July 29, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Must we continue to respect stupidity?
Wearing a mask in a pandemic should not be controversial.
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.
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 is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.