To many critics of populism, people who voted for populists such as India’s Narendra Modi, America’s Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Andrzej Duda and Pakistan’s Imran Khan, were all largely ‘stupid.’ Not only do critics explain the supporters of these men as being stupid, they are likely to describe the mentioned leaders as stupid too.
But what is stupidity? Ever since the mid-20th century, the idea of stupidity, especially in the context of politics, has been studied by various sociologists and psychologists. One of the pioneers in this regard was the German scholar and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
During the rise of Nazi rule in Germany, Bonhoeffer was baffled by the silence of millions of Germans when the Nazis began to publicly humiliate and brutalise Jewish people. Bonhoeffer condemned this. He asked how could a nation that had produced so many philosophers, scientists and artists, suddenly become so apathetic and even sympathetic towards state violence and oppression.
Unsurprisingly, in 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. Two years later, he was executed. While awaiting execution, Bonhoeffer began to put his thoughts on paper. These were posthumously published in the shape of a book, Letters and Papers from Prison. One of the chapters in the book is called, ‘On Stupidity.’ Bonhoeffer wrote: “Every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it political or religious, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.”
According to Bonhoeffer, because of the overwhelming impact of a rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and they give up establishing an autonomous position towards the emerging circumstances. They become mere tools in the hands of the power, and begin to willingly surrender their capacity for independent thinking. Bonhoeffer wrote that holding a rational debate with such a person is futile, because it feels that one is not dealing with a person, but with slogans and catchwords.
Stupidity is different from a lack of intelligence. Political leaders may have the intelligence to propel themselves to power, but inevitably fall back on what they know when they do not have the conceptual tools to grasp new realities
So, to Bonhoeffer, stupidity was not about lack of intelligence, but about a mind that had almost voluntarily closed itself to reason, especially after being impacted and/or swayed by the rise of an assertive external power.
In a 2020 essay for The New Statesman, the British philosopher Sacha Golob writes that being stupid and dumb were not the same thing. For example, intelligence (or lack thereof) can somewhat be measured through IQ tests. But even those who score high in these tests can do ‘stupid’ things or carry certain ‘stupid ideas.’
Golob gave the example of the novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the famous fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. Holmes, a private detective, was an ideal product of the ‘Age of Reason’, imagined by Doyle as a man who shunned emotions and dealt only in reason, logic and the scientific method. Yet, later on in life, Doyle became the antithesis of his character, Holmes. He got into a silly argument with the celebrated illusionist Harry Houdini when the latter rubbished Doyle’s belief that one could communicate with spirits (in a seance).
The question is, how could a man who had created a super-rationalist character such as Sherlock Holmes, begin to believe in seances? In fact, Doyle also began to believe in the existence of fairies. Every time someone would successfully debunk Doyle’s beliefs, Doyle would go to great lengths to provide a counter-argument, but one which was even more absurd.
Golob writes this is what stupidity is. And it can even be found in supposedly very intelligent people too. According to the American psychologist Ray Hyman, “Conan Doyle used his smartness to outsmart himself.” This can also answer why one sometimes comes across highly educated and informed men and women unabashedly spouting conspiracy theories that have either been convincingly debunked, or cannot be proven outside the domain of wishful thinking. By continuing to insist on the validity of such theories, one is simply using his/her smartness to outsmart oneself.
What about the leaders whose rise to power, according to Bonhoeffer, triggers stupidity across a large body of people? Take the example of today’s prominent populists, whose supporters are often referred to as being stupid. But as mentioned earlier, these leaders too are explained in a similar manner.
The truth is, dumbness, if it means a substantial lack of intelligence, is not what explains prominent political leaders. Had they been dumb, they would never be at the top of the heap. But as we have already established, stupidity and dumbness are two very different things; leaders can be stupid.
In this context, Golob explains stupidity as “the lack of conceptual resources.” By this he means that some leaders lack the right conceptual tools for the job. He writes that this can lead to a ‘conceptual failure’, where a leader is unable to fully grasp the concept of (political, economic or social) reality that he/she is operating in. They may excel in what they understand, but enter the domain of stupidity when they don’t. However, it is quite clear by now that today’s populist leaders may have had the intelligence to propel themselves to power, but they really do not have the conceptual tools to remain there.
Take PM Imran Khan. As an opposition leader, he understood well the concept of fiery, emotional rhetoric that can become a venting vessel for many. However, this tool becomes impotent in the conceptual context of actually being in power. Khan lacks the conceptual tools to understand the many economic and political quagmires the country has slid into. The more he fails in this, the more he falls back on concepts that he actually understands: i.e. fiery rhetoric (but one that does not sound very convincing anymore), and issues of morality.
He understands the latter well because, when he was a dashing ‘playboy’ in his pre-political days, he was often attacked for being immoral. He understood what the concept of morality is in Pakistani society. He now uses this as a tool to distract his thinning support from his obvious lack of understanding of what is actually happening around him in terms of the country’s drastic economic meltdown.
So, politically and economically, as things crumble around him, he stubbornly continues to “address issues of social immorality” because, by now, this is the only concept he can grasp. This is another case of political stupidity and conceptual failure, or of smartness outsmarting itself.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 31st, 2021