Monday, September 16, 2013

Why should we care what stupid people think?

Sunday night, a new Miss America was crowned. As soon as Nina Davuluri, Miss New York, an American of Indian descent, was declared the winner, Twitter was awash with racist hate-filled tweets. According to Buzzfeed, they objected to a “foreigner” winning the title, and many called her an Arab, expressing horror that she won so close to 9-11.

First off, calling someone an Arab is not an insult. Let’s get that out of the way immediately.

Second, we probably ought to have a discussion about the media referring to Ms. Davuluri as an Indian-American and not an American of Indian descent. There are many complicated philosophical issues involved in the choice to hyphenate ethnic and national origin. Hopefully, we’ll get to address them in the future.

What is clear is that the people who posted these Tweets are idiots. They are stupid. They don’t know the difference between India and Saudi Arabia, they don’t know that Americans have a multiplicity of backgrounds, and while they, like many, believe ignorant things privately, they are even moronic enough to Tweet them to the world. They are cream of the stupid milk, the morons that rise to the top, the dumb of the dumb of the dumb. And so I am forced to ask, who cares what they think? Why should their opinion matter to us?

I can imagine two reasons. First, this does not look good for the American education system. It suggests that our schools are failing us. However, these comments tell us no such thing. Even if there were one thousand such tweets, they wouldn't even scratch the demographic surface. There are currently 50.1 million children enrolled in US schools. The vast majority of American adults were in school at one point or another, as well. If only 1,000 of those raised in America are this dumb, I would call our education system the greatest success in human history.

Second, hate needs to be addressed, even stupid hate. In August of 2012, a man killed six people in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, confusing Sikhs, most of whom are of Indian or Pakistani descent, with Muslims. This suggests that letting these Tweets go unanswered may have serious consequences. Ignorance spreads and it is our responsibility to contain it. (Calling someone a Muslim is also not an insult. I want to be clear about that, as well.)

But responding to these Tweets in order to educate is different than being outraged. I would suggest that the proper response, instead, is to have pity for the poor halfwits that posted them. We should feel bad for people of such limited intelligence and of such poor education. We should not, and Ms. Davuluri definitely ought not, take this personally. It is nothing other than a sign that some people are lucky when they don’t wake up and set themselves on fire while taking a bath.

My comments will, of course, rub some people the wrong way. They run counter to the American ethos that everyone has a right to an opinion and that we should regard people as fundamentally equal. There will be people who cringe at the idea that I am calling others stupid. In response I will simply say this: being a citizen in a democracy means being held accountable for your actions and opinions. Calling these people stupid is the most respectful thing I can do because it takes their agency seriously. It holds each of them individually responsible as if they were capable adults. It also recognizes that while everyone is entitled to their opinion, all beliefs are not equal. Some opinions are indeed just dumb, so as philosophers, we are forced to ask, how many stupid opinions do you have to hold before you yourself are declared to be stupid? In this case, I suspect the answer is one. Each of those tweets is, I believe, enough.

Philosophers have long debated the relationship between action and identity. Are we what we do, or are we something separate from our activities? This too is a discussion for another time. In this instance perhaps, I think the answer can be reduced to the famous proverb: “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

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  1. Jack,

    I love this: "Calling these people stupid is the most respectful thing I can do because it takes their agency seriously."

    Unless they are stupid because, you know, they're stupid. You know lacking intelligence. I often call slow runners lazy because if they worked harder they'd run faster. I wonder whether calling the stupidity a choice is a slippery slope.


  2. Thanks! I think the question of how to take someone seriously is quite complicated (and probably very culture bound). Ultimately, one of the things libertarians get right is that accountability is a hallmark of agency.

  3. Jack,

    Right. This is why I have come to use the term resistance for many types of classroom behaviors. I start with the assumption that learning is always possible and that it is impossible for people to be genuinely incapable of learning. Whether students do learn or not is really an issue of how the teaching manages student resistance. Resistance in this context exists within the discursive environment of the classroom. It is both generative and responsive.

    Of course, stupidity functions the same way. It is a product of the long-standing "anti-intellectual" movement in American life. In other words, stupid people intentionally play the a role of the "everyman" in the dialogue with the "high fallutin'".

    One thing to consider is that responding to their stupidity ensures that this dialogical relationship persists. Ignoring the stupidity, on the other hand, breaks the cycle. It eliminates the authority to whom these people are responding. (This isn't to say that intelligent people should retire from public life or we should ignore all forms of injustice, but that we need to pick our battles!).

    As an example, I found the eliminating due dates for my students (making all work due at the end of the semester) significantly reduced a point of resistance in the classroom. Interestingly, some students still attempt to resist by ASSUMING due dates (and playing both sides of the dialogue) and apologizing for missing these assumed due dates. So, by ignoring stupidity, we might not make it go away entirely, but we might begin to undermine its power.


  4. I think that it is worth mentioning that issues lie beyond our education system and more-so into our actual culture. American culture is moving towards a direction where we, as Americans, revolve around ourselves. People are more interested in what their friends are doing this weekend than what is happening outside of our border. We fail to understand or even care about other cultures, which can likely point to why some Americans are unable to distinguish between different ethnic backgrounds.