I have been searching for the longest time for the right words to describe something oppressive, pervasive and utterly bewildering that seems to have taken over large parts of Indian society over the last five years. I finally found the term I was looking for in the pages of a recently released collection of essays edited by Professor Apoorvanand called The Idea of a University.
Those words are “the cult of stupidity.” A blunt term to be sure, but an accurate one.
According to Prof Alok Rai, one of the contributing authors in this book,
“A great and aggressive cult of stupidity seems to have taken over the world. (…) The distrust of intellectuals, of people who have cultivated nuance and sophistication, (and) laboriously acquired an appreciation of complexity …”
The cult of stupidity has certainly spread across India. Like any other cult worth its name, this one, too, pledges unquestioning allegiance and absolute devotion to its leader – a demigod who can do no wrong, who despite his most glaring incompetencies and character flaws, is seen as the great answer to all the ills of the land.
Like other cults, this one also envisages a glorious new India where non-cult members will be bowed and subservient, and has apocalyptic visions of what could happen if they won’t. (The thought of co-existing harmoniously with ‘The Other’ does not cross its mind).
Most crucially, this cult, too, only sees the world in binaries – us vs. them, in-group vs. out-group, patriot vs. traitor – and pronounces judgment on those who refuse to see India as it does. This is why it actively resists and attacks those who look beyond binaries, who question why things are so, and who challenge established narratives and the status quo. That is also why it focuses the great bulk of its ire on universities of higher learning and attacks institutes of liberal education.
And lastly and most amazingly, the cult of stupidity only considers itself wise and everyone else stupid. How is such a thing even possible? The answer might lie in what Charles Darwin once said – “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect
More recently, in the late 1990s, a couple of social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger, shed light on a type of cognitive bias in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are, but in reality lack the intelligence or awareness to recognise their own lack of intelligence and awareness. – A sadder or more apt description of the cult of stupidity would be hard to find.
Dunning and Kruger performed a series of experiments and found that people who scored in the lowest percentiles on tests of grammar, humour, and logic also tended to dramatically overestimate how well they had performed. (Their actual test scores placed them in the 12th percentile, yet they estimated that their performance had placed them in the 62nd percentile.)
Incompetent people, the researchers found, are not only poor performers, they are also unable to accurately assess and recognise the quality of their own work. These low performers were also unable to recognise the skill and competence levels of other people, which is part of the reason why they consistently view themselves as better, more capable, and more knowledgeable than others.
The Dunning-Kruger effect, as it is called, is also related to difficulties with metacognition, or the ability to step back and look at one’s own behaviour and abilities from outside oneself. People with this bias are often only able to evaluate themselves from their own limited and highly subjective point of view. This limited perspective convinces them that they are highly competent, knowledgeable, and superior to others.
“In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious,” says David Dunning. “Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
Again, a more accurate description of the cult of stupidity and its leaders would be difficult to come upon.
So what is the antidote to the Dunning-Kruger effect, and by extension, the cult of stupidity? Perhaps it is the aphorism which states that “the more I know, the more I know I don’t know, and the more I learn, the more I learn I need to learn”.
A well-rounded education that encourages one to think, question, analyse and critique from childhood on up is really the only long-term cure – an education that, along with history, geography, language, science and mathematics, also teaches critical thinking, empathy, logic and genuine communication skills.
There is a reason many governments do not put sufficient emphasis on proper public education. It is much easier to manipulate a cult than it is to manage a democracy. Any control freak can tell people what to think and how to act, but it takes a genuine leader to empower them to think for themselves and discover their own way forward.
The difference between a politician and a statesman/stateswoman, it has been said, is that a politician only thinks of the next election. A statesman or stateswoman, on the other hand, thinks of the next generation.
That is why if we as a nation are to truly move forward, then we need to elect those who will make well-rounded and well-funded public education a national priority. We also need to ensure that we do not elect those who have fallen prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
Then and only then, will the cult of stupidity begin to disband.
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.