Paul Krugman likes to call people stupid liars. Laurence Kotlikoff gets a little mad about it, but my colleague Noah Smith says he shouldn’t.
“In the end,” Smith writes, “I think people overreact to the ‘stupid' insult because, as a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions – two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people.”
Smith adds: “Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a ‘fixed mindset.’ As the band Sparks once sang, ‘Everybody’s stupid – that’s for sure.’ What matters is going in the right direction – becoming less stupid, little by little.”
It’s a noble sentiment, but I have to side with Professor Kotlikoff on this one: We shouldn’t call people stupid. And when other people resort to name calling, we should discourage them by expressing public disapproval, because calling people stupid . . . makes people stupid.
I agree with Noah on one point: it doesn’t particularly bother me when people call me stupid. Either it’s true or it’s not, and if it’s not, I revise my opinion of the speaker downward and move on, though possibly not until after several further downgrades.
On the other hand, it took me a long time to get to the point where I didn’t mind that strangers were yelling at me on the Internet, and I recognize that my attitude is not normal. Most people get mad when you say they’re stupid, and when they’re mad, they’re not listening. Neither is anyone else who likes the person you just said was stupid. So congratulations: In one fell swoop, you have guaranteed that no one who disagrees with you will hear a word that you are saying.
Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends – “don’t listen to opposing arguments” – is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter.
The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.
I’m always fascinated by the number of people who proudly build columns, tweets, blog posts or Facebook posts around the same core statement: “I don’t understand how anyone could (oppose legal abortion/support a carbon tax/sympathize with the Palestinians over the Israelis/want to privatize Social Security/insert your pet issue here).” It’s such an interesting statement, because it has three layers of meaning.
The first layer is the literal meaning of the words: I lack the knowledge and understanding to figure this out. But the second, intended meaning is the opposite: I am such a superior moral being that I cannot even imagine the cognitive errors or moral turpitude that could lead someone to such obviously wrong conclusions. And yet, the third, true meaning is actually more like the first: I lack the empathy, moral imagination or analytical skills to attempt even a basic understanding of the people who disagree with me.
In short, “I’m stupid.” Something that few people would ever post so starkly on their Facebook feeds.
To me, calling other people stupid is simply a variant of this. It’s notable that very smart people rarely address this insult to people who actually have deep cognitive limitations. No, it’s usually said about people who have an IQ of at least 120, and it is best said to someone who is obviously very accomplished and has a reputation for being a serious thinker in their field. Because obviously that feeling of swelling superiority is much sweeter and stronger if we’re agreeing that we’re all well above someone who’s pretty good at what they do.
Calling other people stupid is, of course, a great deal of fun – who doesn’t like that giddy, expansive feeling, or the admiration of our ideological compatriots? But crack cocaine is also a lot of fun (I hear). It’s still bad for you, and you shouldn’t do it.
Groups of like-minded people sitting around admiring each other’s brilliant taste in ideologies and meditating on what swinish louts occupy the other side of the argument are about the most uninteresting and unproductive situations I can imagine short of a Milli Vanilli reunion tour. While we’re all discussing our fantastic intellectual powers, we’re not considering the possible weaknesses in our own argument or figuring out how to address them. And of course we’re widening the partisan divide that already makes this great nation of ours very difficult to effectively govern. So we should Just Say No to the use of “stupid” in public debate – and say “bad form” to the people who use it.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.