Naivete or Stupidity: Does the Difference Matter?

Posted: May 16, 2011 in Personal, Sad in AZ

Over the last few years I have pondered this question as it has affected my life in a myriad of ways. I have seen it often over the years in the political arena in particular. The use of the Southern Strategy by the GOP has provided quite a few factual scenarios to examine this question.

For example, are white, Southern voters who vote against their own interest naive or stupid? If their motivation is fear, are they really stupid? Fear is real, regardless of whether the facts that create that fear are reality based or lies. The voters lack of information combined with their willingness to believe the lies from the GOP, the very same people who stoke their fears, certainly would tend to point to stupidity.

However, lacking information is not the definition of stupidity, it is the definition of ignorance. Credulity is more of an attitude, the willingness to believe. So it is more closely aligned with naiveté than either stupidity or ignorance. Furthermore, stupidity is ignorance combined with the inability to learn. Ultimately, many of these voters do learn but it takes time and a lot of effort to combat fear based politics.

A similar strategy has recently been employed here in the Southwest. SB1070 and The Birther Bill are just more of the same politics of fear. And for the most part, Arizona voters have fallen for it, which is what I find most startling considering the long tradition of corruption and chicanery that has existed in this state. However, it should be noted that the state’s population has exploded with the influx of immigrants and migrants from other states seeking work. So their lack of the state’s political history knowledge can’t be held against them.

Voters, in general, fail to recognize large trends. Such things require a certain amount of knowledge, the luxury of time to study history, and the ability to pay attention to political actors….none of which the average voter has. So again, it isn’t stupidity but ignorance and credulity involved. So perhaps naiveté is the root cause of how well the Southern/Southwestern Strategy has worked in the U.S.

These thoughts led me to wonder what is it about Americans that causes them to be naive. Surely there is a characteristic, an aspect of our national psyche that causes us to be vulnerable to strategies that other industrialized nations have, for the most part, moved beyond? I must admit I’ve had no possible answer until today as I was thinking about my own recent experience.

I had recently placed my trust in someone, who I thought I understood sufficiently well to warrant that trust. This person was and is well thought of in a larger community and I thought that provided this person with a level of trustworthiness. I have discovered that my trust was most likely misplaced and I am saddened by it. As I always do I like to sit back and see where I went wrong so I don’t make this same mistake again. So I had been thinking about the situation in light of the same reasoning I went through above.

Was I ignorant? No, I don’t believe so. I am educated and have lived through many challenges, rising up from poverty through my own hard work and with more than a little luck. I am a risk taker by nature, but very rarely without cunning, calculation and preparation. And so it was in the case. Was I naive? Again the answer is no. In the back of mind the cynical voice that says “yeah but” to things was always present. I think if naiveté had anything to do with it, it was in the form of optimism. While I might be calculating, I try my best to avoid dishonesty. I always try to give the best of myself and when I don’t I promptly admit it the person I have harmed. When I have to hurt someone, I try to do it as fairly, rationally and honestly as possible. And I optimistically expect others to do the same. It’s a code of honor of sorts. I “cowboy up” and am straightforward and I expect others to do me the same courtesy. Sometimes they do, but more often they do not.

What if that is what happens to American voters who fall victim to the politics of fear? In their optimism do they become prey to those political leaders that they admire? I am certain it is not an either/or proposition that it must be naiveté or stupidity. Surely it is more subtle than that….people usually are.  However, the truly sad thing is that regardless of the cause, the end results are the same. The voter is tricked, their interests ignored and their dream of America becomes a little less real with every betrayal.


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