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With great power comes great stupidity

Published Friday, February 10, 2023 @ 12:34 PM EST
Feb 10 2023

(Read the original article here. BigThink publishes some wonderful stuff. You can subscribe to their newsletters here).

There's an internet adage that goes, "Debating an idiot is like trying to play chess with a pigeon- it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory." It's funny and astute. It's also deeply, depressingly worrying. Although we'd never say so, we all have people in our lives we think of as a bit dim- not necessarily about everything, but certainly about some things.

Most of the time, we laugh this off. After all, stupidity can be pretty funny. When my friend asked a group of us recently what Hitler's last name was, we laughed. When my brother learned only last month that reindeer are real animals- well, that's funny. Good-natured ribbing about a person's ignorance is an everyday part of life.

Stupidity, though, has its dark side. For theologian and philosopher Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the stupid person is often more dangerous than the evil one.

The enemy within
In comic books and action movies, we know who the villain is. They wear dark clothes, kill on a whim, and cackle madly at their diabolical scheme. In life, too, we have obvious villains- the dictators who violate human rights or serial killers and violent criminals. As evil as these people are, they are not the biggest threat, since they are known. Once something is a known evil, the good of the world can rally to defend and fight against it. As Bonhoeffer puts it, "One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion."

Stupidity, though, is a different problem altogether. We cannot so easily fight stupidity for two reasons. First, we are collectively much more tolerant of it. Unlike evil, stupidity is not a vice most of us take seriously. We do not lambast others for ignorance. We do not scream down people for not knowing things. Second, the stupid person is a slippery opponent. They will not be beaten by debate or open to reason. What's more, when the stupid person has their back against the wall- when they're confronted with facts that cannot be refuted- they snap and lash out. Bonhoeffer puts it like this:

"Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one's prejudgment simply need not be believed- in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical- and when facts are irrefutable, they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack."

With great power comes great stupidity
Stupidity, like evil, is no threat as long as it hasn't got power. We laugh at things when they are harmless- such as my brother's ignorance of reindeer. This won't cause me any pain. Therefore it's funny.

The problem with stupidity, though, is that it often goes hand-in-hand with power. Bonhoeffer writes, "Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity."

This works in two ways. The first is that stupidity does not disbar you from holding office or authority. History and politics are swimming with examples of when the stupid have risen to the top (and where the smart are excluded or killed). Second, the nature of power requires that people surrender certain faculties necessary for intelligent thought- faculties like independence, critical thinking, and reflection.

Bonhoeffer's argument is that the more someone becomes part of the establishment, the less an individual they become. A charismatic, exciting outsider, bursting with intelligence and sensible policies, becomes imbecilic the moment he takes office. It's as if, "slogans, catchwords and the like... have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being."

Power turns people into automatons. Intelligent, critical thinkers now have a script to read. They'll engage their smiles rather than their brains. When people join a political party, it seems like most choose to follow suit rather than think things through. Power drains the intelligence from a person, leaving them akin to an animated mannequin.

Theory of stupidity
Bonhoeffer's argument, then, is that stupidity should be viewed as worse than evil. Stupidity has far greater potential to damage our lives. More harm is done by one powerful idiot than a gang of Machiavellian schemers. We know when there's evil, and we can deny it power. With the corrupt, oppressive, and sadistic, we know where we stand. You know how to take a stand.

But stupidity is much harder to weed out. That's why it's a dangerous weapon: Because evil people find it hard to take power, they need stupid people to do their work. Like sheep in a field, a stupid person can be guided, steered, and manipulated to do any number of things. Evil is a puppet master, and it loves nothing so much as the mindless puppets who enable it- be they in the general public or inside the corridors of power.

The lesson from Bonhoeffer is to laugh at those daft, silly moments when in close company. But, we should get angry and scared when stupidity takes reign.


Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular account called Mini Philosophy and his first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

Categories: Big Think, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Evil, Stupidity


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Wrestling with the infrastructure and Nazis

Published Tuesday, June 19, 2018 @ 8:39 PM EDT
Jun 19 2018

In addition to the Windows system problem I talked about last week, the overall tech situation worsened on Saturday with a power outage. West Penn Power restored service in a little over an hour, but the reinitialization surge apparently took out our Comcast Xfinity X-1 cable box/DVR in the living room and the main surge suppressor/uninterruptible power supply in my office.

