The main problem with being stupid is that, well, you're stupid. And that's bad. What's worse is that everyone is inherently too stupid to realize how stupid they are; as, if they were smart enough to know how stupid they are, they wouldn't be that stupid. So people are, at best, slightly more stupid than they realize; and, as is too often the case, far more stupid than they realize. And they're all more stupid than they want to be. I'm not blaming them for that, as nobody wants to be stupid and so they obviously can't help it. And the greater the separation between their level of stupidity and the awareness of their own stupidity, the more stupid they are and the less they are able to realize it. That's just a fact of life.
And what confuses the matter is that too many stupid people are able to learn the terminology and phrasing of smart people; and are thus able to fool themselves and others into thinking they are smart. They understand the context of when to use them, but not the concepts for why they are used. And as they don't know how stupid they are, they honestly believe that knowing the terminology IS true knowledge; rather than a communication tool used to express knowledge. In fact, learning the terminology is the first step of gaining knowledge, and not the end result of knowledge; as these people believe.
And oftentimes, they use terminology to hide their lack of knowledge from both themselves and the outside world. If they stopped using their loaded words, their ignorance would be more apparent and they might be able to learn more. And even knowledgeable people can get trapped into their own terminology and make wrong statements; which is one reason I tend to avoid fancy words and phrases. (The other reason is my poor vocabulary.) Agreed-upon terminology aids discussion with those who also agree upon the definitions in question. But with most people, there is no agreed-upon terminology and it is, in fact, the definitions themselves that everyone is arguing about. How can Conservatives and Liberals debate anything, if we can't agree about what even those words mean?
So I choose to not use big words, and say explicitly what I'm trying to say; which is why I always write so much. That way, I can't hide anything from others or myself. When I do use special phrases, they are often of my own creation and I really don't give a shit if others agree with my labels. I'm smart enough to avoid debates over word choice, and can beat anyone using their own words. And that's how everyone should be...if they're smart enough to do it.
But many people are too stupid to do this, and instead hide behind fancy words and meaningless phrases that they can't really comprehend. And thus, they embarrass themselves by not understanding fundamental concepts which are integral to modern discourse. In our recent commentary on the Chait v. Goldberg Opinion Duel, we saw that Jonah Goldberg embarrassed himself by not understanding some basic principles about what conservatives believe in, even though he believes himself to be one. And he also embarrassed himself by not understanding Chait's premise, which was supposedly the very topic they were discussing.
Goldberg uses fancy words and ideas that he picked up from his fancy conservative friends, but he utterly fails to comprehend any of them. Any intelligent conservative would readily agree with Chait's premise. It's part of their core belief. But Goldberg could only understand it as a petty insult. I've read enough of his ramblings to conclude that this is the only level he understands anything on. As I've said from the start, he's not an ideologue; he's just stupidly partisan. And he's too dumb to know the difference.
And this brings us to this very embarrassing statement by the fairly embarrassing Thomas Friedman (via the adorable Juan Cole), which is why I started writing this post. Speaking of the perceived lack of academic study regarding Arab Democracy, Friedman writes:
In the West, it was avoided because a toxic political correctness infected the academic field of Middle Eastern studies -- to such a degree that anyone focusing on the absence of freedom in the Arab world ran the risk of being labeled an "Orientalist" or an "essentialist." '
To which Juan Cole responds:
Third, the way you would get accused of essentialism is to engage in it. This fancy word just means that you say things that depend on there being eternal essences of things. So, for instance, if you said, "Palestinians are now and always have been a violent, fanatical, and duplicitous race." -- that would be essentialism (also racism). You would be assuming that Palestinians have a shared and unvarying essence. If you said, "Arabs are incapable of democracy because their political instincts are always authoritarian"-- that would be essentialism. If you said that most Arab governments are authoritarian, and tried to explain why that was with reference to changing political, social or economic factors, then that would not be essentialist. It would be social science.
Now, I confess. I'm not sure if I've ever heard the word "Essentialism" before. I guess I'm just not into reading that kind of stuff, and always thought philosophy and whatnot was for losers who can't think straight without assistance. Or maybe whenever I saw it, I just skipped over it and understood the context of it, without absorbing the word. I'm a concept man, not a word man. So like Thomas Friedman, I didn't know what that word meant. But there's a difference between us. You see, I have never believed that I knew what it meant. Nor have I ever used it in a sentence intended to convince anyone of anything. And most of all, I have never used the word in a sentence on the op/ed page of one of America's most prestigious newspaper. Beyond the fact that they wouldn't print my material, I generally like to know what I'm talking about, rather than making an ass out of myself.
