I read a couple of interesting articles lately that promote some thought on Indignation, Stupidity and Life. Here are the references.

1.)   David Sims, “You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations,” Organizational Studies, Vol. 26, pp 1625-1640 (2005).

2.)   Rene ten Bos, “The Vitality of Stupidity,” Social Epistemology, Vol. 21, pp. 139-150 (2007).

Both of these articles are directed toward the framework of Organizations and the people that populate them, but I found them rather intriguing from a personal perspective as well in social relationships. Society is an organization of sorts as well, with government as the managerial body, and on a lower level the dynamics of the people running relationships themselves.

The first article [1] explores the experience of indignation. We are all familiar with this experience, the feeling that someone has done a wrong to you or behaved in an unacceptable way, and within the framework of our own sense of what is right, there is a moral correctness to our reaction – our indignation is thereby justified. As Sims notes, “Indignation can feel good. It is a very certain emotion in which we know who we are, and know that we are right.” The use of the word ‘bastard’ in the article denotes the demonizing of a person, the notion that to demonize someone is one way of making sense of their behavior. When all possible explanations for the perceived wrong or unacceptable behavior have been exhausted, the last resort is to assume that the person is simply ‘just a bastard’. Labeling someone in this demonizing way is the only way left to make sense of their behavior. Sims suggests that this process is part of writing ourselves in other people’s stories and is what makes life meaningful. When we cannot write ourselves into another’s story, that is, understand their behavior, we become angry if we cannot make sense of another’s actions. The resulting indignation demonizes the person as ‘a bastard’. There is always the possibility that the demonized person is simply stupid or evil, as Sims points out. “If they are not bad, they must be mad.” This is usually improbable, but is considered only to account for all possibilities.

Sims offers several Narratives, covering the “Clever Bastard”, “Bastard ex Machina”, and the “Devious Bastard”. He then draws on these demonizing narratives to say something about how people hold on and pass on negative views of others. Most of what drives people in interactions have to do with writing oneself into a more significant role in other peoples stories. With some people, however, it is very difficult to know how to enter their stories. If people behave in unpredictable or incomprehensible ways, how can anyone write themselves into that story? The result is that one is compelled to demonize someone as “a bastard” and choose to narrate that to others open to the idea and this interaction is correspondingly influenced. It’s a self-feeding mechanism. In the end, demonizing may be the needed relief because at least that is one way of understanding another’s behavior, but it still leaves a dialog that is inevitably unsatisfactory to ourselves and to others.

I now move on to the second article [2] which explores the concept that wisdom and stupidity have a paradoxical relationship. As ten Bos states, “Too often it is simply taken for granted that an increase in wisdom will lead to a decrease in stupidity. The problem with this assumption is that it is philosophically uninformed.” Stupidity and wisdom reside in the structure of thinking itself and they are not bipolar entities. There are certain aspects of stupidity that seem basic, simple and almost wise. In similar ways there are aspects of wisdom and knowledge that seem stupid in some respects. It is this paradoxical relationship that makes both of them so vital. This vitality makes stupidity something that is not easily defeated. In fact, it is warned that “those who battle stupidity are in much greater danger of becoming stupid than those who remain in blissfully serene when they are under its spell.”

A good example of all this philosophy is the billions of dollars spent on technology and research that is supposed to protect citizens in the Western world from remote dangers like SARS, bird flu, and terrorism, while virtually nothing is done to combat larger dangers like traffic, climate change and pollution. Are governments wise or stupid? The answer is a little bit of both – and it’s just part of the structure of human thinking. Humans generally tend to see the world in terms of immediacy, and are not as good with the long-term things that payoff with foresight. Another quick example concerns animals. They never disagree with themselves, while intelligent men constantly do. In fact, mankind’s capacity for doubt is a defining characteristic. This is not to say animals are stupid, but generally just act on instinct.

All of this implies that stupidity cannot be understood on the basis of thought or knowledge. Stupidity does not exist where both are absent, but is implicated in them. Stupidity too resides in the structure of thinking, just like wisdom and both are not outside ourselves somewhere looking to be discovered. They are part of thinking and the way we are. As part of his conclusion ten Bos states, “I have tried to argue that wisdom and stupidity are not necessarily at odds with each other. To be wise often entails a certain dose of stupidity. And stupidity seems to have wisdom as well. This is why the battle against stupidity waged in the name of knowledge or reason, is not necessarily wise.”

To conclude with a personal thought, both articles [1] and [2] have a certain perspective that deserves to be recognized inside ourselves. Indignation and Stupidity serve a purpose in our thinking process and are part of our way of understanding the world and the other people who share it with us. It is recognition of our internal story that helps us write our way into the stories of other people in the world. If we don’t recognize this aspect of existence, then what is life? We all realize we are on this Earth for a short time, and it’s ok to embrace indignation, stupidity and many other aspects of our being, but never let them define you. Be flexible. If we all recognize that aspect of our potential we all might get along just a little bit better. Wouldn’t that make a better world? That’s something worth pondering on…