On Being an Idiot

Lael Ewy

Issue 43 * Spring 2021

I am an idiot.

This is not an insult. No denigration of self-esteem is implied in this case; like others, of course, I do have many good reasons to despise myself, but those reasons have little to do with my own idiocy.

Because I am an idiot, though, it took me decades to realize that I am one. I count myself lucky; for many idiots, this realization never comes.

"Idiot" derives from the Greek root meaning "self," "personal." An "idiot" is one who has little awareness of what is going on outside the self, one who is, because of this, incapable of being a public person. In this way, our mobile devices are making idiots of us all. While we use these devices ostensibly to connect (and in times of viral lockdowns more often actually that way), as often as not, we're gaming and using apps that bring us further into ourselves, not more empathically in relation to other people. Indeed, our connectivity is really about us, satisfying personal needs rather than public ones. We may use our devices to send money or virtual love, and it satisfies our purposes for a time, but does it really help us understand others better? There's safety in distance—literal and psychological. But there's also the withering away of authentic connection.

Some of us come about our idiocy without trying. For us, most of life takes place in our own heads; whole plots play out, worlds come and go, ancient arguments are rehashed, a running commentary presides. Academe, it may come as a surprise to those outside and many inside of it, is full of idiots. Academe rewards personal obsessions, provided those obsessions coincide with grant-funded research opportunities; it promotes sub-sub-specialization and an increasing focus on minutiae that justifies publication. A neurologist-blogger once complained that there are no "big theories" in neurology like there are in psychology. It was worth creating an account on that platform to tell him that, from the perspective of this MFA in creative writing, a researcher focusing all of her efforts on a single GABAergic synapse pathway isn't likely to come up with any big theories—isn't rewarded for it anyway, as her big theory work, should it exist, would not be published—and if she really gets off on focusing on that GABAergic synapse pathway as a career, she probably isn't the sort of person who cares much about theory anyway.

In other words, you do not need to be stupid to be an idiot. Most idiots are not, and some of them are even ridiculously successful and revered.

And there are many ways to be an idiot, ranging from the academics above to simple narcissists. Idiots may even appear normal—I spend most of my life "passing"—and may even fall in love and occasionally show signs of empathy or fellow-feeling; some idiots even have a highly abstract sense of compassion. For the most part, though, the idiots' world begins and ends with ourselves and whatever sense impressions manage to penetrate our thick heads.

Idiots often take a long time to figure simple things out. Unlike normal people or bright people, who seem to, at some point, just "get it," idiots have to deliberate, sometimes for minutes, and sometimes for years. If you've ever wondered where studies of seemingly obvious phenomena come from, now you know: they come from idiots, ones who have managed to get other idiots to fund them.

Some of us have (slowly) figured out a few cultural graces and have practiced them well enough and for long enough to fit in, at least for a while, but we always have the nagging sense that, sooner or later, we'll be found out, that the whole time we were supposed to be "mingling" or "making small talk," we were running over some personal obsession in our heads, like how many VHS cassettes we still own, where they are, and where all the videocassettes other people used to own finally ended up—because, I mean, there were millions of them out there at one time. With practice, we learn to bail out of situations where our idiocy might be easily revealed, like social gatherings, service work, and faculty meetings.

The cluelessness of idiocy sometimes leads us to think we can actually help the world, or, because we live in our own heads, we come to believe that the world should be more like what goes on inside those heads. Thus idiots can end up dominating leadership roles, lead entire professions, be confused for visionaries. The ranks of the "successful" are clotted with idiots. When you hear complaints about idiots from your colleagues, they're either from normal people with little patience for the idiots in charge or from other idiots who recognize their own type.

Once in a while, a truly brilliant person comes along, a singular talent. These people can often be confused for idiots, as they appear obsessed with what they do or seem deeply called by some internal voice that nobody else can hear. These people are tuned into signals the rest of us cannot perceive, understand things at such a level that we cannot even locate their intelligence on our normal cognitive maps. Overwhelmed, brilliant people either collapse into themselves or explode in supernovae of expression. While our culture has been known to punish idiots—there are far more unsuccessful idiots than successful ones—it is positively brutal to all but a handful of brilliant ones. Einstein, for as celebrated as he was, was probably not as happy as a normal person. Mozart's life, if you read that far, did not end well. It took James Joyce years to finish his handful of major works. And need we even recount the sad tale of van Gogh? Most truly brilliant people end up vagrant or institutionalized, self-destructive or incarcerated. Given the number of idiots now in leadership roles, would a truly brilliant person even be recognized today?

Brilliance is often misidentified. Steve Jobs, while no idiot, also wasn't brilliant; he merely had a knack for knowing which technology to steal and was savvy enough to bring it to market. This is quite smart, but you'd be more likely to find brilliance at the Palo Alto research lab from which Jobs stole, and who now recalls the names of those who worked there?

Being an idiot does not absolutely exclude other personal characteristics: we may be grumpy idiots or happy idiots, introverted idiots or outgoing ones. Introverted idiots write, study, or code; extroverted idiots become salespeople or politicians.

This brings us, unfortunately, to Donald Trump. Trump is almost a category unto himself. An idiot of the narcissistic type, Trump has the fortune of also being a moron, which is to say he is ineducable. He is also a tasteless boor. This is a trifecta that only extreme wealth or extreme privation seem able to produce. That his followers see anything to admire in him, or something of themselves in him, is alarming. Interviews with Trump's followers indicate that it's his idiocy ("He says what he thinks") and his boorishness ("He tells it like it is") that they seem to like the most, their pleasure in this surpassing their sense of safety or their long-term health and welfare. That many go on to say things like "He should tweet less" indicates a good degree of idiocy on their part—after all, Twitter is how Trump says what's on his mind, which is, for the most part, vacuous, peevish, spiteful, stupid, incoherent, and wrong. But it's not his idiocy that makes Trump a true threat; the real problem is Trump's ineducability. He reacts but does not learn. Idiots live in their own heads, but we can, eventually, actually learn. Trump can't, or he won't—there's little practical difference—resulting in knee-jerk decisions and the near constant repetition of tired and hurtful tropes.

As hard as it is for us, most idiots get along in the world, often with special accommodations, informally granted, from the normal people in our lives who end up acting out of pity or the need to smooth out the situation in which we idiots find ourselves caught up. Rank-and-file compensation for the idiocy at the top is standard operating procedure for most businesses and organizations of any size. While some businesses may be started by idiots who are too dense to realize they have bad ideas, few successful ones are sustained by them. Sensible middle managers and competent workers keep these firms afloat.

None of this idiocy should be confused with developmental delays, cognitive challenges, or the autism spectrum. People with these attributes are genuinely doing the best with what they have. Idiocy as I am defining it here is not a cognitive issue; it's an orientation to the world that acts like one. But this brings up a final necessary issue, whether or not idiots are born or made. I suspect it's a little bit of both: biology plays a part in everything we think and feel. But biology is also impacted by what we experience, our cultural situation, and the choices we make. Some happenstance of epigenetics and accident have turned us inward.

I have yet to determine whether or not idiots can work so hard at not being idiots that they are no longer idiots. Because I am one, it will take me another few decades to figure that one out.