Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our generation is witnessing the most incomprehensible and eventful phase of human history. It will take some time before we can collectively start making sense of it. For it has exposed numerous vulnerabilities — especially how our society is broken.
One big truth that has been exposed is the fact of our lives being governed by Immense Stupidity. Are some stupid people making decisions and acting in a manner that impacts all of us negatively, or is it that we are collectively a stupid species?
We were always made to believe that as humans, we continue to march on towards a better world, that we are intelligent, modern and a progressive people driven by science and logic. But the COVID-19 pandemic exposed some crucial and innate traits in us — anxiety, ignorance and bravado, but most importantly, our stupidity. A new and apt word was thus coined — ‘Covidiot’.
How Trump Turned COVID Into a ‘Joke’ & a Political Issue
Well-known Hindi novelist and scholar Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, and the Italian professor and economic historian Carlo M Cipolla, have some answers to guide us on this befuddling yet all-pervasive stupidity — but before we talk about this, let’s consider these displays of idiocy:
When the pandemic hit us, doctors and scientists advised that everyone should wear masks, but the president of the ‘most advanced country’, the US, Donald Trump, said and did everything that was to the contrary.
‘Don’t wear a mask, it’s a simple flu, it will go away like this,’ ‘drink or inject bleach’; and ‘gulp anti-malaria drugs, a couple of weeks ago, I started taking it,’ Trump said on 18 May 2020.
His denialism put the lives of Americans in great danger. He turned a health emergency into a divisive political issue.
Many counties witnessed revolts against masks, and silly local representatives passionately debated and contested the idea of wearing a mask.
Boris Johnson & Bolsonaro’s Responses to COVID
Boris Johnson, the prime minister of one of the ‘most cultured’ countries, the United Kingdom, was no better. Simple common sense stated that this virus spreads from human-to-human contact and by touching infected surfaces. ‘Physical distancing’ was a simple piece of advice, but Johnson went to hospitals filled with COVID patients, met them, shook hands with them, and got himself infected.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro too was dismissive about COVID-19 and misled his people. A year on, and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the country is continuing to see a huge spike in daily cases.
How Did We, in India, Respond to COVID?
In India, we saw a union minister shouting slogans like ‘Go Corona, Go’, and forcing Chinese diplomats to do the same. A product of Dalit awakening turned himself into an ignorant and superstitious person. We however, felt entertained, not distressed, as we witnessed and discussed this.
Then some politicians recommended using cow dung to kill the novel coronavirus, and lawmakers in the Upper House of Parliament discussed the issue in the first week of March 2020, and when some members raised the issue of quackery, a constitutional functionary advised them not to discuss issues which are ‘matters of faith’.
As for our collective response to COVID-19 in India? We were quite ‘clever’ — we lit candles, loudly clapped our hands, rang bells, and flashed mobile torchlights to ‘honour’ our health workers. We saw the strictest lockdown. We even declared ‘victory’ over COVID.
And now, exactly after a year, we are back to square one with a second surge that is getting worse with each passing day.
This is beyond comprehension — how we have shunned science and logic in favour of stupidity. The idea of a night curfew in some states and regions is one more example of our ‘understanding’ of COVID-19.
Fake News, Data Privacy, Superstition & ‘Matters of Faith’
One may argue that it is naive to be shocked by such stupidity. Don’t we remember the time when people made lord Ganesha drink milk across the country in the mid nineties? A capillary action demo became a miracle, and we all lined up at temples to offer milk to idols across the country.
Gullible and god-fearing, we call these superstitions and phenomena of mass stupidity a ‘matter of faith’.
Hundreds of example can be added to this egregious list.
We are reeling under the effects of widespread fake news. The spread and dominance of fake news through our day-to-day conversations tells us that the entire model works on stupidity.
Those who start a piece / thread of fake or misleading news and information, have measured the recipients’ IQs accurately. Those who read it and forward it to the next recipient too know there are enough people dumber than them.
The way big tech giants ask for our personal data and we accept their ‘terms and conditions’ without batting an eyelid, and occasionally crib about privacy, etc, reflects our difficult relationship with common sense. This is unbelievable — how we collectively failed to grasp what some rogue techies were up to, and by the time a handful of us understood the scale of the problem, it was too late.
Another simple example is our behaviour towards climate change. Some powerful forces got together, did terrible things to our planet and societies, governments and thinkers kept lecturing about ‘saving the environment’ while continuing to destroy it.
Our public imagination could hardly grasp what was going to happen to us eventually. Now, we are breathing toxic air helplessly, not knowing how to save ourselves and our future generations. Do watch out for streaks of stupidity as world powers are going to discuss this issue soon.
The Unbearable Lightness of Stupidity: How Do Stupid People’s Actions Affect Us?
The point: we have boundless capacity to be stupid. It is as natural as Pt Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s essay taught me in school — Why Our Nails Grow (Nakhoon Kyon Badhte Hain).
He explained how humans have innate violent traits. Every third day, the growing of our nails reminds us of that. It reminds us that our visceral cruelty hasn’t gone away anywhere. It is a natural thing, but it is our choice that we clip our nails to be aware that we have to be more human — and more humane.
Similarly, Carpo M Cipolla, a professor at the University of California, wrote a paper in 1976 which later became a best-selling book, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. This explains the issue very simply.
According to Cipolla, human beings can be divided into four categories: intelligent, helpless, bandit and stupid. Their actions have implications on all of us, ineffectual common folk. There is a co-relation between the benefits and losses to others. In the case of stupid people, their actions are always a lose-lose game for both parties. This diagram explains it nicely.
Cipolla concludes — we always underestimate the number of stupid people around us. They exist in all times and in all circumstances. Stupidity has nothing to do with education, knowledge and morality. Such people always surprise you with their unreasonable actions, and you can’t predict or anticipate their behaviour.
If one is to engage or deal with a stupid person, one is sure to lose. Stupid people are much too dangerous.
Stupidity & Foolishness Over COVID Vaccine
In this civilised and modern world, many a times stupidity is packaged as some ‘grand strategy’. A group of people, societies, countries and governments give all kinds of justifications like self-interest, etc, for their actions. Take the latest example of stupidity around the COVID-19 vaccine. Since the onset of the pandemic, doctors, scientists and researchers warned us and educated us about its catastrophic effects. They collaborated like never before and raced against time to come up with vaccines which normally take at least a few years to develop. They wanted governments to collaborate globally and prepare for the manufacturing, equitable distribution and delivery of vaccines with and speed and efficacy among rich and poor nations alike.
And now, see where we are at. Our leaders simply did not act with the sense of urgency that was needed; they just indulged in political grandstanding.
Why India Must Declare a ‘Holy War’ On Stupidity
There are countless events to conclude that elected representatives do not guarantee collective wisdom. The odds favour stupidity over intelligence. That is why a new trend has started. Some small western democracies are experimenting with citizen councils selected by random sortition. They try to make it as representative as possible. These entities work like shadow governments, advisors or tail twisters.
I cannot comment on what solution is best for India, but I do know this — as we observe April Fools’ Day soon after holding our usual ‘mahamoorkh sammelans’ across India on the occasion of Holi, we must declare a holy war on stupidity.
(This article first appeared on Quint Hindi, and this translation has been reproduced with permission.)