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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Hariman's Public Lecture

Date: 25 November 2008

Time: 8.00pm

Venue: Senate Room, University College

Title: Two Elements of ‘Being Human': Stupidity and Compassion

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.

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