Once upon a time, in the canon of cautionary advice, no two topics were considered more verboten in polite company than politics and religion.
Another topic about which it’s awkward to speak about in polite company is something that sounds as blunt and harsh as what it means—stupidity.
Let’s start with the bozo writing this. I make a habit of doing stupid things on a daily basis. Then I write them down in my morning journal as a kind of penance. Inscribing my stupidity in my book of life makes me think I can minimize future bumbles by keeping my past stupidities front and center in my addled brain. Sometimes it actually works. Journaling my mishaps may not make me a whole less stupid but it keeps me honest with me.
What do I mean by stupid? Did you ever boil water—for tea, say—walk away, and totally forget about it?
Something else I’m hoping others can relate to is returning home from a trip to realize you left something in your hotel room.
There’s no lasting shame in doing stupid stuff now and then. People are like that. Imperfect. Precipitous. Prone to momentary lapses in judgment. We mean well, even when we don’t perform as well as we’d like. Acting stupid usually doesn’t hurt anybody besides ourselves.
There’s a distinction, though, between being stupid and doing “something stupid” (Nostalgia Note > Boomers will recognize that as the title of a 1967 pop hit, sung by Sinatras Frank and daughter Nancy.)
Doing something stupid can undermine others. That’s at the core of an unforgivingly harsh assessment reached by an Italian economic historian and University of California Berkley professor named Carlo M. Cipolla. He is best known for formulating “The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity,” first published in 1976 (avaialble on Amazon).
I’M WITH STUPID
Without enumerating each of the laws here, the dual gist of Cippola’s copiously studied conclusions are that 1) There are a lot more stupid people among us than we care to believe, and that 2) What qualifies them as unambiguously stupid (in Cippola’s view) is that—to quote his Law No. 3—the stupid person “causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.”
In other words, says Cippola, “their efforts are counterproductive to both their and others’ interests.”
That all-inclusive definition actually leaves out a number of folks you may be tempted to tar as stupid, situationally speaking.
For example, your version of stupid may be a rail commuter at rush hour who places a briefcase or backpack on a sought-after empty seat. Or you may understandably curse as stupid the inevitable motorist who at the last moment cuts in front of the long line of vehicles you are bumper-to-bumper with when exiting a highway.
The thing of it is, in both cases, the perpetrators may have caused you a loss, but they gained something in the process. Because of that, they don’t qualify as stupid, per se, in Professor Cippola’s lexicon, but he does reserve a special word for them: Bandits. That’s someone who “causes to other individuals losses equal to their gains.”
The extra seat the bandit occupies to hold her belongings is the seat she deprives you, to rest your rump. The upfront spot the highway bandit gained by cutting in front of you and everyone else saves them time that is taken from you.
What about pro athletes who have a Hall of Fame career, but are blocked from induction because they flouted their sport’s ban on performance-enhancing drug?
A case can be made that, according to Cippola’s strict definition, they are stupid. True, they gained something for themselves—fame and fortune. But they also lost respect by spoiling their reputation. Plus, they sacrificed the Holy Grail of immortal enshrinement that would validate their legacy forever.
The bad behavior that hurt them also was counterproductive to the interests of other talented players, who got by on their organic athleticism, which put them at a disadvantage: their own elite statistics were pushed down a couple of notches, subjugated by comparison to the presumably inflated, artificially aided achievements of the steroid users.
If you think reading all this was a waste of your time, and don’t understand what I gained from writing it, the next time you see me, feel free to shout at me, “Hey, stupid!”
If I turn around to acknowledge you, that’s what I am. Like Forrest said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at email@example.com; 914-275-6887.