Did Somebody Say Stupidity?

by Critical Asia

by Li-Chun Hsiao, Dec. 2020】

Amidst the first waves of massive Covid-19 casualties across Europe (particularly in Italy and Spain) and shortly thereafter, in parts of the Unites States, the overriding yet unofficial response (to the extent it’s acquiesced, if not encouraged, by the officials) of Chinese netizens was, I paraphrase by translating, “they’re so stupid they don’t even know how to copy our homework,” or, “just copy my homework, you stupid,”[1] while the official mouthpieces touted a new narrative in which China emerged as a victorious survivor of the pandemic, having made sacrifices itself and standing ready to save the rest of the world from the ravages of the novel coronavirus whose purported origin in China it disputed. On a related note, though without the gesture of gloating, a Japanese academic reached out to the only two Taiwanese colleagues he knows, including me, to check on us, and, more importantly, to complain about the “stupidity” of the Abe administration’s promotion of the “Go-to-Travel” campaign for the upcoming summer holidays, highlighting, at the same time, his praise for the Taiwanese government’s handling of the pandemic situations in Taiwan that, as a sharp contrast, exposes the ineptitude of his government. As a Taiwanese working in Japanese academia who obviously cannot reap the benefits of the “Taiwanese model,” I’ve often found that such talks about stupidity, rampant across the world this year and in nuanced forms and tones, tend to give me pauses (though the last example might have induced in me a sense of vanity or even some faint nationalistic pride). For one, it is unlikely to help the matters even if you’re proven right that they’re stupid: The “getting-back-at-you” overtone of the Chinese netizens (because of those countries’ criticisms of China’s handling of the earliest outbreak in Wuhan) could turn people off; on the other hand, in very practical terms and at this late-breaking stage of the global pandemic, the “success story” of Taiwan, where no community transmission had been reported for months and any such case can still be contact-traced, isolated, and contained, simply cannot be “copied and pasted” to Japan, or any country where local transmissions have been too numerous to be effectively contact-traced, let alone contained (though for health experts elsewhere, parts of the experiences in Taiwan can still be gleaned to shed light on their own efforts in combating the virus). Moreover, as we jokingly refer to Taiwan as a “parallel universe” now, what strikes me as alarming is not only the increasing disconnect between here and there (in experiential and affective terms, not in the sense of Taiwanese being unaware of what’s going on outside of Taiwan), but also the mutual incomprehension and reverse stupefaction: Why can’t they do the same thing and achieve the same result? If it’s only worked there, it probably can only work there. . . .

If stupidity is that which stops thought in its tracks or what short-circuits thinking, then such stoppage or malfunction likely also applies to those who call others stupid, on some front or another register. Stupidity as rhetoric doesn’t seem to merit conceptual unpacking (it’s a waste of the philosopher’s time!), and those who call out others’ stupidity don’t even bother to define or clarify what they mean by stupidity (it’s so plain to see—stupid!) In fact, it may well sound stupid if one tries to theorize the term. Yet the talk of stupidity can give rise to more serious consequences than sheer rhetoric, especially in the contexts of the global health crisis. In what follows, my reflections on stupidity shall stay close to the coronavirus situations, without working from a definition from the outset.

(Un)timely Stupidity

I propose that it is timely to rethink stupidity, to give the figure of the stupid another chance to be reconsidered along with our deployment of the rhetoric of stupidity, precisely because of the ill-timed proliferations and infectiousness of stupid acts and the corresponding stupidity talks in the global pandemic contexts. First of all, there have been the widespread phenomena of stupefaction of different types and amongst various groups and locations, ranging from scientists to laymen, from the success stories of combating the virus to the tragedies of the hardest hit areas, or even the scales of casualties and the sense of defenselessness in the face of the latest wave after having kept the virus spread under control at one point in the earlier phases. We haven’t learned anything from the coronavirus crises if we haven’t realized that we may be on the brink of being rendered stupid as well as vulnerable by the pandemic situations, if not having been exposed so (momentarily at least) already. Second, with the stupefactions of experts come the uncertainty and the unknowns in science apropos of the coronavirus and the resulting inconsistencies of health policies, especially in earlier stages of the outbreaks—a prime example being the WHO’s and many governments’ initial downplaying of the effectiveness of mask-wearing, which they now claim is quintessential in preventing the spread. Which proffers further opening for people’s credulity to wild conspiracy theories, and the breeding ground for untimely and ill-advised distrust directed at measures that are based on the knowns and evidence-based science. Instances of stupidity with regard to the Covid-19 situations rarely present themselves as wholesale rejections of science, but, rather, as some amalgamation of popular science and pseudo-science: While Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping enactment of the fantasy—on live TV—of bleaches cleansing our bodies of the corona virus may be an extreme example, it illuminates projections of desire, of what many want science to do for us, similar to the expectation that the vaccines will magically make the virus disappear—which, as experts have warned, is not going to happen as quickly as people wish. Such a “passion for ignorance,” which is as good a working definition of stupidity as any, and to which I shall return, reinforces itself and exerts its spell most powerfully when it averts confronting its groundlessness, when it sutures its ignorance with rationales, justifications, and bits or facades of scientific knowledge.

