Homo stultus

safety notices not to be stupid

Homo sapiens.

That is the scientific name for our species: ‘sapiens’ meaning intelligent. In our origins, intelligence is most notably related to the ability to create tools, and then being able to shape our environment rather than just adapting to it.

We pride ourselves in our intelligence. Being called dumb is, after all, seen as an offence not as a compliment! Most of us feel that we are, in at least some ways, higher up the evolutionary ladder when compared to animals precisely because of our (superior?) intelligence.

But in many ways we are generating societies of stupid people, a society of Homo stultus.

One way we do this is through the over emphasis on warning about safety matters. It’s like we have lost our survival instinct (which is after all more fundamental than being able to do elaborate calculus!), and very often our common sense. Notices warn us that if we walk at the edge of the cliff we may fall, that we should not swim in very rough seas because there is a risk of drowning, that you should not approach a bear because it may attack you, that microwave ovens are not meant for living animals. In some cases, safety notices become actual prohibitions in order to ensure the person’s safety. Rather than people using their common sense to look where they are walking, we come up with different versions of traffic lights to make sure that they don’t end up being run over because they were farming some digital harvest or planning their daily schedule while crossing the street.

And then there are subtle ways of generating dumbness by, for example, allowing a customer to sue someone because they tripped over the carpet that was not well fixed in place. There are two problems with that: sometimes things will become loose and not acknowledging that that is the case is a stupid belief in the possibility of there being an error-free world; and the second bigger problem is that if the carpet wasn’t well fixed in place, why on earth did the customer not look at where they were walking!?

Technology is helpful, definitely. And yet it also has the power to diminish our intelligence. And by this I’m not talking about the ability to think, but about the ability to do things. I wonder what would happen if a huge PMS bomb were to burn all our electronics … if most of us only learn how to make things work by pressing a button. The cause-and-effect link that used to tie human movement to the desired action is being lost as the same action of pressing a button can generate anything from a musical note to lifting a car.

Having stupid citizens also serves a more ‘noble’ purpose. Although most of us want to be treated as intelligent beings, it is also in the interest of ruling parties – be they political or religious – to have an overall stupid population, dumb enough to make them controllable. Education and knowledge are being pushed aside in favour of technical training. Governments are more interested in a highly-skilled labour force than in critical and intelligent citizens. The media feed the population with ready-made entertainment and information, thus forming people’s minds according to what is preferable for the overall functioning of society. I have rarely seen Hollywood films stimulate the critical side of the self! And this, after all, serves the political rule because the more people believe they know when in fact they are not able to use their minds, the less likelihood there is that they become aware of their ignorance, and so the higher the chance that they maintain the status quo. The same applies to religion where focusing on dogmas prevents people from accessing information and thinking for themselves, thus allowing for another form of control, the political one with a small letter ‘p’. Fortunately this is not always the case, but is it the rule or the exception?

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