A Costly Stupidity

A couple of weeks ago I posted some thoughts about being stupid, something of which conservatives are often accused. At that time I offered the thoughts from Philosophy Now as to what constituted stupidity in the first place. That description includes “poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions.” As was then noted and can readily be seen, such a description allows a precious few of us to escape inclusion in the stupid condition, at least on occasion.

It is a theme I will occasionally return, though not with the intent of dwelling there. Some examples of stupidity in cation just cannot go by without comment, and I’ve waited for more than a week to write about one of them. And sure enough, a cruise ship captain succeeds in providing yet another glaring example of stupidity that is not just humorous or head-scratching, but downright costly and tragic for other people. But today I want to look at the incident involving American soldiers desecrating the bodies of slain Taliban combatants in Afghanistan. No more needs to be said about the specific form of desecration.

And that is just the point–the sharing of details that becomes in itself a rush to provide ever more graphic descriptions of what probably should not have been described in the first place, at least not in public. The soldiers immediately responsible certainly acted on “poor reasoning.” They would, and I presume now do, confess that what they did was stupid, guided more by raw emotion than reasoning at all. Saying that the heat of the battle, the hardships of the deployment, the psychological stress endured, etc., do things to people’s capacity for better judgment is undoubtedly true. We can almost understand, even while we cannot excuse. But what about those who took the photographs and distributed them?

Poor reasoning, entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions. All of these are in full display in this situation. A photographer sees the act; without reflection, or with poor reflection, he snaps the picture. Why? If it were to show to a commanding officer as proof of the inappropriate actions, one might defend the decision. But that’s not what happened. Whether the photographer himself or another person gaining access to the now documented atrocity, someone decided to take this to the news media, from whence it quickly and predictably circulated around the world. Poor reasoning? Yes. Entrenched mental habits and unexamined assumptions? Yes.

Just what those habits and assumptions might be should be something for all of us to think about. We so highly value “the public’s right to know” and “freedom of the press” that we seem entirely incapable of placing them into any context whatsoever, as though they trump every other consideration that might be part of the equation. This inevitably leads to poor reasoning. I suspect that most of us had a voice screaming inside of us when we saw the graphic, even if strategically digitized pictures. That voice said something like, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” We understood instantly what damage would be done to American interests, American diplomacy, and American lives as a result of our enemies having this sort of publicity–let alone the bulletin-board material for their Al-Qaeda recruitment efforts. For some people, anything that happens becomes open material for worldwide distribution; consequences need not be considered. In fact, there might even be a personal prize involved for being the one to get the scoop. How stupid. Let’s, at the very least, examine some habits and assumptions.

Stupid actions have been going on in the world and in our own circles since humans have occupied the earth; they will continue, and perhaps even escalate as we lose our capacity to reason well. What we do with them, however, is a matter that needs to be thought about in an overall vision what is good for us. Not incidentally, the same logic applies to our shameful, costly, and destructive societal attitude toward pornography. I initially posted the thoughts on not being stupid in the context of declaring the need for a Christian vision of the public good. The center of our faith is the One who embodied the way, the truth, and the life. Surely we should be able to translate that One into a vision of what the good life looks like. Seems to me it’s the only antidote for stupidity.