Posts Tagged ‘Stupidity’

By far, my most popular blog entries have been the two on Bonhoeffer’s brief paragraph on stupidity. As I was working my way through Bonhoeffer’s writings in my blog, they just happened to come up during last year’s campaign season. More than a year old, they are still getting hits.

I think the reason is that, in our polarized situation in the US, each side finds the other to be blind, dim-witted, unreasonable, and just plain stupid. Disagreement has become cause not for compromise but for condemnation.

“Against stupidity,” noted 18th century German scholar Friedrich Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.” Bonhoeffer’s point almost precisely! I say “almost” because Bonhoeffer was speaking of a specific kind of stupidity, that of the blind followers of a tyrant. It is a major theme in Bonhoeffer’s thinking that there is no morality without responsibility. We cannot claim to be moral people if we are letting someone else be responsible for us.

He wasn’t speaking, of course, of those who are truly needy and cannot take care of themselves. Instead he has in mind those who are willfully stupid, who voluntarily turn over responsibility for their lives to someone else. He was surrounded by such people as Germans by the millions came to view loyalty to Hitler as the highest value in life. If Hitler said something, it was accepted uncritically as true. If Hitler called for a certain action (such as the destruction of the Jews) it must be the right thing to do.

If you had asked a Hitler loyalist whether he was being morally responsible, he would have insisted that he was being more moral than ever in his life. Until it was too late, most Germans in the 1930s really believed they were doing the right thing in entrusting their own sense of right and wrong to Hitler.

Thirty years later Martin Luther King Jr. commented that “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Those who are fundamentally irresponsible are pleased with themselves. And they are very dangerous, as Schiller and Bonhoeffer taught us, because they will not see reason or value truth.

So, in our political situation, about a third of American adults trust Trump, even though he has lied more times since announcing his candidacy than anyone can count. They are sure he is trying to do the right thing, even though his life story proves beyond any possible doubt that he is crooked, deceitful, manipulative, and immeasurably greedy. They don’t mind that he is blatantly using his position to enhance his own wealth because it just shows what a good businessman he is. Having surrendered their own judgment and their own sense of responsibility to him, they will go to any lengths to defend the indefensible in him.

That is willful stupidity and it cannot be countered by rational argument. But it can be countered by prayer, if only the faithful will learn how to pray more deeply than the usual, “Please help me, Lord, to get over this cold.” If only we will learn to pray. . .

Having read this far, you’ve seen what a jam I’m in. I bemoan the fact that in our day we tend to think people are stupid if they differ radically from us. And yet here I am, thinking it is obvious that Trump, like Hitler before him, has made his followers into mindless loyalists. I don’t suppose you’ll let me off the hook even though I’m confessing my sin, will you?



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I’ve left this blog unattended for too long! Frankly, I’ve been caught up in trying to figure out what it means that the American political system has produced two presidential candidates who are unpopular. At the least, it means that the United States is in a period of cultural bewilderment. And during such a time, those who represent the worst in society — people of hate and meanness and prejudice — are encouraged to yell their foolishness into the public forum. The chaos is emphasized when one of our two major political parties chooses a candidate who deliberately builds his campaign on the very hate which threatens the public order.

As I listen to the Republican candidate speak, my mind often goes to Bonhoeffer’s words on stupidity. There is nothing to be gained by arguing with stupidity, he asserts. The stupid are not those who simply lack intelligence but, far worse, those who have chosen to be mindless. Reasoning with them, we might say, is speaking a foreign language which they don’t even want to understand. And rational people cannot speak the native language of the willfully stupid because it truly makes no sense.

It is in this context that I now read Bonhoeffer’s paragraphs on “The Sense of Quality.” When we lack the courage to observe a genuine sense of boundaries, “we perish in an anarchy of human values.” We must ask immediately what boundaries Bonhoeffer has in mind. He leaves us no doubt: his uses of the words “rabble” and “nobility” say it all.

Is this some sort of snobbish elitism? Ordinarily, I would say Bonhoeffer is certainly in danger of that but now, with our chaotic and mean-spirited campaign fowling the spiritual air in America, I find myself saying Bonhoeffer is exactly right.

He writes of Germany in words that fit today’s American situation perfectly: “In other times it may have been the task of Christianity to testify to the equality of all human beings; today it is Christianity in particular that should passionately defend the respect for human boundaries and human qualities.”

Equality is an idea that is fundamental to the grand American experiment. We dare not let it go. To sustain a culture and a political system based on equality, however, requires a great deal of mutual trust. We must trust that each person is genuinely interested in furthering the common, equal good. Right now in the US, that trust is at a very low level. When hatred and meanness are unleashed and encouraged, the fabric of society which underlies our political system is in danger of being shredded.

What does Bonhoeffer mean by the nobility? And what difference does that make here in the US, where we have no class clearly demarked “nobility”? He writes,

“Nobility arises from and exists by sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others, by the self-evident expectation of the respect one is due, and by an equally self-evident observance of the same respect for those above and those below”

That’s not what we might have expected him to say. The first marks of nobility are sacrifice, courage, and a clear sense of what one owes oneself and others. True nobility is not self-serving but self-sacrificing, not cowardly but courageous, and not privileged but indebted. For the opposite qualities we have a good example: the Republican candidate.

In Bonhoeffer we see the best understanding of noblesse oblige, the sense that nobility (of status or character) brings with it an obligation both to oneself and to others.

Did Bonhoeffer really believe that he ought to be self-sacrificing? He risked and lost his life serving an ungrateful, willfully stupid people, when he could have stayed safe in America for the duration of the war. He was truly noble. . .

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In “After Ten Years,” the small set of brief essays written by Bonhoeffer in 1942 as he reflected back on a decade of resisting Hitler, one of the most important passages is entitled “On Stupidity.” It’s point is simple: When fighting against evil, the most difficult opponents are the stupid ones. They may have normal or even high IQs but for one reason or another they have chosen stupidity in the face of evil. Often they have committed themselves to a person or cause, probably for the wrong reasons, and then choose to be senseless rather than to change. Their problem is not in their head but in their heart and must be addressed at that level, if at all.

Try to read the opening paragraph of the mini-essay without thinking of donald trump’s followers:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.

This paragraph is taken from Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English, vol. 8.


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