Are There Two Kinds of Stupid? Gump, Nietzsche and “Stupid is as Stupid Does,” or “Power Makes Stupid?”

There are lots of good reasons to read Bent Flyvbjerg’s 1991 book Rationality and Power: Democracy in Practice.  But for this blog, I want to focus on his description of why people in power are stupid in one particular unique way. He writes that people in power have the opportunity to define what is rational, which means that they inevitably define some things that are irrational as irrational. And because they have power, no one challenges them when they make a mistake, with a result that “Power makes Stupid,” as Nietzsche said. Here is a longer quote from Flyvbjerg’s book:

Nietzsche puts an interesting twist on the proposition “the greater the power, the less the rationality” by directly linking power and stupidity: “Coming to power is a costly business,” Nietzsche says, “power makes stupid” (emphasis in the original). Nietzsche adds that “politics devours all seriousness for really intellectual things.” In a critique of Charles Darwin, Nietzsche further points out that for human beings the outcome of the struggle for survival will be the opposite of that “desired” by Darwinism because “Darwin forgot the mind” and because “[h]e who possesses strength divests himself of mind.”


…In sum what we see is not only, and not primarily, a general “will to knowledge” but also a “frame more powerful will: the will to ignorance in the uncertain to the untrue! Not as [will to knowledge’s opposite” but—as its refinement! Power quite simply, often finds ignorance, deception , self-deception, rationalizations, and lies more useful for its purposes than truth and rationality…(p. 230)

Get power, divest yourself of mind. It is of course not that power is not necessary.  But what Flyvbjerg (and Nietzsche) are observing is that power tends to corrupt the devotion to rationality that presumably we cultivate in academia.  People with power come to believe in their own omniscience, just ask the king who walked naked down the street while the people (except that little boy) described how beautiful his new clothing was!

But Nietzsche is of course only one popular usage of “stupid,” that is the type that is embedded in power, the irrationality of which is so easy to observe in our politicians as we silently and obsequiously cultivate our cultures of acquiescence. As a result, we let people in power go through their days as vain creatures, convinced that they have a gut-level for decision making which defies the rationality of data, facts, and other things of seriousness. In such a context you get politicians even bragging about how they can overcome facts through ignorance. My favorite is the oft-heard assertion by harried administrators that they have not time to read, think, or write. I’ve heard administrators brag that if it can’t be put on a single page (or two), it is not worth their valuable time, even as sycophantic courtiers stroke their vanity by agreeing with this illogic. This by its very nature is a “will to ignorance.” And why Nietzsche wrote “power makes stupid.”’

But there is second kind of stupid too, invented over a hundred years ago by Stanford-Binet and others, the i.q. test. I.q. tests are primarily tests of vocabulary, Answering the question of whether a student can read and understand words, phrases, equations, and paragraphs in the same fashion that the powerful who write the tests do. For what I am sure sound cultural reasons, vocabulary focused on the manipulation of numbers is privileged on the typical i.q. tests.

Famously, one of my favorite movie characters Forrest Gump did rather poorly at i.q. tests, and was labeled “stupid.”  Forrest of course knew that he was “stupid,” but wisely knew that there was more to wisdom and empathy than what is measured on an i.q. test. Which is why as Forrest muddled through the war protests, the Vietnam War, the 1970s, and finally into the HIV/AIDS epidemic he would point out that stupidity is embedded in acts which deny rationality, irrespective of one’s command of vocabulary. Or as he famously put it “Stupid is as stupid does.” Acts are more important than an i.q. test. I guess in smartness, Gump was right up there with Nietzsche. “Stupid is as stupid does” is perhaps just another way of saying “power makes stupid.”


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