This is an essay on ignorance and stupidity that I originally wrote back in 2003 as part of an English assignment for one of my brother’s college courses. As an experiment, I posted it to a few different forums after the end of that semester just to see if the forum readers thought that I could write well enough to eventually pursue a career as a freelance writer. The essay proved to be controversial; some of the replies were rather unfavorable, but none of the critics ever offered any constructive suggestions. Now that I have my own blog, I figured that I might as well post it here since I could probably stand to spice things up a bit.
Many people seem to think that there is really no difference between the words ignorance and stupidity. In fact, people will sometimes use these words (or their derivative forms) interchangeably. For example, I have often heard people say things like, “Those redneck hillbilly people are just dumb, ignorant, and stupid.” However, these two words actually represent very different concepts. While browsing through a discussion forum, I saw an anonymous quote that seemed to summarize the difference between these two words very nicely: “Ignorance is not knowing. Stupidity is knowing and doing it anyway.” In other words, ignorance has to do with a simple lack of knowledge or education, but stupidity results when a person already possesses the necessary knowledge, yet continues to engage in behaviors that are patently illogical.
Although the phenomenon of ignorance is still widespread today, it was even more common in medieval times. Some well-known examples of medieval ignorance include the belief that the earth is flat or the belief in (or fear of) witches and witchcraft. There was also much ignorance about subjects such as women, sexuality, and childbirth. In the early medieval period (400-1000 AD), many Europeans believed that the cycles of the moon were somehow connected to women’s menstrual cycles (possibly because both cycles are approximately one month in duration), and that women were “creatures of the night” who derived their powers from the moon. This little tidbit of ignorance would produce interesting results whenever there was a lunar eclipse. When the image of the moon became obscured in this way, people believed that women would lose their sexual powers, and be rendered unable to bear children. Although the idea of women being temporarily unable to bear children may seem appealing to some of us in the modern world who live in overpopulated areas, this was not seen as a favorable situation in the medieval world. This is because most families tried to have as many children as possible due to the relatively high death rates from disease, violence, malnutrition, and the like. Thus lunar eclipses were often feared. Such fears were the symptoms of ignorance.
One particularly humorous example of early medieval ignorance comes from a book that I read some six years ago entitled A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. With regard to the much-ballyhooed sexual powers of women, authors Phillipe Aries and Georges Duby noted,
A woman who wished to cause impotence undressed, covered herself with honey, and rolled around on a pile of wheat. The grains were then carefully removed, placed in a hand mill, and ground by turning the handle clockwise rather than the normal counterclockwise. With the flour thus produced, the woman baked a bread which she gave to the man she wished to ‘castrate’. Since the flour had been milled in the wrong direction, the stimulating effects of nudity and honey were nullified and the man was unsexed. If, however, the flour was milled normally and the dough kneaded between the woman’s thighs (that is, on her genitals), the result was the opposite; bread baked with this dough could be used to arouse desire in a woman’s husband or a man she wished to seduce.
While this sort of ignorance may seem humorous to a modern audience (When I first read this, I laughed with such vigor that I nearly fell out of bed), it often produced irrational fears of women in the minds of medieval men, resulting in a kind of shrill misogyny that persisted in the forms of unfair double standards against women. Unfortunately, many of these double standards were codified in both secular and Church laws. It was not until several centuries later that the first feminists of the modern era could begin to repair the injustices that were caused by this form of ignorance.
In contrast to simple ignorance, stupidity occurs when people have a sufficient supply of knowledge, yet persist in doing things that are irrational or even dangerous, and that are often contrary to their own interests. Stupidity usually originates from extreme stubbornness, force of habit, or false rationalizations made by people who simply refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. One form of stupidity that I have noticed occurs when teenagers or young adults continue to have promiscuous sexual encounters, often without using any form of birth control, even though they have been told over and over again that their actions could have deleterious consequences such as pregnancy, venereal diseases, unnecessary abortions, or children that they are not really equipped to raise, at least not without causing much unwelcome stress for other people in their lives. Interestingly, when presented with facts and logic, many of these same people will become offended or even look down upon those of us who have managed to remain celibate in our younger years, especially when they realize that we may not have as much sympathy for them as they would like.
Driving while intoxicated is a particularly dangerous case of stupidity. In spite of the barrage of ad campaigns that we have endured since the 1980s, many people continue to think that the rules of logic do not apply to them, and persist in attempting to operate motor vehicles even though their judgment and physical capabilities have been seriously impaired by alcohol or other drugs. This kind of stupidity can be very dangerous because innocent people can be injured or killed if an intoxicated driver should cause an accident. Fortunately, since the public awareness campaigns began, alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined somewhat, although they are still a significant cause of death for young people in the United States.
The people who carried out the 9/11 attacks could be seen as displaying an extreme example of stupidity. Killing innocent people in this manner has arguably done much harm to the reputation of their professed Islamic faith (at least in the Western countries), and it has further perpetuated the cycles of war and violence in the Middle East. Although the attackers seemed to think that they were martyrs, the consequences of their actions are almost certainly detrimental to their cause. Whether Allah will ever see fit to forgive them for their illogical behavior will probably never be known.
In the United States, cigarette smoking is probably one of the most common examples of stupidity. Not long ago, I overheard a radio talk show host who stated flatly, “Smokers are stupid.” He pointed out how illogical some of the smokers who called in to the radio show really were, and many of them became offended when he challenged their behavior. To a casual listener, this sounded like kind of a cheesy “shock jock” tactic at first, but he did seem to have a point. Deaths from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema have been among the leading causes of death in America for the past several decades. Furthermore, unlike many other habits, there do not seem to be any redeeming qualities or benefits to smoking that could offset the health risks. However, before the 1960s, smokers could be seen as suffering more from ignorance than stupidity, because the true health dangers of smoking were not known at the time. In fact, smoking was often portrayed as glamorous and was perceived as being much more socially acceptable than it is today. Still, for the legions of smokers who have started smoking after they already knew of its true consequences, one could seriously question the logic of their behavior.
Both ignorance and stupidity are conditions that have been with us since the beginning of humanity, and many people have sought to alleviate their most damaging effects. Of the two, ignorance is probably the easiest one to “cure”. Stamping out ignorance can be accomplished by efforts such as disseminating more knowledge and making sure that our children receive a good education. Stupidity, however, is a more pernicious beast because eradicating it often requires people to break old habits, accept responsibility for their behavior, and understand the concepts of logic and sound reasoning. Acts of stupidity can still be prevented though, as long as people are willing to examine the logical effects of the choices that they make, and are able to use good judgment in cases where their actions may cause harm to themselves or others.