Thursday, March 1, 2012

'Stupid is as Stupid Does'

I have been thinking a lot about stupidity recently. It probably has something to do with the prevalence of media coverage of the Republican presidential primaries and the attempts by Republican lawmakers to do stupid things across the United States, stupid things like trying to ban abortion by mandating that an invasive procedures be performed before an abortion can take place as in Virginia, by trying to undermine unions by cutting back on union activity and instituting right to work laws as in Indiana or cutting back on the rights of unionised public workers as in Wisconsin, or by allowing religious institutions and those of religious conscience to opt out of providing contraception to female workers and customers all across the United States (note that they are not allowing religious pacifists to opt out of paying federal war taxes, however). Sometimes it seems that the levels of stupidity in the US are higher than they have ever been in my lifetime thanks to these Republicans and those who support them.

I am not sure that my perception that idiocy is at its highest levels in the United States in my lifetime will hold water. And in my best Rod Serling online voice let me offer the following idiocies from my academic past for your consideration. Exhibit A, I heard a graduate student at a second or third level research university in the Northeast wonder aloud why anyone or why any historian should pay any attention to Mormon perceptions of persecution. Ideological prejudices creating reality perhaps? The moral of this story, perhaps the real reason is because, as with Anabaptists and Jews, persecution leaves its mark on a groups cultural DNA. Exhibit B, I heard an undergraduate student at the same university say she didn't like the Coen Brothers though, upon questioning, she admitted she had never seen a Coen Brothers film in her life. They were not "independent" enough for her. Ideology creating "reality"? The moral of this story, if you are going to criticise something it helps to know something about what you are criticising. Exhibit C, I heard yet another undergraduate student at the same Northeastern university say that he hated Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When asked why he admitted he had never seen the show and couldn't offer a reasonable reason why he hated Buffy. Ideology creating "reality"? And again, moral of this tale, ye should know empirically what you are critiquing before you critique it.

What I have long found incredible about these instances of stupidity is that they occurred within the hallowed ivy, well concrete, halls of a university, within the very place where reason and intelligence is supposed to be a sacred duty. I guess I really shouldn't be surprised about this. Universities are, after all, human institutions and humans invariably do and say stupid and idiotic things. I, an educated person, for instance, have done a lot of stupid things in my life one of which was matriculating at a Northeastern university that I assumed, wrongly it turns out, would be just like the great state research universities such as Indiana University, the University of Michigan, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Texas, the University of California, and the University of Iowa. It wasn't. I guess I should have followed the advice of my Dad and Mum: look before you leap, or to put it in intellectual terms, do your empirical research before you assume anything and be wary of romanticising.

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