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. Continue reading