This leads us to the surprising entanglement of stupidity with rationality and intelligence. It is important to note that although Immanuel Kant characterizes stupidity in terms of a “lack of the power of judgment”—an incorrigible deficiency “not to be helped” and “never to be ameliorated”—he nonetheless underlines the pervasiveness and inherence of stupidity in many, including the “very learned,” intelligent people.[2] While distancing myself from such a presumption about the “power of judgment” (you either have it, or you don’t), rather than one based on immanence (everyone has the potential to access it), I would go as far as to say that stupidity can be inherent, too, to the functioning of the human faculties, that the most brilliant people, whether possessing the transcendent judgment or not, can be susceptible to stupidity on some issues or certain facets of life, at least momentarily, at various points of their lives. For, as Levy Briant puts it, stupidity is “a spectre that perpetually threatens thought,”[3] even if conceived as exogenous to us. The unfoldings of the coronavirus situations have laid bare the uncertainty or even helplessness of our assessment of the ever-evolving information and advices pertaining to the virus and protections against it, and have inevitably increased the wager of our trust. For instance, what critical faculties in the laymen of science who have done nothing but “listen to science” can assure themselves, short of a leap of faith, that the coronavirus transmissions are airborne—a finding that had been resisted by experts in related fields for months but has now finally been accepted in these communities—and therefore it’s not necessary for us now to disinfect surfaces? The contingency and uncertainty of our threshold of trust is thus coextensive to the uncertain and blurred threshold of biological modernity, exacerbated by the virus’s undermining of the kind of scientific certitude that also shored up and legitimized the state’s biopolitical power.

From Stupidity to Subreption

Given that stupidity cannot be disentangled from rationality and intelligence, and that everyone can be susceptible to stupidity, it is imperative to note—lest I should be considered stupid—that these givens don’t mean it’s okay to be stupid. Not all stupid acts are the same and result in the same scales of consequences, as stupidity manifests itself in varied forms and shapes. Instead of risking some rigid taxonomy of stupidity, I take my cue from Levy Briant’s suggestion that we link stupidity to one of the three fundamental passions identified by Lacan and uncover “the paths of desire and the ways of life that actively invite stupidity.”[4] I venture to say it is subreption that needs to be called out, rather than stupidity. Why subreption? According to an OED definition, subreption means the “suppression of truth to obtain indulgence.” Its characteristic indulgence aside, we also need to highlight subreption’s recourse to the unconscious as well as Kantian elaborations on it. In a theoretical move akin to that of Lacan’s “Kant avec Sade,” Joan Copjec argues that “through subreption, a supersensible idea, that is, one that can never be experienced, is falsely represented as if it were a possible object of experience.”[5] In this light, the subreptitious act on a void or perceived lack of certainty, turning an imaginary vision that is only supersensible or tends to elude consciousness into full-blown scenarios to make themselves and others believe. Subreption feeds on the same passion for ignorance, albeit with an acute self-consciousness of their own ignorance that, however, can function as if it remains unconscious: Recall the George Costanza character from Seinfeld, who once offered a classic piece of advice on beating the lie detector—“it’s not a lie if you believe it.” In other words, the stupid are susceptible to being duped, whereas the subreptitious actively dupe themselves.

So, what do the stupid want? They want to be stupid—but don’t want to know, or have not the capacity to know, that they’re stupid. That’s why they need the spark and the example supplied by the subreptitious to keep them from knowing that they’re stupid, or shield them from confronting their stupidity by inciting or channeling antagonisms towards identifiable “enemies,” especially those who call out their stupidity.

Li-Chun Hsiao, Waseda University, Japan


[1] https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/world/breakingnews/3086868

[2] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge UP, 1998, B172.

[3] Levy Briant, “The Pedagogy of Problems and the Figure of Stupidity” in Larval Subjects, https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2007/02/25/the-pedagogy-of-problems-and-the-figure-of-stupidity/.  

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joan Copjec, Imagine There Is No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation. Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2002, 149.

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