And that's exactly what Friedman did. He's heard the word before, but clearly never understood it. And because he didn't understand it, he internalized it as a meaningless term that you hurl at someone of a particular belief, as if it's an insult. And this is similar to Jonah Goldberg who, failing to understand Chait's initial premise, wrongly viewed it as a petty insult and equated it to stubbornness. And like Goldberg, rather than admitting to ignorance and asking for a definition, he proceeded to blast about it in our national discourse; showing his ignorance to the world. And to tie this into our theme, their main problem was that they were too stupid to realize how stupid they are.
It's just a guess, by I suspect that Friedman has been labeled as being an essentialist on more than one occasion. He strikes me as a particularly simple-minded guy, and essentialism sounds like a simple-minded way of looking at life. It's basically a ridiculous position you are forced to adopt when you can't defend your ridiculous arguments in the normal way. I refuse to see how any rational, empirically-minded person could possibly believe that anything is the way that it is because it must be that way. That's just silly. Even if it's true, there's no way to know that it's true and therefore invalid as a reliable premise. I can understand an irrational, belief-based person using such logic; but they have no business taking part in our serious discussions.
Why This Matters
And that's why this is so important. This wasn't just an issue of someone using a minor word incorrectly. Everyone does that. But this wasn't a minor error, but a fundamental one which highlights their flawed logical processes. You see, when Thomas Friedman gets into major political discussions about issues such as this, and someone makes a criticism about his argument and tosses off a label, such as essentialist; he doesn't understand that they are making a fundamental statement about his beliefs. In fact, he doesn't even understand why they're saying it. But it's not that he disagrees; he just thinks it's a petty insult and glosses right over the matter of whether it's true or not. He doesn't even see how it's something that could be right or wrong. To him, it's just another insult and does not give him a moments reflection.
They react the same way as if the label was fascist, or neo-con, or imperialist. To them, these aren't valid phrases that could possibly apply to them; but just petty insults. And we can see that with their phrases of us. They don't actually believe us to be traitors, or anti-Americans, or (god forbid) Marxists. They just toss those out as insults to throw us off and keep us in line, and aren't really trying to define us in any way. Hell, they'd have to read Marx before they could know what they were calling us, and only commies read Marx. And so that's why they think that our phrases like "Essentialist" and "Orientalist" and "Fascist" are just cheap insults. Because they don't see how we're any different from them, and they use meaningless insults to taunt us.
And that was how it was with Goldberg. He dismissed valid criticism and accurate theories because he couldn't understand it as anything but an insult. Neither of them understood the criticism enough to debate against it. And that's the problem. Maybe Friedman isn't an Essentialist. And maybe conservatives are just as empirical as liberals. Or maybe it's true and they should gladly take the title. But Friedman and Goldberg are the last people who would know diddly squat about this as they're too stupid to ask for an explanation. And that's because they're too stupid to know that they don't know already. And that's because they believe that they already know the answers, and that anyone who tries to educate them is obviously wrong. So they remain in ignorance eternal.
I should add that I feel that Friedman's a smart enough guy that he might be able to finally understand that word, assuming someone sent him Cole's post. But even that's not likely to completely revamp the poor pundit's thought processes enough.
Stupid Stupid, Stupidly
And I'm not necessarily trying to single-out Friedman's boobery (though I do enjoy it so), this is just another example of the way that these people work, and why debating with them is so difficult. How can we expect them to debate complex issues, when they proudly display their own ignorance of the very words necessary for debate? We can't. It's impossible. We attack them for their simple-mindedness, but then pretend that it ends with their lame-brain theories. But it doesn't. It goes all the way down. They are fundamentally stupid and their ignorance is such that they don't even begin to comprehend anything we say.
And the cause of their ignorance is their belief-based system and thus their inherent anti-empiricism. Anything that goes against it must be rejected as false. And so they have no way of learning out of it. They're anti-intellectual, not because intellectuallism is bad, but because it gives them answers which they are forced by their beliefs to reject. And they are unable to comprehend that we aren't doing the same. They use the same words as us, which enables them to believe that they think like us. But they don't. We use observation to better understand what we should believe, and they use their beliefs to tell them what they observe.
Their ignorance is not always obvious, but it is always there. And until we understand that, we'll never be able to address their fundamental misunderstandings; thus making it impossible to debate the more complex issues that arise. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and these people are very, very dangerous.