I used the term “idiot” three times in the recent post about Alex Jones. Periodically I get reprimands from commenters who chide Ethics Alarms for engaging in “ad hominem” attacks when it refers to a public figure as “an idiot.” IMy response is always the same: diagnosing someone as an idiot who behaves idiotically is not an “ad hominem attack.” Ad hominem means that one attacks a legitimate argument by attacking the arguer instead: “That must be wrong, because he’s an idiot!” In the case of Jones, my point was very different: believing that John Podesta, in the middle of a Presidential campaign, would be running a sex ring out of a pizza place is per se idiotic, and it requires an idiot, like Alex Jones, to take such a story seriously. I’ll stand by that assessment.
Still you don’t read many pundits, and certainly no ethicists, who use that term, or related ones like dolt, dummy, moron and cretin. Is it unprofessional? It certainly isn’t common practice for professionals, though there are exceptions: the late Justice Scalia was not above calling out idiocy by name. I will even use the term occasionally in my ethics seminars, for example, to describe the lawyer who produced a hand grenade during his closing argument, and pulled the pin. Is this unfair? I don’t think so. Nor is it unfair to call the lawyer an idiot who recently had his pants burst into flame mid-argument to bolster his defense that his client didn’t deliberately set his car won fire, but that it spontaneously combusted.
Non-idiots don’t do things like that. If he doesn’t know he’s an idiot, someone needs to tell him.
Calling someone an idiot is an insult, obviously, and is a breach of civility. Civility, however, does not and should not interfere with the truth. Choosing to properly designate a prominent idiot as one is a public service, and to the more self-aware idiots, a kindness as well. Great damage can be prevented by making it absolutely unambiguously clear that someone is an idiot, as in “not smart, responsible, wise or educated enough to be trusted in his opinions or competence.”
Once upon a time, it was very rare for true idiots to rise to prominence and influence in the United States. It was just too hard, and nobody was that lucky. This provided a great advantage over cultures where power and influence were conferred by birth. Idiot kings and emperors were never in short supply. John Adams made the point that in America, the aristocracy, whose role in other nations was to stand as role models and typify the best of society, was uniquely created by ability, achievement, talent and intelligence. (John, a lawyer, naturally thought that lawyers fit the bill.) The bold concept behind American democracy was 1) that public education and civic duty would compel the citizenry to accept the responsibility of being capable of self-government, and that the “wisdom of crowds” would do the rest. Idiots literally could not rise to high office. They so obviously contrasted with the typical public servants that their careers fizzled out before the White House was within view. Stupid journalists, scholars, professionals and authors were also rare; indeed, it was once hard to find an idiot with a high school diploma, much less with an advanced degree.
None of this is true anymore, obviously. Social upheavals, some with good effects, some without them, changed the culture of idiocy. Popular culture, television, the internet, the rise of celebrities and athletes as role models, the destructive desire of public figures to be celebrities too, the decline of American education and respect for authority, reality television and more provided new avenues for idiots to gain power, wealth and influence, sometimes by being idiotic. The more prominent figures we saw who were idiots, the harder it became for the public to distinguish idiots. In turn, this made it more difficult for the idiots within the public to recognize idiocy in themselves.
A few years ago, for example, I criticized a blog post by a women who attacked the Casey Anthony acquittal based on what appeared to be complete ignorance of the trial, the facts, criminal law and the standards of guilt. She was furious, and protested that it was just an opinion: why couldn’t she have an opinion and express it, even though there was no factual or logical basis for it?
Idiot….but an increasingly common, dangerous, arrogant breed of idiot.
I might as well deal with this here and now, since someone is bound to mention it. Yes, I frequently pointed out last year that Candidate Trump was an idiot, and explained why I reached that conclusion. The signature significance sign was that he kept saying how smart he was. Smart people don’t do that, because it is a per se stupid thing to do, and because if they are really smart, they shouldn’t have to proclaim it. Fredo, the brain-damaged Corleone brother, is the one who protests that he’s smart. This is also why I stated that Trump supporters ( as opposed to Trump voters) were, to generalize, stupid. One has to be stupid to want to see an idiot as President of your country, or not to realize how ignorant and dim Candidate Trump was. President Trump, however, is President. It is a job that has over-matched brilliant men, so every good, patriotic, fair citizen needs to focus on providing the support this President needs to do as good a job as possible. We shouldn’t want a blind man flying a passenger plane, either, but if somehow one ends up behind the controls with lives in his hands, it’s time to help out, not to call him names and distract him by popping balloons while he’s desperately trying to fly the plane.
Digression over. The point is that idiots with power and influence are dangerous. It is ethical to point out the idiots before they can do real damage, and to try to create clear standards of idiocy so the public can return the practice of spotting the obvious ones and persuading them to stick to tasks they are able to do, if not exactly competently, harmlessly.