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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #41, 12/8/2006

Stupid Should Hurt

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

You may have seen the slogan on t-shirts and bumper stickers: "Stupid Should Hurt." Indeed, stupidity does hurt—a lot!—but this outcome doesn't necessarily change the behavior. The nature of the disease encourages repeated self-destructive acts.

Stupid is a mental illness. Although it isn't listed yet in any diagnostic manuals, stupidity has certain unique characteristics that are common to all of its victims. These people aren't merely "dumb" but are deluded in a specific way that arises from a fundamental problem of existence.

What is stupidity? It is not simply a lack of intelligence. There are a lot of people who score high on objective intelligence tests but who are in fact quite stupid in their personal lives. Stupidity is more a reflection of emotional intelligence.

Stupid happens when we fail to distinguish between facts and feelings. The real-world gives us one thing, but we insist on seeing something else, dictated by our inner needs and wishes. When we skew our perception like this and then base our behavior on it, reality usually comes along and smacks us upside the head. Not all stupid acts result in disaster, but you can't mess with reality for long without it eventually biting you.

Each of us is not very far from the diagnosis ourselves. We have all done stupid things, so we know stupidity from the inside. If we have escaped from the syndrome, then it wasn't easy. Stupid did hurt, and somehow we learned our lesson and are less stupid now.

The opposite of stupid is "smart". Again, smart is different than "intelligent." One can be brilliant by any objective measure but not smart in the things that matter most. Smart involves the real-world application of intelligence, not just in the laboratory or on a standardized test but in the field.

We sometimes use "smart" and "stupid" to refer to the outcome of our actions, but this is misleading. We might say that we were smart to invest in the stock market just before it went up, when in fact it might have been dumb luck. Smart and stupid are not external outcomes but inner processes. They are emotional operating styles.

Think of the stupid people you know. What kind of things do they do? They may fall for any "Special Offer" on TV. They may tell their boss "exactly what I think" even if it gets them fired. They may treat their children inconsistently, then blame the children for behaving badly. They are rarely in sync with reality. They just don't "get it."

At some basic level, stupid people fail to distinguish the outside world from their inner world. They believe inherently that reality is their servant, not their master. We may recognize this in ourselves when we recall our own stupid mistakes. (Can you think of one or two that you have made?) In retrospect, we were deluded: The real world was sending us a consistent message, but because we wanted to believe something else, we ignored it. This is why we now call the action "stupid." The disaster could have been avoided if we had respected the obvious signs.

Stupid is different from an "accident," which could happen to any of us. If you are driving prudently and another car forces you off the road, that's not stupidity on your part. If you are driving drunk, above the speed limit, without wearing a seat belt, then that's a different story. If you take unnecessary chances because you're feeling on top of the world, then you have set yourself up for a crash. The world doesn't care how you feel and is going to respond to you exactly the same.

Smart is when we can separate reality from our feelings and process them each on their own merits. Reality has its own independent structure that is our responsibility to investigate and understand. We are smart when we adjust ourselves creatively to the structure we have discovered, taking advantage of its hidden subtleties. You can't force your will on reality; you have to finesse it.

We are also smart when we acknowledge our own feelings and take them into account, but that doesn't mean we must act on them or let them skew our perception.

Stupid is when we try to barge right through reality, ignoring what it is telling us and expecting it to respect our private wishes. Reality doesn't care about our inner goals. Sometimes it gives us what we want, but that's just a matter of random chance, not destiny or entitlement.

During our childhood, we are given a certain amount of protection from reality. Our parents dole out rewards and punishments that are often detached from the conditions we must eventually face. Some parents, for example, may reward their children no matter what they do. This sets the stage for stupidity in adulthood, as the subject expects the outside world to hand him the same unconditional reward.

The habits of stupidity can be terribly difficult to change, especially in others. This is why we label some people "stupid" as an overall systemic condition. They are never going to "get it" because they have made a fundamental philosophical decision not to. Their emotional needs are so great and cause them so much internal panic, that they can never accept reality the way it is.

The worst thing you can do for a stupid person is protect them from their mistakes. Maybe stupid should hurt. If it doesn't, then they're going to get even more stupid, and they will be totally unable to deal with life when the protection finally collapses.

That's not to say that simple "consequences" are always the solution. Sometimes there isn't a solution. Sometimes, you have to accept that this person is stupid and always will be. The main tragedy here is when this person is a parent. Then you worry that the stupidity is going to be dumped from one generation to the next.

You often see him or her in Family Court: a parent who's not on drugs and who isn't outwardly abusive, yet who just doesn't "get it" about how to raise kids. They treat their child according to their own vacillating emotional needs without recognizing the child's own independent reality.

These children often end up in the juvenile delinquency system, and there is not a lot you can do for them. Often the best solution is to send the juvenile to a group home or structured youth camp, where he can at least get away from his parents for a few months. Then it's back to the land of stupidity again.

Although self-destructive acts by others can seem comical from afar—in a schadenfreude sort of way—there is nothing fun about the syndrome at close range. When placed in a vulnerable position, stupid people can be mean, even sadistic, because they have to cover up their own incompetence. They may seem like harmless dolts on the surface, but you never want to put yourself in a position where they have power over you, because this power is going to be abused.

When you have a boss, client, parent, spouse or adolescent child like this, that's when you find out what a tragic and terrible disease stupidity is. You clean up one stupid mess, but then there's another and another. There's never going to be an end to it until the stupid person touches reality himself is able to directly experience the results of his actions as they occur.

Smart people, by definition, learn quickly from their mistakes, but stupid people don't. They may have to hit their head against a wall many times before they realize, "Hey, this isn't a good idea." Even then, it's only that particular wall they've learned about. If you put up another wall, they'll insist that it shouldn't be there and repeat their mistakes all over again.

Maybe stupid has to hurt, but it's still a terrible tragedy.


Reader Comments

“I enjoy your essays.” — 12/9/06 (rating=3)

“I don't think it caught the true meaning of stupid, and saying that stupid hurting is "a terrible tragedy" does injustice to real tragedys, all in all, I'd say the author needs to gain perspective.” —Just call me....Obiwan Cannoli 7/25/08 (rating=1)

“this article as well as the one entitled "Drug-Induced Personality Change" shed light on no subject other than the utter and complete mental retardation of the author and his fragile grip on reality.” —gnotdumb 4/5/09 (rating=0)

“Great work ;)” —stmoraru 2/4/10 (rating=5)

“Well said. "Stupid" knows no limits. "Stupid" lives somewhere beyond the edge of the universe.” —Joe 8/17/10 (rating=5)

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe.” —Joe 8/20/10 (rating=5)

“I actually liked the essay. I am dealing with a stupid person and it is frustrating and traumatic for all involved. You may not think that stupidity causes tragedy, but especially when children are involved, tragedy is the only appropriate word.” —Shelly 3/25/11 (rating=3)

“Stupidity.. Huh, really? :)” — 4/20/11 (rating=2)

“Stupidity.. Great idea :)” — 5/7/11 (rating=1)

“Stupidity.. Very nice :)” — 6/20/11 (rating=1)

Ratings so far: 3 5 1 4 3 1 5 5 1 4 5 0 5 5 5 5 3 2 1 1 1 (Average=3)

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