Theories of human evil: stupidity

Shown above: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

A while back I ran into this quote from famous German anti-fascist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. [..] Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the useof 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.

Well, if that’s not a terrifyingly accurate description of American life in 2018, I don’t know what is.

He identified this particular type of stupidity as “less a psychological than a sociological problem.” He asserted that people do not become stupid in that fashion on their own, but rather, under certain circumstances, allow themselves to be made stupid.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. [..] He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being.

Which sounds an awful lot like the core Fox News demographic, or possibly the crowd at a Trump rally. But I first saw this type of stupidity at work in the white evangelical church during the satanic panic of the 1980s. We never quite got to the point of literally burning witches, but the satanic panic did ruin real lives.

How does this kind of group stupidity work? Let’s pick on “backmasking,” since that seemed to me at the time the most self-evidently stupid of the satanic panic claims. Supposedly, what was going on was that many popular rock songs had secret pro-Satan messages which could only be heard by playing the song backward.

But when these songs were played backward for me, I didn’t hear secret messages, I heard randomness and confirmation bias. It shouldn’t be big news that humans are instinctive pattern-seekers — we see Jesus in pancakes and think clouds look like stuff — so if somebody says “this thing sounds like this other thing” a part of our brain is going to go “uh-huh.”

But to my mind it had about the same significance as thinking “wow, that cloud looks like Abraham Lincoln.”

And… that was pretty much it for the “evidence” that rock musicians were putting spooky backward messages into their songs. Play a song backward, maybe it sounds like a thing. There wasn’t any evidence they were doing it on purpose (office memos, sound engineers coming clean, etc.) and there wasn’t any evidence that it had any kind of measurable effect. (I, for one, had already heard “Stairway toHeaven” many times and never felt especially diabolical afterward.)

It was all so ridiculous, how could anybody believe such athing?

I don’t know. But I do know this: although I didn’t believe it myself, I didn’t speak up about my skepticism right there in my Sunday School class. And my silence allowed thegroup to continue operating under the illusion that “we” all believed this thing.

Was I the only skeptic? Who knows? But that illusion, of everybody buying into the stupid idea, is part of how this kind of group stupidity works.

It’s not as easy to fight stupid ideas as you might imagine. Wehave many social conventions that favor stupidity. It’s rude to call a person stupid — sure. But then it also becomes rude to call their idea stupid. The burden of proof gets shifted onto the person challenging the stupid idea, not the person proposing it.

Imagine how it might have gone, back there in Sunday School in the 1980s. Teenage McJulie says, “Hey, you know, this whole backmasking thing doesn’t seem very likely. In fact, this whole supposed Satanic conspiracy underlying rock music seems pretty unlikely.” (Unlikely is the polite way to say “stupid.”) What happens next? Does another skeptic, emboldened, speak up? Does the Sunday school teacher admit that maybe I have a point, and we should stop and consider whether or not we’re spreading lies in the name of Jesus?

Or, do I get reprimanded for speaking out of turn? Does some senior member of the church get a “burden on their heart” and talk to me privately about the questionable state of my immortal soul? Do I get shamed for violating my properly submissive social place as a young woman subject to Christian patriarchy?

Maybe things escalate to the point where I lose it completely and shout my private thoughts in front of the entire congregation:


Which would be quite the movie moment, for sure. But I didn’t see the point. I was a teenage girl. Have you ever been a teenage girl? Everybody wants to exploit you as a commodity, but nobody cares what you have to say. So I kept my head down, took satirical notes, and looked forward to college.

Stupid ideas often operate according to the Emperor’s New Clothes principle: an authority figure tells a stupid story and is not challenged, which forces the group to act as if the idea is true. Since we often fit our ideas to our behavior — I’m acting as if I believe this thing, therefore, I must believe it — it gets internalized. We buy in, then work to convince ourselves buying in was the right thing to do. “Well, it didn’t seem all that likely at first, but there’s so much evidence…” “I didn’t believe at first, but everyone else seems to believe it, so…”

A feedback loop gets rolling. People who buy into the idea stay in the group and work to bring in more believers. Skeptics leave if they can, or get driven out. Skeptics who remain get silenced or worn down. Only messages that reinforce the narrative are tolerated. As skeptical voices disappear, the narrative gets more extreme. Fence-sitters become true believers, true believers become fanatics, fanatics become super-fanatics.

