Stupidity Kills

Five-plus years into the Obama administration, America’s foreign policy analysts have lately been in search of an “Obama doctrine”—that is, an overarching philosophy of how the United States ingratiates itself abroad under the current commander-in-chief.

According to these experts, there isn’t one.

Instead, they conclude, President Obama has taken a purely pragmatic approach on the world stage, summarized by a piece of advice the president himself has occasionally given, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”  (The last word isn’t always “stuff.”)

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty solid doctrine to me.  Compared to the most recent alternative—“Invade countries we don’t like using money we don’t have, because freedom”—the notion of using our brain instead of our gut seems just what the doctor ordered.

But of course, I say this with my tongue planted at least partially in my cheek.  In truth, using “don’t be stupid” as one’s modus operandi carries a fundamental flaw, which is that stupidity is in the eye of the beholder.  To evoke the word as if we all agree on what constitutes a good or bad idea reeks of arrogance and condescension—much like the incessant pleas to apply “common sense” in legislating this or that (as in “common sense gun laws” or “common sense tax rates”).

I underline the insufferable, patronizing nature of reducing humanity’s most complicated and intractable conflicts to mere rank idiocy on other people’s parts because, in recent times, I have increasingly found myself doing exactly that.  And I worry, at least some of the time, that I may just be right.

Case in point:  There was a horrible shooting in California two weeks ago, apparently fueled by the assailant’s violent hatred of women.  This event amplified a national conversation, already long underway, about the fact that nearly every woman in America has suffered one form or another of sexual harassment by men, and that this trend will not abate until our culture does a much better job of making such behavior utterly unacceptable.

I have no trouble accepting both of these premises as true.  And yet I cannot help but view the epidemic of sexism against women, finally, as nothing more than the result of certain men not grasping the concept of treating people as individuals rather than objects—something I understood when I was five, when Princess Jasmine explained to Prince Ali, Jafar and the sultan, “I am not a prize to be won!”

In other words, this is a crisis—however real and immediate—that would very nearly vanish from the Earth if all of my fellow males would merely summon the emotional maturity of, say, me.  If only these men weren’t so—sorry, but there’s no other word—stupid.

Because the antidote to misogyny is so readily available—particularly when compared, say, to the correctives for genocide, poverty or cancer—it is all the more frustrating that the plague should continue, and that the more enlightened among us—that is to say, nearly everyone—should have to go on arguing about something that, for us, is all too obvious.

It’s not just sexism where abject, preventable idiocy presents as not merely an annoyance and a hindrance to social progress, but as a lethal toxin in its own right.

There is also, for instance, the small but passionate group of American parents who would rather their children die from measles than develop autism.

That’s not how they would put it, of course.  They take the view that vaccinations against disease cause autism, and so they decline to have such vaccines administered to their kids and hope that nothing bad will happen.

There are at least two holes in this line of reasoning.  First, there is no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause autism in the first place.  Period, full stop.  And second, there is abundant evidence that America’s current spike in measles cases—this year’s numbers mark a 20-year high—is a direct consequence of more people not having been vaccinated against it.

In short, hundreds of children are now sick and at risk of dying for absolutely no reason except that their parents made a conscious, stupid decision—namely, to ignore the entire medical profession in favor of a few crackpots—about something that should have been (and, for everyone else, is) a no-brainer.

I could continue plucking exhibits from the headlines—the denial of basic facts about climate change would have been next—but if I have not made an impression by now, the effort is probably futile.

“Don’t do stupid stuff” will not go down in history as one of America’s great doctrines.  Nonetheless, stupidity itself can, in fact, be objectively measured in some circumstances, and one must never underestimate the power of willful ignorance, particularly on a large scale, to inflict immediate and devastating harm upon the general public.

So be smart.


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