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Stupid, Fanatical, Corrupt!

I listened to another episode of the always thoughtful and well researched podcast Skeptoid today titled “Sarah Palin is not Stupid”. Its basic message was that its too easy to dismiss people you disagree with as stupid or corrupt or fanatical instead of looking more deeply at what they are saying and understanding their perspective better.

The podcast made a good point and I have been guilty of this myself on occasions, but I think it perhaps did go a bit too far. Words like “stupid” and “fanatical” are often subjective and depend on the worldview of the person making them but that doesn’t mean they aren’t appropriate in some situations.

For example, the podcast claimed that stupid people don’t attract supporters of different kinds, and stupid people wouldn’t be re-elected as major of a US city. If this is true then Sarah Palin can’t be stupid, but is it true? Isn’t it just an assumption that stupid people can’t be elected to important positions? It seems to me that elections are often based more on personality than real substance so a stupid person being successful in an election certainly wouldn’t seem to be impossible.

The podcast made the point that the usual criticisms of Sarah Palin are her robotic, uncritical acceptance of Republican policies, her disdain for science, and her extreme religious beliefs. None of these necessarily relate to stupidity and it is more productive to criticise her as ignorant of science or too dedicated to fundamentalist religion rather than making the simple sweeping (and possibly untrue) claim that she’s stupid.

So an ad hominem attack shouldn’t be total extent of criticism of someone. Its important to be more accurate and specific about criticisms of people if you want to maintain a certain level of credibility.

Many people who seem stupid, fanatical or corrupt are not really like that if you look at their world view. If you genuinely believe that the Bible is true for example then many other attitudes, such as being against abortion, homosexuality, or atheism make sense. The point is does taking the Bible literally make sense or do you have to be stupid to do that? Superficially I would say you do but I know some intelligent people who do believe the Bible so clearly stupidity isn’t a prerequisite, although it surely helps!

What about even more controversial figures, such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Is he stupid, or corrupt or fanatical? I really don’t think so. His bio on Wikipedia clearly shows he’s actually very intelligent and within the Islamic belief system his ideas aren’t necessarily that outrageous, at least no more so than some of George Bush’ ideas looked at within the context of his belief system.

So yes, the podcast had a point. Its important not to just dismiss someone by calling them stupid but I think there are situations where the label is deserved, and the same applies to fanatical and corrupt as well!

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