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Title: A1256655832IUViD

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Being Human Stupidity and Compassion
  • Robert Hariman
  • Northwestern University
  • rhariman_at_gmail.com
  • www.nocaptionneeded.com

the lecture that I am not giving
  • The distinguishing and most valuable
    characteristic of human being is the ability to
  • The Delphic imperative Know thyself
  • The Socratic principle The unexamined life is
    not worth living

Being Human A or B?
  • Option A Reason
  • Option B Fallibility
  • Man can be viewed either as a poor or as a rich
    creature. . . . Man contains in himself the
    stored-up harvest of all of physical reality, or
    he is a creature of deficiencies, left in the
    lurch by nature, plagued by residues of instincts
    that he does not understand and that have lost
    their functions.
  • . . . Man is a creature who has fallen back out
    of the ordered arrangements that nature has
    accomplished, and for whom actions have to take
    the place of the automatic controls that he
    lacks. . . From this point of view, language is a
    set of instruments not for communicating
    information or truths, but rather, primarily, for
    the production of mutual understanding,
    agreement, or toleration, on which the actor
    depends. Hans Blumenberg, An Anthropological
    Approach to Rhetoric
  • As rational metaphysics teaches that man
    becomes all things by understanding them (homo
    intelligendo fit omnia), this imaginative
    metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by
    not understanding them (homo non intelligendo fit
    omnia) and perhaps the later proposition is
    truer than the former, for when man understands
    he extends his mind and takes in the things, but
    when he does not understand he makes the things
    out of himself and becomes them by transforming
    himself into them. Giambattista Vico, The New

Political Speech, Humane Speech
  • How should people communicate if they are to form
    sound political judgments?
  • Two principles of communicative action
  • Reason ( fallibility stupidity)
  • Relation ( fallibility compassion)

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The Normative Problem
  • Can a scholar say that some person, act, or
    practice is stupid?
  • NO
  • One-sided imposition of values from a position of
  • An act of bad faith likely to damage discussion
    and other inquiry
  • Scholarship requires precision, not use of
    vernacular concepts
  • Scholarship should be objective, neutral, and
    dedicated to knowledge for its own sake
  • YES
  • Scholarship in the humanities cannot be objective
    or neutral or avoid affecting human interests
  • Scholarship should recognize the attitude in
    other guises, attend to what lies outside its
    category system, be engaged with its intellectual
    history, and grounded in ordinary language.

The Ground Rules
  • Having taken care to avoid obvious errors,
    although not at the expense of avoiding
    worthwhile risks, a scholar may
  • Argue that everyone is foolish
  • Analyze stupidity as it is a discourse active in
    specific periods, societies, cultures,
    institutions, or practices
  • Take a political standpoint, which must be
    identified, that impels confrontation on these
  • Engage in phenomenological investigation of ones
    own stupidity
  • Stand within or beside practices or beliefs
    thought to be stupid to understand them, perhaps
    to address bad judgment or abuses of power
  • Articulate the term to identify dehumanization or
    destructiveness that might be not seen or
    rationalized otherwise

Stupidity, n.
  • a lack of ability (especially mental ability) to
    do something
  • a wrong action attributable to bad judgment or
    ignorance or inattention
  • lack of intelligence
  • rashness, thoughtlessness
  • dullness of mind
  • extreme folly

STUPID, i.e.,
  • idiot, fool, numbskull, bonehead, dimwit,
    nitwit, bimbo, airhead, dolt, boob, oaf, ass,
    dumb ass, brain dead, hare brained, blockhead,
    hooplehead, boob, chump, dodo, dork, dumbbell,
    dummy, stooge, half-wit, imbecile, moron, clod,
    ditz, dunce, addlebrain, lamebrain, dunderhead,
    lunkhead, meathead, pinhead, birdbrain,
    blockhead, cretin, yo-yo, . . .

Conventional Wisdom about Stupidity
  • A lack of reason (cognitive deficit)
  • Caused by collective association
  • Passive or self limiting
  • Localized

Cognitive Deficit
  • He is a few bricks short of a load.
  • She is not playing with a full deck.
  • Not the sharpest tool in the shed.

  • Most people, when let alone, are not dumb. They
    can make reasonable decisions if given the right
    information. However, when people are part of
    large groups, somehow it seems, the IQ of an
    average individual, and even the effective IQ of
    the group as a whole, appears to decrease.
    Members of the group can then do really dumb
    things. (www.sciencebits.com)

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  • The Darwin Awards The Awards honor people who
    ensure the long-term survival of the human race
    by removing themselves from the gene pool in a
    sublimely idiotic fashion.

