Does “Stupid” Have A Place In Political Discourse?

Dish Staff —  Aug 14 2014 @ 9:32am
by Dish Staff

About two weeks ago, Paul Krugman caused a tiff by obliquely calling Paul Ryan “stupid,” leading Laurence Kotlikoff to respond, “No one, and I mean no one, deserves to be called stupid.” (Krugman later clarified that he believes Ryan isn’t stupid, but rather a “con man.”) In a post relevant to all in the blogosphere, Noah Smith mulls over the power of the s-word:

Now, calling people “stupid” is certainly not polite. But I never cease to be amazed at how effective it is in terms of making people choke on their own rage. People really do not like being called stupid. … In the end, I think people overreact to the “stupid” insult because, as a society, we use arguments the wrong way. We tend to treat arguments like debate competitions– two people argue in front of a crowd, and whoever wins gets the love and adoration of the crowd, and whoever loses goes home defeated and shamed. I guess that’s better than seeing arguments as threats of physical violence, but I still prefer the idea of arguing as a way to learn, to bounce ideas off of other people. Proving you’re smart is a pointless endeavor (unless you’re looking for a job), and is an example of what Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset.” As the band Sparks once sang, “Everybody’s stupid – that’s for sure.” What matters is going in the right direction – becoming less stupid, little by little.

Megan McArdle similarly sees “stupid” as a rhetorical crutch:

Ultimately, calling people stupid is simply a performance for the fellow travelers in your audience. It’s a way that we can all come together and agree that we don’t have to engage with some argument, because the person making it is a bovine lackwit without the basic intellectual equipment to come in out of the rain. So the first message it sends – “don’t listen to opposing arguments” – is a stupid message that is hardly going to make anyone smarter. The second message it sends is even worse: “If he’s stupid, then we, who disagree with him, are the opposite of stupid, and can rest steady in the assurance of our cognitive superiority.” Feeding your own arrogance is an expansive, satisfying feeling. It is also the feeling of you getting stupider.

Update from a reader:

When Krugman suggested that Paul Ryan was a “stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like,” he was not calling Paul Ryan stupid. He was, quite plainly, suggesting that those who thought that Ryan was thoughtful were the stupid ones.

Another elaborates:

I read both Krugman’s original article and his supposed clarification and I did not at all get the impression that he was calling Paul Ryan stupid. He begins with a quote by Ezra Klein, in which he describes Dick Armey as “A stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like”. Krugman goes on:

It’s a funny line, which applies to quite a few public figures. Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is a prime current example. But maybe the joke’s on us. After all, such people often dominate policy discourse. And what policy makers don’t know, or worse, what they think they know that isn’t so, can definitely hurt you.

This is Krugman’s only reference to Ryan in the entire column, so this has got to be where his critics are accusing him of, at the very least, implying that Ryan is stupid. However, the plain reading of the passage does not bear this interpretation out. This is, after all, English grammar. Words have consequences.

Obviously, Paul Ryan is a public figure who, in Krugman’s estimation (and to follow his implied comparison), would be a substitute for Dick Armey in Klein’s quote. Krugman is in no way saying that Ryan is stupid, but rather that he is “A stupid person’s idea of what a _______ person sounds like”. In this blank you could insert the word “smart”, “serious” or any one of a number of descriptions, but I think it is quite clear that Ryan is NOT being singled out as being stupid. At least, not by Krugman is this particular column he isn’t.

With that said, Krugman DOES seem to be obliquely accusing anyone who believes that austerity cures recessions and that stimulus spending makes them worse of being wrong and, perhaps even wrong-headed. In fact, you might even take that a step further and accuse Krugman of calling pretty much anybody who believes these things stupid, but those who interpret him as specifically calling Paul Ryan “stupid” here are, I hate to say it, kind of stupid.