Triomphe de la Bêtise [The Triumph of Stupidity] (Arles, France: Actes Sud, 2018).
2. Sebastian Dieguez, Total Bullshit! Au Coeur de la Post-Vérité [Total Bullshit! At the Heart of Post-Truth] (Paris: Presse Universitaires de France, 2018).
3. Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
5. Pascal Engel, “The Epistemology of Stupidity,” in Performance Epistemology: Foundations and Applications, ed. M. A. Fernández Vargas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016): 196–223.
6. Alain Roger, Bréviaire de la Bêtise [A Bréviary of Stupidity] (Paris: Gallimard, 2008); see also Michel Adam, Essai sur la Bêtise [Essays on Stupidity] (Paris: La Table Ronde, 2004).
7. Laura Penny, Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005).
8. Belinda Cannone, La Bêtise S’Améliore (Paris: Pocket, 2016).
9. Raymond Nickerson, “Confirmation Bias: A Ubiquitous Phenomenon in Many Guises,” Review of General Psychology 2 (1998): 175–220.
10. Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim, and Ezra W. Z. Sivan, “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth About Political Illegitimacy,” American Sociological Review 83 (2018): 1–33.
11. Keith E. Stanovich, “Rationality, Intelligence and Levels of Analysis in Cognitive Science: Is Dysrationalia Possible?” in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, ed. R. Sternberg (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002): 124–58.
12. Barbara K. Hofer and Paul R. Pintrich, eds., Personal Epistemology: The Psychology of Beliefs About Knowledge and Knowing (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002).
13. Let us note that it is also very difficult for a rational, intelligent person to imagine the mental world of a fool, a phenomenon sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” Susan A. J. Birch and Paul Bloom, “The Curse of Knowledge in Reasoning About False Beliefs,” Psychological Science 18 (2007): 382–86.
14. David Dunning, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2011): 247–96.
15. “Brandolini’s Law,” Ordres Spontane Blog, August 7, 2014, ordrespontane.blogspot.ch/2014/07/brandolinis-law.html.
16. Sebastian Dieguez, “Qu’est-ce Que La Bêtise?” [What Is Stupidity?], Cerveau & Psycho 70 (2015): 84–90.
17. Stefaan Blancke, Maarten Boudry, and Massimo Pigliucci, “Why Do Irrational Beliefs Mimic Science? The Cultural Evolution of Pseudoscience,” Theoria 83 (2017): 78–98.
18. Adrian Piper, “Pseudorationality,” in Perspectives on Self-Deception, eds., B. McLaughlin and A. Rorty (Oakland: University of California Press, 1988), 173–97.
19. Robert Musil, De la Bêtise [On Stupidity] (Paris: Editions Allia, 1937).
20. Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke, “Moral Grandstanding,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 44 (2016): 197–217; M. J. Crockett, “Moral Outrage in the Digital Age,” Nature Human Behaviour 1 (2017): 769–71.