Monday, September 14, 2009

Stupid Is As Stupid Does

Note:  This post originally appeared in September 2009.  Precocious Daughter for the most part has managed to straighten up and fly right since then, with a few detours into dumbness that almost no kid can avoid entirely.  I haven't seen too many adults manage it, either.  I hope we're all still trying.

Precocious Daughter is in trouble at school. She regularly pipes up with attention-grabbing comments at inappropriate times during class, and her fellow fourth-graders all gleefully ape her behavior. Chaos follows. Less than a month into the school year, we've already had phone and personal conferences with her teacher, and she's been yanked out of the fall softball league and threatened with all manner of additional punishment if she doesn't get her mouth under control and let her teacher teach.

There's an obvious irony that I'm having to discipline my child for being intelligent, articulate, and a natural leader. And if she has to get in trouble, I am truly grateful that it's not for lighting matches in the girls' restroom or shaking down kids for their lunch money. I can't condone such things, not even smirkingly behind my hand. On the other hand, I can't downplay the seriousness of her actual offenses, because they're symptomatic of something worse than mere thuggery: Stupidity.

It's just a personal bias, but I can forgive a lot of flaws before I can excuse someone for being stupid. I'm not talking about having a learning disability, or lacking educational opportunities, or being immature or unworldly. None of those disadvantages equates to stupidity, and plenty of people who haven't had to suffer them are stupid nonetheless. Stupidity is a quality that doesn't occur naturally in anyone; it can always be helped.

Rep. Joe Wilson shouting "You lie" during a speech by the President of the United States. Serena Williams telling a line judge, "I swear to God, I'm [bleep] taking this ball and shoving it down your [bleep] throat" during a U.S. Open semi-final. Kanye West spilling sour grapes all over Taylor Swift's MTV Video Award because his personal favorite didn't win. I don't know much personally about any of these folks. But I do know that each of them has achieved a level of mastery in his or her profession and public recognition for being there. Yet they've all recently suffered public black eyes, not because they've misspoken, screwed up, or otherwise underperformed. They, like PDaughter, have simply piped up with attention-grabbing comments at inappropriate times - more to the point, at times when they could have chosen to say nothing at all. They've acted stupidly.

Forget vocabulary, reasoning skills, literacy, use of tools, or any of the other traditional markers of so-called intelligent beings. In the end, the attribute that delineates intelligence from idiocy in our society is impulse control. Dumb creatures, regardless of their level of education or attainment (or species, for that matter), are conspicuous by their lack of discretion. And they're increasingly conspicuous in positions of power and prominence, where their individual displays of stupidity tend to act as an endorsement of stupid behavior in general. That's why I consider stupidity dangerous, and why I see it as a line in the sand as far as my own child's behavior is concerned.

By the way, the true opposite of stupidity to my mind isn't intelligence. It's grace. It's discernment: knowing when to speak and when to keep your mouth shut; when to lunge forward and when to hang back; when to aspire and when to embrace things as they are. Grace comes more easily to some than to others, and most of us spend a lifetime trying to nurture it within ourselves and others. Even "bad" people can possess grace, although they may use it selfishly and turn the discernment it requires against common values. I wish more bad people were stupid; they'd get less done.

PDaughter is a good person, and I'm proud of her for many things. But I want her to know that stupid won't get her very far in life. And that she'll find a lot more grace with her eyes open and her mouth shut. If a precocious fourth-grader can figure that out, maybe there's hope for the Kanye Wests and Glenn Becks of the world.

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