Whaddya, STOOPIT?

or, How Could You Not Know That? -- Stupidity vs. Ignorance in the Age of the Steep Learning Curve

by Bill Bly

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens. -- Schiller

Ignorance is a delicate flower. Touch it, and the bloom is gone. -- Wilde


In case you don't recognize the first quote in the epigraph: whaddya, STOOPIT? How could you not know that? How many times do I have to -- you never heard it before? Where the hell have you been all your life? On a desert island? Everybody knows that one -- that is, every educated person: "Against stupidity the gods themselves struggle in vain." Sheesh! What a buncha morons!

One witnesses this sorry clash of ideologies almost daily. On the one hand are the jaded veterans of the wired life, who regard being in the know as a kind of cultural imperative, and pity the poor newbie just subscribing to a mailing list who doesn't yet know that attached files are a no-no, or who writes message after message to the list when the server's down saying, "I can't get my messages from the list. Is anyone else having this problem?"

On the other hand, there are those enlightened souls who make a distinction between stupidity and ignorance. I'll plead the latter with only mild embarrassment, but nobody better accuse me of the former, cuz dem's fightin' words -- "Whaddya, stoopit?" -- except in the case of an ignoramus who hasn't yet learned to make a distinction between stupidity and ignorance. Or in the case of a Dummkopf who cannot be made to understand that there is a distinction to be made, no matter how long or hard I kämpf.

It's not always easy to know how to respond in an encounter with someone who seems not to have heard of something that is self-evident to you. But it's almost always foolish (not to say stoopit) to react impatiently to a dumb question or thoughtless act, even when its patent idiocy takes your breath away. Foolish because you can't immediately tell whether the perp is in fact a total dolt who deserves to be flamed without mercy, or simply a babe in the woods who just moved here from another dimension, and will get the hang of things after a while, maybe even turn into a valued colleague or cherished friend.

I think this is because both stupidity and ignorance express themselves as a lack -- if this is the right way to put it. An empty space opens up suddenly like a pothole in the middle of an exchange -- you expected one thing and got another, or a blank stare, or nothing at all -- and the swing of things is thrown completely off. Then you realize what the person has done, or failed to do, has in fact (gasp!) made a mistake, and a second reaction sets in, usually an admixture of disbelief and exasperation mingled with a feeling of superiority not unalloyed by relief that it was the other person's gaffe, not your own.

This is the crucial moment, your opportunity to demonstrate your wisdom and compassion, by following the old Lake Wobegon maxim: Never pass up an opportunity to keep your mouth shut. You'll never be able to make the necessary distinction as long as you're flappin' your own jaw (by whackin' your own keyboard), and more often than not the subject will soon declare h/erself clearly as either an irretrievable jerk or merely a naif.

At that point, you'll know what to do: bomb the sucker back to the stone age or else take the poor unlettered soul under your wing, until s/he can navigate on h/er own. Until then, CTFD. STFU. Breathe.

There's lots of room here. Room enough to put whatever distance you need between yourself and that Scheisskopf over there who simply won't stop ranting about how stoopit people are!

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Last updated: 11/7/2001