We’re All Equally Stupid

With this third entry I’m going to steer (somewhat) away from the Covid portion of this category’s title and more toward the topic of Social Discourse.

Social discourse is not synonymous with social media, of course, but these days social media probably makes up the largest portion of it, at least if you’re counting volume of words.

And you don’t have to go very far down a Facebook feed before you hear someone labeling someone else stupid. I just tested this with mine, and the comments under the fifth post down included this pithy judgment about local moms letting their kids use the skate park without masks. The commenter’s summation: “(You) can’t police stupid.”

Within the bounds of social media, we as a modern species have developed an uncommon ubiquity and alacrity at calling each other stupid. The problem is that I guarantee you that for every time you call someone “stupid” (whose behavior or opinion you don’t agree with or understand) there is someone else on the exact opposite side of the issue saying the exact same thing about you. With, likely, the same amount of casual vehemence and easy righteous indignation.

There are a lot of problems with this. Here are just a few:

  • It’s easy to do from behind a keyboard, without looking someone in the eyes or seeing them as an actual human standing before you.
  • It is easier than making an actual argument.
  • It gradually dehumanizes those who tend to disagree with you, until that dehumanization becomes demonization.
  • It gives you a splendid opportunity to build your own social media echo chamber, as those of like mind affirm your (knee) jerk reaction in the comments below yours.

In my last blog entry, I discussed whether we all might have a responsibility to practice our own layman’s scientific method regarding Covid-19 data. And just like reliance on an authoritarian epistemology can impede such an endeavor, so can reliance on the snap judgments of social media when we are presented with someone who seems, amazingly, to act with confidence in a way that contradicts our view of the world…rather than approaching their behavior with a shred of curiosity, such as:

  • Why would a reasonable human being act this way? Could there be some reason I don’t yet understand?
  • If I want to actually convince someone who doesn’t already think like me to ponder acting differently, how would I do it? (Answer: not by leading with “you’re stupid”)

I’d like to think that the terms “social media” and “social discourse” have more than the word “social” in common. But discourse implies an actual conversation, and within our dichotomous social media echo chambers we are at risk of losing the ability to actually have discourse with anyone who isn’t a carbon copy of our own thought processes. We desperately need to return to true conversation, in person or online. Where we affirm the humanity of everyone we talk to. We stop thinking in stereotypes. We actually ask questions, perhaps at length, when we are puzzled — before making judgmental pronouncements. Where we act in belief that perhaps true, careful, respectful conversation might actually change or at least shape someone else’s perspective.

Every interaction we have (or fail to have) is transformational; it shapes how we relate to our social world. I am reminded of this C.S. Lewis quote:

“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature.”

How does this relate to the coronavirus? Well, there’s the obvious. Social media threads where you’re wanting to kill people if you don’t wear a mask or social distance in some scenario where the commenter thinks you should. Threads where anyone who does what local authorities ask is labeled as a card-carrying member of the Sheeple.

I run a busy music school, and I know tons of people whose thoughts about the coronavirus are neither of those extremes. They are a blend of thoughts the media trumpets to be the unique province of one polarity or the other. Many people in the middle are trying to figure it out, sift through the contrary tensions to resolve a seemingly impossible dichotomy, to show that they care about the welfare of vulnerable members of their community but they also care for what is happening to the familiar routines and the mental health of their kids. The media —social or otherwise—doesn’t help, if it portrays all choices as obvious and dissenters as stupid. If it tags people’s behaviors with easy labels. If it claims to know people’s political or philosophical motivation but doesn’t bother to ask.

Some people talk a lot about diversity and tolerance. Some people talk a lot about freedom and tradition. How we treat people who disagree with us needs to reflect our value system; I would argue that it’s actually the best test of the depth and authenticity of whatever ideals we hold, cherish or pronounce. The pandemic has brought a lot of our failure to do exactly that into even bolder relief. I hope it’s also an opportunity that we will embrace to do better.


  • kimbuchananauthor July 24, 2020 Reply

    Thank you for your level-headed approach to this complicated topic. “How we treat people who disagree with us needs to reflect our value system” — that’s pure gold.

  • Leah Byrd Mainard July 24, 2020 Reply

    So very true. Well said!!(written)

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