The Arizona senator is holding on to the GOP
base. McCain has a sizable advantage over Obama
among evangelicals (76 to 20 percent), small
town/rural voters (53 to 40), and those living in
the South (54 to 40).
Unconventional Wisdom about Stupidity
  • Lack of social imagination (asymmetric with
  • Distended individualism
  • Aggressive a will to power
  • Universal the dark matter of human relations
  • Cultural distinctive forms representative of
    specific modes and histories of social

  • Stupidity cant be the opposite of genius,
    because there are limits on genius.
  • Only two things are infinite, the universe and
    human stupidity, and Im not so sure about the
    universe (Albert Einstein)
  • Its so simple to be wise. Just think of
    something stupid to say, then say the opposite
    (Sam Levenson)

Expert Stupidity
  • Four or five frigates will do the business.
    Lord North
  • Pasteurs theory of germs is a ridiculous
    fiction. Pierre Pochet
  • The telephone has no commercial application.
    J.P. Morgan
  • X-Rays will prove to be a hoax. Lord Kelvin
  • Radio has no future. Lord Kelvin
  • Everything that can be invented, has been
    invented. Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of the
    US Office of Patents, 1899
  • A pretty mechanical toy. Lord Kitchener (on the
  • Speaking movies are impossible. D.W. Griffiths
  • There will never be a bigger plane built.
    Boeing engineer on the 247
  • Nor are computers going to get much faster.
    Arthur Samuel, New Scientist, 1964
  • Not only have individual financial institutions
    become less vulnerable to shocks from underlying
    risk factors, but also the financial system as a
    whole has become more resilient. Alan Greenspan,

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My definition of stupidity, in part,
provisionally, with due respect for the
necessary additions and qualifications yet to be
  • NB all reflect sliding scales some S. is
    inevitable, more S. is worse
  • 1. Acting on the basis of mistaken judgment
    contrary to available resources and ones best
  • 2. Willful denial of how speech, action,
    practices, or institutions are harmful.
  • 3. Rigid adherence to delusions of knowledge,
    control, or importance that accompany speech and
    action in the face of evidence that they are
    mistaken and counterproductive.
  • 4. Insisting on definitions of others that are
    categorically mistaken to avoid association or

The Discourse of Stupidity in the US Vernacular
and Elite Verbal and
Visual Social, Professional,
and Political
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John Clease interview with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC
  • I want a president who is so damn smart . . .
    that Id keep my mouth shut so he wouldnt think
    Im a fool.
  • By contrast, some Republicans want someone who
    is not going to be not terribly bright or very
    highly intelligent or awfully sharp or a very
    good judge of people.
  • On a McCain gaffe while speaking I spent a
    week trying to think of something that was
    stupider to say than my fellow prisoners and I
    absolutely couldnt come up with anything.
  • Poem about Bill OReilly
  • still has one skill, a skill of sorts
  • he can amuse a true dumb ox
  • the dumbest crayon in the box
  • the kind of ox that watches Fox

  • . . . .
  • he will not shirk from Ruperts work
  • he really is a perfect Burke.
  • uh . . . .Burke at the end? . . .
  • . . . Cockney rhyming slang . . .
  • Well Ive heard of that, thats a substitution
    process, but what is Burke supposed to rhyme
  • Well, it it it it it It rhymes with the Berkeley
  • OK.. . . forced laugh

Stupid in US public discourse
  • From Ashley Todd to Levi Johnston The five
    Stupidest things that happened this election,
    32/6, November 4, 2008, http//www.236.com/news/20
  • Here are a few more that I am sure you considered
    and didn't have the space Bill Clinton's entire
    primary season performance, Dennis Kucinich
    admitting that he'd seen a UFO during one of the
    debates, Rudy 9-11's decision to bypass all the
    early primaries and focus on Florida, Hillary
    ignoring all the caucus states, McCain's economy
    strong/economy in crisis, suspending campaign/but
    not really, cancelling debate/debating anyway
    week of absurdity and really the STUPIDIST MOMENT
    EVER Choosing Sarah Palin in the first place
    (and let's face it she get's a whole wall of
    stupid all to herself.
  • You've no doubt seen the ad in which Liddy Dole
    accuses her opponent, a practicing Christian, of
    godlessness, which the media have been raising
    holy hell about. The ad is rank nonsense and is
    obviously malign. It's also a prime example of
    what I have been writing about on this blog. No
    matter what the pols say, they assume people are
    stupid enough to be moved by simplistic analyses,
    dopey slogans, and misleading ads.
  • Somehow, in Sarah Palin's brain, it's a threat to
    the First Amendment when newspapers criticize her
    negative attacks on Barack Obama.  This is
    actually so dumb that it hurts. Glenn Greenwald,
    FRIDAY OCT. 31, 2008 1338 EDT http//www.salon.co
  • re sarah palin...the mind reels at how stupid
    this woman Victoria Jackson is. just a few
    quotes will suffice "I don't want a political
    label," she wrote on her website, "but Obama
    bears traits that resemble the anti- Christ and
    I'm scared to death that un- educated people will
    ignorantly vote him into office. Later in the
    posting she wrote "We must in all seriousness
    ask if Barack Hussein Obama could be a Muslim
    terrorist sympathizer or a Marxist mole. And
    unfortunately, there are tons of people who are
    more stupid than this, who will eat this crap up
    with a ladel. This country is drowning in
    stupidity! http//self-doubt-america.blogspot.com/

