Monday, January 23, 2017


In a recent Facebook post, I offered up an observation that the peaceful transfer of power on Inauguration Day was pretty neat, and was a sign of something that couldn't be obscured by the likes of Donald Trump or all of the people whining about him (Let's be clear -- criticism he's earned and he will earn more before this day is done. Whining is like the guy screaming no while President Trump took the oath of office).

I then said all I could do for the next four years or so was remember the greatness of the system of government we have and hope for the best from the people in it, including the twerp at the top.

Someone I've known for 25 years then commented unfavorably on my post and wound up deploying a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer about stupidity. It's from a letter he wrote marking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power. The quote was in a picture that pairs the first paragraph of the letter with a smaller headshot of Bonhoeffer. He was a Lutheran pastor whose writings on discipleship and resistance to tyranny have offered some pretty important ideas for Christians and non-Christians alike in how to confront state-sponsored evil or injustice. He was jailed for participation in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and executed.

As I said, the quote in the picture held the first paragraph of the letter, which ends with the caution, "Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous."

I looked it up, because as Abraham Lincoln has warned us, you shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet. The part quoted in the picture is about one quarter of the whole letter, which goes on as Bonhoeffer defines the stupidity he's speaking of and how he does see that it should be engaged. You can find it in his Letters and Papers from Prison Vol. 8, and a website that has the whole letter online here.

Bonhoeffer's use of "stupidity" refers more to the way people seem to follow along in movements when large groups gain power or offer a cause in which to be swept up. It's not, he says, a matter of intellect because some very intellectual people manage to be stupid in this way and some very non-reflective people manage to avoid it. Probably we would today use phrases like "herd instinct" or something similar. Stupidity is cured not by listening to a reasoned argument, but from being liberated from the sweeping current of power to which the stupid have surrendered their liberty.

It's a little paternalistic, but that's understandable. When your opponents are literally Nazis, it's tough not to be smarter than them and probably even tougher not to sound like it. In any event, it's clear that Bonhoeffer suggests not complete disengagement from the stupid but engagement along different lines than reasoning and argument. He notes in his closing paragraph that his thoughts on stupidity "utterly forbid us to consider the majority of people to be stupid in every circumstance." Which would seem to mean that it's possible for anyone to be stupid, if the right cause or right leader comes along that meshes with the way of thinking that can sweep them along.

Now you might think that I would win the argument by quoting Bonhoeffer's entire letter rather than just the part that's been memed. Nope. Long before I could use the rest of the letter in the discussion, my friend followed the leading of the truncated version and stopped dealing with the person considered stupid -- me -- and both unfriended and blocked me. So I lose.

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