A Stupid Strategy

Photo by Michiel @ Flickr

I have long wondered why it is OK in our society to be so (at least superficially) concerned with racism, ageism, sexism, lookism, etc. but stupidity is fair game. I have heard a few tentative defenses of this policy (which mostly fall under the meritocracy line of thinking), but none is very satisfying.

But this is a topic for another day. Today I want highlight the reverse, the preferential treatment that ‘stupid’ people receive. In some (limited) areas they receive a more forgiving treatment because, ‘come on, you can’t really expect the same of them as you can of intelligent people’ (‘like me’ is often implied).

For example, I have long hypothesized that bureaucrats and judges are willing to expect lower standards of behavior from people which they deem—never explicitly, mind you—stupid. It is kind of hard to prove that, because we rarely call other people stupid, but you can nonetheless infer it because reverse-stupidism is PC. That is, it is perfectly fine to say, “the defendant is a Yale graduate with a Masters in Astrophysics . . . we cannot accept that she did not understand the sign ‘do not feed the animals’.”

The naive might think, isn’t it great that we demand lower standards from people with diminished capabilities? But this misses the fact that intelligent people can successfully imitate stupidity, sometimes even better than genuinely stupid people. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, was often ridiculed for his appearance of stupidity, fueled by odd one-liners from his movies. He is in fact exceptionally smart and, in my opinion, very articulate and clever. I think that Sarah Palin adopted a similar strategy, but seeing how this will annoy people on both the left and the right I will say nothing more about it.

As a practical rule, whenever I deal with public authorities, my first heuristic is to play dumb. That means the intentional use of the following cues which are associated with stupidity: excessive blabber, emphasizing my accent, intentional typos, abuse of exclamation marks, choice of fonts, odd organization of text, and expression of emotions in a formal situation. You might argue about the validity of any of these cues, but as a general matter, my past record of disputing fines, appealing decisions, and asking for extensions, etc. has been pretty good.

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