Sunday, November 28, 2021

Combating Stupidity

I don’t like shaking hands with these disgusting people.

— Donald Trump

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, hanged by the Nazis for his participation in Operation Valkyrie, understood stupidity and the danger it poses to freedom.

In his essay "On Stupidity" (unpublished in his lifetime), Bonhoeffer offered his conclusions after a decade of witnessing the sorts of Germans who rallied behind der Führer.

They were all adamant.

Stupidity is dangerous because it is adamant, he said; unassailably so.

"Against stupidity we are defenseless: neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything," Bonhoeffer said. 

"Reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed; and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as incidental. 

"In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous."

Stupidity isn't related to brains, education or economic class, according to Bonhoeffer. Stupidity is a voluntary defectPeople "allow this to happen to them," he wrote.

And stupidity isn't a solitary pursuit. It flourishes within parties. Stupidity is a disease of the psyche wrought by historical forces that propel people, willingly, to surrender their autonomy to a leader and his wims. 

"Every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere infects a large part of humankind with stupidity," Bonhoeffer wrote. 

"The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell."

Therein lies the danger in stupidity. 

"Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil," Bonhoeffer wrote. 

"This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings."

Diabolical leaders manipulate the mindless for their own ends, "expecting more from people’s stupidity than from their inner independence and wisdom."

Wise and responsible people can only respond to such manipulation through political acts, Bonhoeffer believed; god-fearing "acts of liberation" designed to unchain the stupid by undermining their leaders. 

We should forget trying to convince a stupid person he's being stupid: combating stupidity head on is "senseless." 

"Internal liberation becomes possible only when external liberation has preceded it," Bonhoeffer wrote.

That's why he joined the plot to remove Adolph Hitler—and why he was hanged.

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