April 23, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 17

Dr. Wes

People can be stupid or they can be stupid, which, as stupid as it sounds, means they’re smart

By Dr. Wes Browning

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I’m in a stupid state this week, unable to think up my usual quota of smart-off snarkiness. So I’ve decided to use this space to plug the virtues and desirability of stupidity.

When people hear me calling this or that idea stupid, they often make the mistake of thinking that I am being disparaging of the matter in question. In doing so, they are projecting their own values on the thinking behind my remarks. I would never disparage an idea just because it is stupid.

First of all, stupidity is a life sign. If you aren’t ever stupid you are dead, and it doesn’t matter how smart you are. Being dead is never anything to brag about. I don’t care how good you are at it.

Being stupid is like having a functioning bladder. People love pig’s bladders so much when they are used to squirt water on audience members at Shakespearean comedies. They are reminded that a good working bladder is a good thing, and so, happily, is the stupidity of pretending to use it in public. Because you know you want to be able to.

You can’t get to be right by being continually smart, anymore than you can get to Tokyo from here by walking all the way. You need changes of routine, and one way to do that is to interrupt your smartness with a little calculated stupidity. Sometimes to get to a right answer you should think of a whole bunch of wrong answers and sew them together into one right answer. And the best way to come up with good, useful wrong answers to stitch into right ones is to be gifted at stupidity.

Of course, it helps to know when you’re being stupid, in order to take best advantage of it. That’s why when Plato brought up the definition of man as a “featherless biped,” Diogenes of Sinope was doing him a favor by producing a plucked chicken and calling it “Plato’s man.” He just wanted Plato to know how stupid his definition was, so Plato could use that knowledge to refine his thinking and reach new heights of genius. In fact, Plato did take note and added “with broad flat nails” to the definition.

The history of mathematics is a history of stupid ideas being made meaningful. At one time the only numbers you could have were counting numbers. You could have one, two, three, four, etc. many trees in your yard. Counting backwards past one was stupid. It was stupid to have minus five trees. It still is stupid to have minus five trees in your yard. But now it means something.

Speaking of trees, one of the reasons I know how stupid I am this week is that after I read an entire article in Crosscut about the mayor’s metropolitan parks district proposal three-and-a-half times through, I still couldn’t understand any one paragraph of it.

The article makes it out that Mayor Murray wants the metropolitan parks district thing to be under the control of the Seattle City Council because if it were under the control of a different group, there would be less accountability. Councilmember Nick Licata supports this view, the article says, citing the example of Seattle City Light, which doesn’t have an independent governing board, and, well, see?

I just read that paragraph again, and I’m even stupider than the last time I read it.

Here I’ve been going nuts this winter because my electric bills have been whacked because City Light hasn’t always sent anyone to read my meter. They’ve just “estimated” it. And now I find out that instead of seeing an official at City Light about it, I should have consulted with the city council, because they’re the ones really running the show.

The article goes on and says that, in Licata’s view, a separate parks board could potentially squander well-built social capital.

The Seattle City Council has well-built social capital to squander! Why am I such an idiot, not to have known that?

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