A Critique of Bonhoeffer’s Notion of Stupidity and How This Relates to America in 2021

I saw a video on a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison. If you don’t know, Bonhoeffer was a German Christian, who was sent to prison after an attempt to kill Hitler. The passage in the video makes the claim that a stupid person is worse than an evil person. While watching the video, and later reading the passage, I found myself disagreeing at several remarks. I want to explore and explain the remarks I disagreed with. (Note: I haven’t read Bonhoeffer’s letters, so it’s possible that I’m missing important information regarding his ideas on this matter. Indeed, I’m not entirely clear what he means in some sections of the passage. Also, I’m unfamiliar with the youtube channel that posted this, “Sprouts,” so I don’t know their agenda or reliability.)

Here is the video I watched:

3 thoughts on “A Critique of Bonhoeffer’s Notion of Stupidity and How This Relates to America in 2021

  1. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless.

    Let me first say I’m put off by the use of the word “stupidity.” I think “irrationality” might be a better word, for a variety of reasons, and I think DB might actually agree.

    If so, I would say irrationality can make one feel uneasy–at least most human beings. Just as people have a conscience that causes discomfort when they do something wrong, I also think most people have an equivalent internal mechanism that causes discomfort when people think or act in an irrational (read: crazy) way.

    Later in the piece, Bonhoeffer refers to ways to free people from their stupidity. My sense is that activating this “rationality conscience” might be a good way to do this. (Then again, maybe not.)

    And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem. It is a particular form of the impact of historical circumstances on human beings, a psychological concomitant of certain external conditions. Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. It would even seem that this is virtually a sociological-psychological law. The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence, and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

    I want to expand a few components that Bonhoeffer alludes to as factors that lead to greater irrationality among a populace. First, Bonhoeffer mentions historical factors and psychological effects that occur with certain external factors. In the U.S. the historical and external factor that might be most relevant is changing demographics leading to lessening of status among majority groups (e.g., whites, Christians, males, heterosexuals) and the increasing status status for minority groups (e.g., non-whites, non-Christians, females, and non-heterosexuals). Significant numbers of people may experience higher levels of fear and resentment. That might be an example of the “psychological concomitant of certain external factors.”

    Then, an authoritarian, demagogic leader appears and exploits these fears and resentment. Key members and institutions of the elite either cowered before such a leader or actively supported him. I can’t help but think of this when Bonhoeffer writes, “…it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or of a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity.” In our case, Trump stoked fears of people of color and non-Christians and installed policies that targeted these groups (e.g., “Muslim ban,” and policies that lead to separating large numbers of parents and children), and sold himself as a champion for whites and Christians, portraying elites and Democrats as enemies.

    For strong supporters of Trump, as long as they believe Trump is their champion, that people different from them are threats, and that the major news outlets are “fake news,” then their approach to politics is more tribal and irrational. The tribe and the tribe’s champion must be defended at all costs–even if the facts or rational arguments suggest their champion is a fraud and authoritarian.

    In the next post I want to talk about something that I feel like Bonhoeffer may not have appreciated–namely, the way an individual’s knowledge depends on elite individuals and institutions in the society. If a shameless authoritarian gains influence in a society, and the elites do not close ranks and shutdown the authoritarian–i.e., if a significant faction of the elites joins the authoritarian–I think this allows the type of spread of stupidity Bonhoeffer mentions.

  2. I ended my last post pointing to the degree to which individuals rely on leaders, experts, and key institutions for their knowledge and understanding of the world. I noted that if a faction of these individuals and groups went along with a shameless authoritarian–one who undermined trust in these individuals and groups–then many individuals could behave in foolish ways. I want to expand on that idea now:

    1. Individuals don’t build their knowledge through direct experience or actually working through problems to get to truths. Instead, much of their understanding comes from individuals and groups who have done that work.
    2. Insofar as the sources provide accurate information in a responsible and reasonable way, and
    3. the majority of the population trusts these (same) sources, then
    4. I would expect the type of widespread stupidity that infected 1930’s Germany, or the current U.S., to be rare.

    However, if for whatever reason,

    1. the trust in these individuals and groups that provide information erodes significantly, for whatever reason, and
    2. if a shameless authoritarian hijacks some or all of these sources of information, while simultaneously attacking these institutions, and
    3. significant members of these elite actively or tacitly support these authoritarian, then
    4. the type widespread stupidity DB refers to would not be surprising.

    If this accurate, then pointing to stupidity or irrationality is missing the mark. Instead, the problem is that the sources of information citizens and the overall society depends on is broken–and some individual and institutions may be one cause for this. Prevent this from happening–or stop it if it is ongoing, and ensure that the sources of information are providing good information and that the vast majority of the citizenry believes this, and this would go a long way to fixing the stupidity DB refers to.

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