Philosophers are in the business of either drawing distinctions or collapsing them. A case of the latter is David Hume’s observation that, all this palaver to the contrary notwithstanding, causation just is correlation. A case of the former is the distinction I’d like to draw today between ignorance and stupidity.
I’m ignorant about a lot of things. In fact given the number of things there are, I must be ignorant about most things. To be ignorant is just not to know. But I’m not stupid. To be stupid is not to be simply mistaken, i.e. to take oneself to know when in fact he doesn’t. So our ancestors were mistaken to think the Earth was flat, but they weren’t stupid to think so. Rather to be stupid is to believe a falsehood when one should know better, where by ‘should’ I mean he does knows better but is wilfully (and so stupidly) ignoring that knowledge. Ignoring not in the etymological sense, i.e. of being ignorant, but in the sense of simply refusing to think the matter through. Or to put it more charitably, failing to bring what one knows to bear on the matter.
One way people demonstrate their stupidity is making a claim without taking the trouble to think of a counterexample. So, for example, included in its glossary of EDI terms, one of the brighter lights at the University of British Columbia has decided that “all isms are oppressive”. (See: Anti-Oppression, subheading Systems of Oppression, second sentence.)
Autism, agnosticism, anarchism, antidisestablishmentarianism, astigmatism atheism, …?
If confronted she’d probably insist that, “You know what I meant.”
No I don’t. What did you mean?
“I meant racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, ableism … The isms that are oppressive.”
So what you’re saying is that isms that are oppressive are oppressive. True, I’m sure, but not terribly informative.
The bright light who wrote this wasn’t ignorant that agnosticism isn’t oppressive. She was just too stupid to think it through.
But, to be fair, understandably so. Unlike the hoi polloi, for a properly trained philosopher canvassing about for a counterexample when a claim is made is just a knee-jerk response. Most people, however bright their light might shine in another field, just aren’t trained in this kind of critical thinking. Which is why they should get their thinking vetted by a philosopher on staff. But they don’t. Why not? Because a claim that dies the death of a thousand qualifications loses its rhetorical force. And a document like the UBC’s VPFO EDI glossary is rhetoric.
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, without which no society could function. But rhetoric, a.k.a. propaganda, is a particular kind of persuasion. It’s persuasion that’s designed to circumvent critical thinking. And it works precisely not because its listeners or readers are incapable of critical thinking, but because they’re disinclined towards it. Because, in other words, they’re stupid.
I blog to call out other people’s stupidities. People who do this – people like me – are assholes. It’s a calling.