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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Professor Robert Hariman: Two Elements of 'Being Human' - Stupidity and Compassion

25th November 2008, 20:00, Senate Room, Durham Castle

IAS/University College Public Lecture and part of the Rhetoric of Personhood Seminar Series.

The American public seems to have become addicted to stupidity. Observers around the world stared in disbelief as George Bush was re-elected, and the 2008 electoral campaign set new records on the same track. When John McCain revived his campaign by selecting the inexperienced Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate, and as the two of them rolled out a campaign based on vicious anti-intellectualism, eye-popping hypocrisy, and an ideology dangerously removed from reality, liberals were torn between despair and recommending that their own candidate “dumb down” his appeal.

Not surprisingly, a number of publications have appeared recently to account for American ignorance and gullibility, with electronic communication media often targeted as the primary cause of this decline in democratic capability. Such scapegoating may be another form of stupidity, as is any solution that depends on people turning off the TV and the computer, or on corporate self-regulation in the marketplace, or on candidates choosing between civility and losing an election. What, then, is to be done?

This lecture considers why stupidity has become a habitual mode of appeal and response in American politics, and why the contemporary critical discourse on stupidity often falls short as a program for reform. Political stupidity is distinguished from simple ignorance and the garden-variety fallibility of ordinary life. It is analyzed as a characteristic vice of modernity, and as a will to power uniquely suited to periods and ideologies of economic dislocation. The antidote, therefore, is not an infusion of expertise, but rather some version of the higher folly that subordinates rationality to compassion.

Robert Hariman is a professor of rhetoric and public culture in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University and has published articles and book chapters in history, international relations, law, education, classics, and communication studies. His scholarship focuses on the relationships between art and argument in political culture. Forthcoming essays include a co-authored large corpora study of political styles, a theoretical essay on parody and democracy, and several critical studies of photojournalism.

He is currently a Fellow at the Durham IAS and University College (October-December 2008) and participating in the Institute’s ‘Being Human’ theme.


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