Dealing with the cable box was simple. I scored a new one as well as a new cable modem/wireless router just by driving to the local Comcast office- it was open on Saturday until 7 p.m. Getting the unit up and running was uneventful. The X1 boxes store recordings and schedules in the cloud, so we didn't lose anything.

The only aggravations were getting used to a smaller remote (Comcast calls it the XR11) and having to fix the 30-second commercial skip feature.

The older boxes supported entering a code into the remote to enable the 30-second commercial jump feature. With the new configuration, the page up button jumped five minutes ahead. A workaround is using X1's voice command feature: tell the remote "jump ahead 30 seconds." You can apparently tell it to jump forward or backward in five second increments up to 30 seconds. It's neat, but it's a lot faster just to hit the page up key a couple times.

In the new setup, the "jump ahead" stuff is not stored in the memory of the remote, but in the X1 box itself. You have to program the box via a secret input sequence: get the remote close to the box, point the remote at it, hit the exit key on the remote three times as fast as you can, followed by 0030. I had to try it a few times before it "took." There's no indication whether or not the input worked. In fact, hitting the exit key three times and the four digits results in the box going back to wherever the main tuner was set, and displaying the mini-guide with channel 30 highlighted. Patience and persistence will win out, though.

Regarding the UPS system blowout, I think it was just time to replace the batteries in the unit. I've done it twice already, though. The unit's over ten years old, and I need one with a greater capacity, anyway. I ordered a 1,500-watt unit via Amazon Prime. Pulling the old unit out, installing the new one, and re-cabling everything is a long and tedious operation. I wanted to get the replacement in ASAP. Aside from West Penn Power's "normal" summer fair weather blackouts, it's also thunderstorm season. I decided to take a vacation day from work and do it today, instead of waiting for the weekend. So, of course...


On the brighter side, replacing the hybrid drive on my Toshiba laptop with a standard mechanical drive appears to have solved all my Windows 10 problems. There was absolutely no indication the drive was the source of the trouble; it passed all the diagnostics with flying colors. The problem is the way in which a hybrid drive manages the solid state drive (SSD) portion of the device. It is totally opaque to the user. I suspect something was cached in the SSD that wasn't compatible with a Windows 10 or driver update. That's just a guess, based on my observations that the system started to act up each time I installed a new application, or a new Windows update was applied.

I'm not comfortable not knowing if the drive was actually the cause of the problem, but I have no software tools to dig deeper into the system, and I can't waste any more time investigating. Four to eight hours every weekend for three months, plus another four hours during the week just getting the thing to boot correctly... I'm too old for this stuff.

Final results: From a system with no user apps running, shutdown, reboot, and Windows load to the desktop with taskbar populated and the "Windows" chime: two minutes. I can live with that.


Godwin's law
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Godwin's law (or Godwin's rule of Hitler analogies) is an internet adage asserting that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1"; that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds. Promulgated by the American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin's law originally referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions. It is now applied to any threaded online discussion, such as Internet forums, chat rooms, and comment threads, as well as to speeches, articles, and other rhetoric where reductio ad Hitlerum occurs.

So, how bad are things now in the United States?

Pretty bad. Godwin's suspending his own law.

Categories: Adolf Hitler, amazon.com, Evil, Godwin's law, Mike Godwin, Nazis, West Penn Power, Windows, Xfinity


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Published Sunday, May 29, 2016 @ 9:11 AM EDT
May 29 2016

Evil and good are God's right hand and left.
-Philip James Bailey

Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.
-Terry Pratchett

Evil can never touch the person who refuses to accept it.
-Piers Anthony

Evil comes to us men of imagination wearing as its mask all the virtues. I have certainly known more men destroyed by the desire to have wife and child and to keep them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by drink and harlots.
-William Butler Yeats

Evil happens without effort, naturally, inevitably; good is always the product of skill.
-Charles Baudelaire

Evil indeed is the man who has not one woman to mourn him.
-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Evil is easy, and has infinite forms.
-Blaise Pascal

Evil is not something superhuman, it's something less than human.
-Agatha Christie

Evil is obvious only in retrospect.
-Gloria Steinem

Evil is unspectacular and always human,

And shares our bed and eats at our own table.
-W.H. Auden

Evil is whatever distracts.
-Franz Kafka

Evil will, therefore good must.
-David Sisler

Evil would always come to me disguised in systems and dignified by law.
-Pat Conroy

Categories: Evil


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