Stupidity is a characteristic, not a lack of intelligence

Literary scholar Matthijs van Boxsel tells us not to worry: everyone is stupid and we use our intelligence to manage our stupidity. On Wednesday 13 October he held a lecture on human stupidity at Studium Generale (SG).

illustration Fran Kie / Shutterstock

This bastion of smart people – the Brainport region – is a nice location to discuss the topic of stupidity, SG program maker Gijs van de Sande says. We’ve probably all heard Queen Maxima’s famous words “You were a bit stupid,” as well as the classic Louis van Gaal quote “Am I the one who is so smart, or are you so stupid?” “But what exactly makes people stupid, and how do you define that? And why do we find it so important to label others as such,” Van de Sande wonders.

Some two hundred people in total – in the Blauwe Zaal and online – filled in the Mentimeter to assess the mood. Over two thirds of the participants are regularly annoyed by stupid people, and the stupidest well-known Dutch personality according the audience, is Famke Louise. 75 percent of people who completed the Mentimeter believe that stupidity is an important part of one’s own identity. However, stupidity expert Van Boxsel says: “Stupidity is not a matter of knowledge. We know that smoking is bad for us, but we do it anyway. Stupidity is the ability to act against one’s own interests, with death as the ultimate consequence.” The tone has been set. “Everyone is stupid. If you weren’t stupid, you would be an animal. Animals aren’t stupid.”

On the wrong side

“Self-destructive stupid behavior poses a daily threat and is the foundation of our civilization. Because in order not to perish by our own stupidity, we are forced to develop intelligence and to deal with stupidity. You and I have stupidity in common, but we differ in the strategies we use to get a grip on our stupidity. Incidentally, intelligence is not a guarantee for self-preservation, in fact, it can even increase our stupidity.” Van Boxsel presents the audience with an example of a man who knows how to use an electric saw for cutting a tree branch. He accomplishes his goal: the branch breaks off and falls to the ground, but so does he, because he was sitting on the wrong side of the branch.

The ultimate example of stupidity, Van Boxsel says, is the Netherlands. “In school, we learn about the fight against water. But no one thinks to mention that the Netherlands sat many meters above sea level until the year 1000. Then, German tribes came here looking for places to raise cattle. Those locations became the peat cushions that had to be drained first, which is why they began to dig small channels. That’s when we started to get this country below sea level over a period of two centuries. That stupidity forced us to develop sluice systems. Stupidity is the underlying basis of Dutch civilization.”

Stupid regions

“No one is intelligent enough to understand his or her own stupidity,” Van Boxsel says. “Stupidity is not a lack of intelligence, but a characteristic.” By now, this stupidity expert has authored eight books, including The Encyclopedia of Stupidity and the recently published Topography of Stupidity. In the latter book, he discusses the global phenomenon of cities and regions that are proverbially known for stupidity and acts of stupidity, and that are often mocked and ridiculed for that reason. Each country has designated certain regions as stupid. The Dutch make fun of the Belgians, the Belgians make fun of people from Luxembourg, who in turn ridicule the Germans, etcetera. Making fun of the stupidity of others strengthens people’s self-esteem. Each external struggle also illustrates an internal one: our focus on the stupidity of the Belgians is also about the inner struggle over what it means to be Dutch.

Stupid questions

There is some time left for questions, and Van de Sande poses that one, inevitable question: “Are there stupid questions?” Van Boxsel: “A stupid person can ask more questions than a thousand wise persons can answer. But a stupid person can also ask a deeply philosophical question, and a smart person can ask a stupid question. So yes, there are stupid questions. But when you ask a stupid question and then repeat it, you’re a comedian. That’s always an option, repeat the question and save face.”

Someone wants to know how Van Boxsel feels about IQ tests. If it’s true that stupidity has nothing to do with intelligence, does that mean that a stupid person can get a high score? Van Boxsel doesn’t really believe in these tests: “IQ tests work just fine to determine how good you are at IQ tests. The principle is ridiculous, I believe.”

It’s beyond doubt, Van Boxsel says, that we humans should embrace our stupidity, “otherwise, it will destroy us. It’s important to get a grip on our own idiocy. Some people use soccer for that, others do so through faith, and then there are people who talk to their cat to come to terms with their idiocy. I prefer the latter option. I always use my cat voice, and that really helps.”

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