July 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Must we continue to respect stupidity?

Wearing a mask in a pandemic should not be controversial.

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The Wall Street Journal ran an item this morning touching on something I have been thinking about lately: the role of stupidity in our national discourse, and the apparent requirement that the citizenry respect stupidity no matter how dangerous it is.

As Bonhoeffer said in an age similar to ours: “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice.”

The subject of the piece was face masks, and why some Americans refuse to wear one. It is beyond dispute wearing a mask in public is the simplest, cheapest, and easiest means of preventing the coronavirus from spreading. The virus is airborne, meaning it survives in droplets of water so small they float in the air. Sneezing, laughing or just talking loudly, especially indoors with inadequate ventilation—that’s how the novel virus goes from one person to another. If we’d all been wearing one since March, we might not see over 150,000 deaths and over 4 million infections. Wearing a mask should be a no-brainer. As Jennifer Calfas’s reporting shows us, however, it is not.

It’s a joke,” said Joseph Lee, a 62-year-old in White Bear Lake, Minn. who wore a mask once to comply with rules to get a haircut. “All [mask wearing] does, I think, is give people a false sense of hope.”

Aside from being wrong, if we’re all gonna die, let’s all die with our eyes open?

When asked if the president’s recommendation last week to wear a mask had any impact, Cody Adams, “a 34-year-old pipe welder based in Arkansas,” said no can do.

“It hasn’t swayed my opinion.”

The dumbest reason comes from Peggy Hall. The Orange County, California, resident “who has decried face mask requirements there and elsewhere” actually said out loud:

“The beautiful thing about our country is freedom does come first, and public health comes a distant, distant second, third, fourth, maybe 20th.”

To be sure, as Calfas reports, this is a minority. A recent poll by the Journal and NBC News found that most Americans most of the time wear a mask in public no matter their political affiliation, suggesting that good sense can still trump nonsense. Only about 11 percent “rarely or never wear” one, which might be comforting in any social context other than public health. If I’m not mistaken, even a small minority refusing to wear a mask could mean the pandemic won’t end for years until there’s a vaccine. Meanwhile, more people die, more get sick, and mass disruption continues apace.

Don’t forget the tip jar!

It’s for this reason we need to talk about the role of stupidity in our national discourse. We should not aim to insult, demean or marginalize anyone. Stupid people are human beings deserving of equal rights and equal justice. We should, however, redefine and reestablish the boundaries of acceptable public opinion. Stupid people deserve equal treatment, but it’s deadly—literally—to give stupid ideas equal respect. (Stupidity, moreover, is not in the eye of the beholder when the medical, scientific and good-government consensus is that wearing masks is good, not wearing masks is bad.)

Of course, redefining and reestablishing the boundaries of acceptable public discourse is at the heart of the controversy over so-called cancel culture. In truth, no one is getting canceled (anyway, not in the way “cancel culture” critics claim). And in truth, the people most likely to complain about getting “canceled” often have access to public platforms so gigantic as to undermine the very premise of their arguments.

Take John Kass, for instance. A columnist for the Chicago Tribune, he wrote recently a piece about George Soros and “lawlessness” in cities run by Democrats. Soros is a frequent subject of anti-Jewish conspiracy theory. Outraged by its antisemitism, some said the column is a firing offense. This week, Kass defended himself against “the angry left-handed broom of America’s cultural revolution [using] fear to sweep through our civic, corporate and personal life.” A column about being a victim of censorship becomes incoherent the moment it’s published. Yet we accept this stupidity, give it respect, and encourage it though it can and does poison discourse and enable evil.

As I noted recently, “cancel culture” critics aren’t defending speech. They are instead blurring lines. They make it appear as if demands for redefining and reestablishing the boundaries of acceptable public opinion seem as authoritarian as the authoritarian president who really is dispatching his paramilitaries to harass and intimidate social reformers in cities nationwide under the guise of “protecting” federal property. Voters who don’t want to vote for a fascist president might vote for him anyway to “protect” against “the angry left-handed broom of America’s cultural revolution.” Stupidity, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice.”

Bonhoeffer really did get canceled. A Lutheran minister in Germany, he opposed Hitler’s rise and the eventual attempt to exterminate Jews from Europe. The Nazi regime accused him of conspiring to assassinate Hitler, and hanged him just before the war’s end. This is what he said from his prison cell about stupidity. (Here I want to thank Editorial Board subscriber Jim Prevatt for bringing this to my attention):

“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.”

