March 28, 2020

Intelligence, Stupidity and Ignorance in The Age of Our Great Disconnect

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

I recently learned that I am an off-the-charts genius. At least that is what my score revealed following a test I took on Facebook. Then, again, according to the Facebook comments attendant to the test, it seemed that everyone who took the Facebook test learned that they too were off-the-chart geniuses. Perhaps, the fact that I, and they, took the Facebook test in the first place suggests that geniuses are probably rarely found taking Facebook tests, or, for that matter, spending too much time on Facebook. 

But more to the point of today’s essay. It doesn’t take a genius to know that something is terribly wrong with the manner in which many people process political information. In fact, it seems that many do not process political information at all. People, too often, seek and embrace, but do not process or evaluate the validity of the rhetoric they read or hear emanating from the political class, or from media personalities who magnify these messages consistent with their own points of view. 

In a politically charged environment, such as that in which we find ourselves today, people draw solace and comfort in rhetoric that confirms whatever predispositions or biases they hold. This is, undoubtedly, quite natural. It is also quite dangerous. Why? Simply because they, and we, might be wrong. Being closed to the point of view of the other is stultifying, but I fear that is where many are, or where many seem to be heading. What is worse, the political classes, those men and women on whom we depend to formulate and administer public policy, are clinging to poles that anchor, indeed, define courses of action that countenance little or no deviation. 

Self-assured stubbornness is rarely a virtue, and certainly, it is not in these times. It is important that we recognize that intelligence and stupidity and, indeed, ignorance can all reside in the same mind at the same time. Intelligence, even genius (stable or otherwise) reflects nothing more than an ability to acquire knowledge. It does not demonstrate a willingness to acquire and thus use knowledge. So, an intelligent person, one who has the ability to acquire knowledge, may be unread and/or disinterested in the counsel of others who may be more knowledgeable. 

What then might we rightfully call someone who is intelligent, that is, someone who has the capacity to learn, but who demonstrates a lack of interest in learning? We would, correctly, call that person stupid. Anyone consistently demonstrating behavior that reflects a lack of good sense or judgment is, by definition, stupid. And stupid people are, invariably, ignorant as well. Ignorance is simply a demonstration of the absence of knowledge. Thus, an intelligent person, that is, someone who has an average (or better) capacity to learn, is quite capable of being both stupid and ignorant. 

Which brings us to the current political climate in America. There seems, today, to be a great disconnect between our collective intelligence (our ability to think, not our ability to snoop) and the inclination of many to make rational choices. For example, many intelligent people refuse to get vaccinated or to have their children vaccinated because they believe the potential danger is greater than the solid benefit of immunity. Many are convinced that those who belong to another political party are less American than they are. These people are invariably intelligent people acting stupidly, and they are endangering others in the process. 

We currently are living in an unstable and potentially dangerous time. We are physically sequestered from friends and family, and all manner of media, both traditional and social, are working around the clock; some providing valuable information and others scurrilous misinformation. There is a disconnect among many between sound judgment and visceral instinct. Too often the call of our better angels can be overwhelmed by the appeal of subtle or rank prejudice. 

Xenophobia, nativism, nationalism, extreme partisanship, misinformation, fear, anger and all manner of scapegoating thrive when intelligent contemplation gives way to intellectual laziness, and stupidity rises from the vacuity of serious thought and rational expression.

 Intelligence, stupidity, and ignorance may, at first blush, seem to be thoroughly contradictory traits and unable to occupy the same mind. In fact, however, they often do.

This is a time we all must be intellectually vigilant; a time when we must be alert to truth and intolerant of misinformation. At this time, rational thought and intelligence are the highest coins of the realm. Competing political prattle and nonsensical pronouncements should be dispatched to the refuse piles of history. 

We must be ever alert to the great disconnect between our national capacity for intelligence and the dangers of stupidity and ignorance that often lurk but a nano-second away. 

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5 responses to “Intelligence, Stupidity and Ignorance in The Age of Our Great Disconnect”

  1. Marc J. Belgrad says:

    Hal, I agree entirely with the meaning and thrust of your argument. Perhaps the word we need is “wisdom” – the way in which we use our knowledge for good and recognize the knowledge that we lack.

    I also want to share this quotation from my college professor and friend Gerald Izenberg, quoting “these few sentences from John Stuart Mill’s essay “The Subjection of Women,” written in 1861: ‘So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of argument against it. For if it were accepted as a result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative content, the more persuaded its adherents that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments do not reach.”’

  2. Jan Harnik says:

    Thank you for this essay. I recently have discovered and studied Learned Hand. The following quote of his is one of my favorites and reflects your thoughts on this current environment. “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; … “.

  3. James Fisher says:

    I have always ascribed validity to time-tested truisms or age-old, widely-held beliefs. For example, according to John Adams: “If a person is not a liberal when he is twenty, he has no heart; if he is not a conservative when he is forty, he has no head.”

    That sums it up for me and many others – age begats wisdom and that wisdom allows unemotional, rational thinking without such thoughts being channeled through one’s heart.

    Many sons have been amazed at how much their fathers learned from the time the sons were 17 until they grew up themselves. So much wisdom gained by Dad in such a short time!

  4. Stephen Prover says:

    Brilliant Hal, just brilliant.. Thanks

  5. Susan duman says:

    I take pride in being a citizen learning every day, careful to keep an open mind, and a bit sad that our world will never return to a time that we can now refer to as innocence.
    Casual affection between friends is a thing of the past.

    As Always with gratitude,

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