Nation of Beancounters

Megan McArdle on calling people stupid

Posted in On Discourse by Navin Kumar on August 13, 2014

I’m just going to excerpt the whole thing:

Most people get mad when you say they’re stupid, and when they’re mad, they’re not listening. Neither is anyone else who likes the person you just said was stupid. So congratulations: In one fell swoop, you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.

Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends — “don’t listen to opposing arguments” — is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter.

The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.

I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here).” It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.

The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.

In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.

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