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

8 Comments

  1. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    Social media platforms have deliberately enabled the voices of the uninformed to aggregate and not only endanger our lives but our liberties. I would like to believe that there are more of us….those who grapple with often incomplete or contradictory information and who use critical thinking and are guided by values towards making informed decisions, but I no longer know if I can trust that an informed citizenry will prevail.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

      You comment so often and comment so well why not become a member of the Board?!

      This coupon saves you 40% off the monthly price. That’s less than $1 a week for a year.

      https://www.editorialboard.com/subscribe?coupon=f3e39430

      I hope you’ll join us! JS

  2. Gregory Koster on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    What do you suppose Mr. Stoehr would call the actions of Anthony Fauci:

    a) wearing a mask while throwing the first pitch at a baseball game into the ground but
    b) at the same game not wearing a mask while sitting cheek by jowl between two people, apparently laughing, pumping out any Wuhan flu virus he may have into the air.

    Would Mr. Stoehr call Mr. Fauci’s actions ‘stupid’? Not likely; Mr. Fauci has Liberal Bigot Privilege, as does the press in general. He also knows the likely consequences of doing so:
    a) being whipped into line by peers or
    b) being canned (hi, Jim Bennet!)

    Much better to smugly call others, with much smaller platforms to defend themselves, “stupid” and well the warm glow of smugness, smugness that prevents Mr. Stoehr from even realizing, let alone acknowledging, the serious issue of public suspicion of the press in general

    • Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

      Better to attempt to understand how this virus actually operates rather than submit to the aggressive and belligerent Will to Ignorance that the mask avoiders demonstrate.

      Fauci’s mistake of not wearing the mask at the baseball game should be called out. It WAS stupid. If he’s going to be one of our leading public health care officials, he should follow his own advice.

      But using Fauci’s one-time hypocrisy to ignore the mountains of Trump’s and others’ garbage who repeatedly claimed the virus “will just go away” and took no preventative action when the evidence screamed otherwise is truly brain-meltingly stupid. And to call out conservatives again for carpet bombing everyone else with idiocy when that idiocy literally kills people is somehow out of bounds.

      Frankly, I don’t care how people perceive what the press is doing because the real issue is stopping the pandemic. It’s not smugness that John Stoehr is promoting but self-protection and protection of the country. A major way to overcome the virus is literally in/on our faces but we’re supposed to cater to a bunch of nuts who “just know masks don’t work”. In reality they don’t know what they’re talking about and the result is thousands of dead Americans and a crashed economy.

      Just because someone has an opinion about something doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about. I’ve witnessed countless people destroy their health, finances, and relationships because they weren’t too bright or knowledgeable but just knew they were smarter than “them experts”. The usual outcome has been me and others picking up the debris of their wrecked lives or in some cases making funeral arrangements because these Dunning-Kruger geniuses screwed themselves. In the end, those of us who are being subjected to the Will to Ignorance are going to be the same ones doing the hard work to overcome the pandemic and wade through the tsunami of stupidity while listening to the incessant whines of the foolish and the ignorant who perpetuate the very chaos they complain about.

      You want an open economy and a minimized pandemic? Wear a freaking mask and stop moaning about the press, John Stoehr, and anybody else who’s simply doing the smart and simple thing of wearing a mask.

  3. Fred Pollack on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    I have trouble distinguishing between someone who is stupid, ignorant, delusional, brainwashed, or some combination of these.

    I’ve worked with microprocessor design engineers (with masters degrees from top universities). Some were evangelical christians that didn’t believe in evolution and thought the earth was about 6,000 years old.

    I gave up in believing in a god when I was 12. There was no science to prove the existence of a supreme being. So, i’m an atheist, as defined as someone who does not have a belief in a god (using the common definition “supreme being”).

    So, how should I characterize someone who does believe in one or more of the 2,000+ gods in the various religions across the world? Since a person’s religious belief is principally determined by the religion of their parents, what is the right characterization? brainwashed? delusional?

    When science doesn’t matter? When facts don’t matter? What do we do? Somehow we need to persuade enough people to not give us 4 more years of president Voldemort.

    • John Stoehr on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

      I get what you’re saying but I’m being practical in this piece and defining stupidity narrowly. Wearing a mask is good. Not wearing one is bad. Refusing to wear one is stupid.

  4. dan tynan on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    Good column. I’ve been saying this since I first became aware of the whole manufactured “mask controversy”. Stupid people have a right to their opinions; it doesn’t make their opinions right. But they think it does, because… They’re stupid.

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