Archive for May 29th, 2009

As a former teacher, I blame no one for ignorance. The older I get, the more painfully aware I become of my own ignorance in a dozen different areas, so the last thing I’m going to do is look down on someone else for not knowing something. But one thing I cannot endure is willful stupidity.

You’ve probably met willful stupidity, even if you didn’t give it a name. It’s a passive-aggressive behavior, often seen in bureaucracy or in low-paying jobs such as sales clerk in which a person assumes that the little they know is all there is know about a subject, and anybody who contradicts them is ignorant and wrong.

For instance, yesterday, I went into the local London Drugs for an album to hold 5×7 inch photos. Since 5×7 has been a stock size in photography for decades, I imagined I would have no trouble finding an album. However, all I could see on the shelves were albums for 4×6 photos, a size that has become common place since the rise of digital cameras and automatic photo finishing.

When I finally found a clerk, he insisted that 4×6 was the only standard size.

“Since when?” I asked.

“Fifteen years, maybe more. It’s standard everywhere.”

“Such as?”

“Future Shop, Walmart, Best Buy.”

“You mean that 4×6 is the size that your machines are set to handle.”

“No, it’s the standard size.”

“So why do professional photographers offer 5×7 as a standard size?” I asked, thinking to lead him gently out of ignorance.

“They don’t. If you have a 5×7 picture, it will come out cropped.”

“Yes, because that’s how your machines are set.” I was remembering the inadequate job that the store had done a couple of years earlier on some cropped digital photos.

“No, because that’s how it is. Everyone knows that.”

My feet were hurting after a long trek, so at this point I lost my habitual politeness. “Were you born stupid, or did you have to practice?” I asked, and limped away.

As soon as I got home, I opened the London Drugs website. Just as I suspected, it showed 5×7 albums. A phone call later, I confirmed that the store I had been in carried them, too. In fact, my conversation with the clerk took place several meters away from them.

Maybe I’m just getting cranky as I age and losing my senses of patience and humor. But it seems to me that such conversations are becoming increasingly common as I grow old. The students who seem to feel they’ve won if they don’t learn something, the expert who fails to recognize a synonym for a specialized phrase, the computer repairer who knows nothing about GNU/Linux but dismisses it even after I reveal that I have a certain amount of expertise – all these belong to the legions of the willfully stupid. And, increasingly, talking to them is like being the straight man for the collected Marx Brothers (except, of course, for the utter lack of humor). Really, I’ve had more intelligent conversations with voice mail systems.

What annoys me about such conversations is not just the stolid unhelpfulness. Long ago, I worked as a store clerk, and, if I’m being honest, I have to admit that once or twice I found petty ways of taking out my dislike of the job on customers. So I can hardly complain if I receive the same treatment.

No, what bothers me is the willfully stupid’s absolute conviction that they are correct. They know almost nothing about what they are talking about – in this case, not even what stock their store carries. Nor, despite the fact that they are focusing on a topic for much of their working life, have they made any effort to push back the limits of their ignorance, a failure that I find baffling. When I’ve been in similar situations, I’ve learned, partly despite myself and partly so the work would be more interesting. But when people choose to become willfully stupid, not learning seems the whole point of their behavior. In a perverse way, they seem to have scored some victory over the conditions of their lives by refusing to see a point or learn.

But the worst thing about such behavior is that it seems to be self-inflicted. In this sense, it is the mental equivalent of cutting yourself or some other self-destructive behavior. It seems to me that, if you play stupid long enough, you risk becoming stupid permanently. Eventually, you might reach a point where you can’t see evidence or listen to a counter-argument no matter what. And I can only imagine this state as one of diminished enjoyment and intellectual impoverishment.

That, in the end, is why such encounters disturb me. They send my scuttling to my mental mirror for a close scrutiny, wondering if my behavior is ever anything like what I’ve just seen, and wondering if I would know if it were.

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