Facts become poison. Critical thinking becomes treason. Skeptics become the enemy. Vague rumors of “Satanic influences” become witch-burning. Vague rumors of “the Jewish conspiracy” become genocide.

One of the things a lot of us have realized here in 2018 is that evil is deeply stupid.

That’s not the way we usually tell that story. We frequently characterize evil as clever: evil geniuses, mad scientists, supervillains. We talk about how clever but amoral people engage in evil to accomplish selfish ends. And, sure, a lot of the time evil starts out that way. We want power or wealth and we do evil things in order to get what we want. But, unchecked, stupid ideas that were once supposed to be a means to an end will become ends in themselves.

I watched a movie about the end of World War II, which revealed that, toward the end of the war, the Nazis were diverting resources from the war itself in order to step up the Holocaust. They were hampering their own war effort in order to slaughter more people.

Could anything be more evil, or more stupid?

Bonhoeffer theorized that overcoming stupidity required “an act of liberation, not instruction,” and referenced the Bible for hope: “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom[..] the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome stupidity.”

He couldn’t have known what would become of “Christianity” in these benighted days of 2018, where the people shouting loudest about the Bible are abusing it in order to accomplish truly astonishing feats of stupidity. But he might be right about “liberation” being what’s needed. A single moment of clarity, perhaps. A young child pointing at the emperor and saying, “hey, that guy’s not wearing any clothes!”

Backmasking is basically a historical footnote now. Strangely, this once-dire threat to the nation’s youth vanished utterly once most music was distributed in digital formats that couldn’t be readily played backward.

I was right about the backmasking, but I was wrong about something else. At the time, I thought evangelical stupidity was confined to the church, and looked forward to the day when I could leave the church and leave that kind of stupidity behind. Except, right now, the entire world is being held hostage to the awesome power of evangelical stupidity. White evangelicals are Donald Trump’s largest group of most dedicated followers. Without the overwhelming support of white evangelicals, 81 percent of whom voted for him, I doubt he would be sitting president right now.

He’s a bad person, a bad president, and a danger to the entire planet in both the short term and the long term. Voting for him was an idea so obviously stupid that many mainstream news outlets couldn’t seem to fully accept the reality of the possibility of it, and even now, scramble desperately to find some explanation for his victory other than mass stupidity.

Could 60 million American voters really be that stupid?

Yes. As a matter of fact. Yes.

Our incredulity in the face of stupid ideas is itself a different kind of stupidity. “How could anybody at all believe this rubbish?” we say to ourselves, and shake our heads, and laugh, unable to imagine something so transparently stupid truly catching on. We can know that people in the past have fallen into extremely dangerous and terrible stupid ideas, but we imagine they must have been very different in some fundamental way from ourselves, an alien species: homo ignoramus. Surely we could never be that stupid now.

But if people did a thing once, then you know, that’s a thing people are capable of doing.

As I was writing this essay, I realized why people who are evil and people who are stupid are so often the same people: because stupidity is a choice born of arrogance. A person who doesn’t know anything and can’t seem to learn anything is usually a person who isn’t willing to listen.

For years, I gave evangelicals credit for being stupid, but sincere, mistaken, but well-meaning. They have been deceived by their leaders, I thought. What a shame. I now believe I was wrong about that, and I fear Bonhoeffer was wrong as well. Stupidity is not so far removed from malice as we like to think. People choose where they give credibility and where they give doubt. They choose what they pay attention to and what they ignore. When they are deceived, it is usually because they have chosen to allow themselves to be deceived.

“I was in favor of witch-burning because I thought they would only burn real witches, not my own daughter!”

“I thought they were only going to deport the bad immigrants, not my own husband!”

“I just thought they were taking the Jews away somewhere, I didn’t know they were torturing them to death by the millions!”

You didn’t know, huh? Was that because nobody mentioned it? Or was that because the people who did mention it were people you didn’t see fit to listen to?

Over the last year or so I’ve spent a lot of time looking back over all the stupid things evangelicals did that drove me from the church, and considering whether they might have been stupid because they were evil. Because if you want to do something evil — something racist, perhaps, something misogynist, something hate-filled — one way you can do that and still tell yourself that you’re a good person is to make yourself stupid. Don’t listen to skeptics. Don’t stop to think about what you’re doing.

In fact, it’s best if you don’t think at all.