  • Sarah Palin Sounds Stupid (And Talks Funny)
  • Victor // Sep 14, 2008 at 943 pm Sara Palin
    answered all questions by 'Charlie' just the way
    most sensible Americans would.?Charlie was trying
    to ridicule Sarah with his questions. Another
    media flake who seems to thnk he is superior in
    intelligence than those he interviews. As for
    Bush and his doctrine, he's been a stumblebum
    since he was sworn in. Attacking Iraq instead of
    Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia has been his
    biggest blunder! One BIG BOMB on Bagdad instead
    of sending in troops, would have ended war in the
    mideast for many years!
  • steve // Sep 18, 2008 at 349 pm Wow,
    Victor...you are stupid. Sorry, that was the
    first thing that popped into my head when I read
    your comment. Are you serious? Drop a nuke on
    Baghdad and gas prices would be 1,000 a gallon.
    Besides, perhaps one day Cheney will explain it
    to you in a letter from his prison cell...IRAQ
    HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH 9/11. Jeez...
  • Taylor // Sep 29, 2008 at 630 am ?Gee Victor,
    you must have a lower IQ then Palin. What's your
    take on the Couric interview? Underestimated
    brilliance on Palin's part or was Couric
    ridiculing her too? ?She's a moron. Anyone who
    could not see that simply saying "I don't have
    much foreign policy experience, that's not what
    John wanted me for" would be better then Putin
    flies over Alaska (which by the way, he
    doesn't...they fly over the Atlantic when he
    comes here) is just moronic. God help us all.?

  • Republicans blow off the smart cities with the
    counterargument that they win the exurbs the
    frontier of new homes, young families and the
    fresh middle class. . . . That will not happen
    this year. Polls show McCain is losing 20 percent
    of self-described moderate Republicans. . . . But
    in the kind of pattern that has held true since
    McCain went over to the stupid side, his brother
    recently referred to suburban northern Virginia
    as communist country and a top adviser, Nancy
    Pfotenhauer, said it was not real Virginia.
    Timothy Egan, The Party of Yesterday, New York
    Times, Oct. 26, 2008
  • The McCain campaign is so dumb that it bought
    into the presss confirmation of its own
    prejudices. Frank Rich, In Defense of White
    Americans, New York Times, October 26, 2008
  • Opening for a McCain rally in North Carolina last
    weekend, Representative Robin Hayes said he
    wanted to keep the crowd as respectful as
    possible. In order to pursue that goal as
    efficiently as possible, Hayes then announced
    that liberals hate real Americans that work and
    accomplish and achieve and believe in God. This
    was an especially unfortunate turn of phrase
    given the fact that he had begun his remarks by
    saying he wanted to make sure we dont say
    something stupid. Gail Collins, Confessions of
    a Phone Solicitor, New York Times, October 22,
  • Obama and the War on Brains, By Nicholas D.
    Kristof, New York Times, November 9, 2008

Real Americans
  • We are a movement of the plain people, . . . We
    are demanding, and we expect to win, a return to
    power into the hands of the everyday, not highly
    cultured, not overly intellectualized, but
    entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized,
    average citizen . . . The opposition of the
    intellectuals and liberals who hold the
    leadership, betrayed Americanism, and from whom
    we expect to wrest control is almost automatic.
  • This is undoubtedly a weakness. It lays us
    open to the charge of being hicks and rubes .
    . . We admit it. Far worse, it makes it hard
    for us to state our case and advocate our crusade
    in the most effective way, for most of us lack
    skill in language. . . .
  • Every popular movement has suffered from just
    this handicap. Hiram W. Evans, Imperial Wizard,
    Ku Klux Klan, 1926, quoted in Hofstadter,
  • The worst menace to sound government is not the
    avowed socialists, but a lot of cowards who work
    under cover--the long-haired gentry who call
    themselves liberals and radicals and
    non-partisan and intelligentsia and God only
    knows how many other trick names! Babbitt, by
    Sinclair Lewis
  • We believe that the best of America is not all in
    Washington, D.C. ... We believe that the best of
    America is in these small towns that we get to
    visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of
    what I call the real America, being here with all
    of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um,
    pro-America areas of this great nation. Sarah
    Palin, quoted at Palinisms Dumb Sarah Palin
    Quotes, Gaffes and Lies

Why is stupidity appealing?
  • Answer I Stupidity is the result of
    anti-intellectualism, which is produced in the US
    by the intersection of egalitarianism and
    Evangelical Christianity.
  • In the United States the more opulent citizens
    take great care not to stand aloof from the
    people on the contrary, they constantly keep on
    easy terms with the lower classes . . in
    democratic times you attach a poor man to you
    more by your manner than by benefits conferred.
    Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol.
    2, chapter 4.
  • I thank God I aint got no education! Holy
    Roller, 1928

  • Im just a common man, drive a common van
  • My dog aint got no pedigree
  • And if I have my say, it gonna stay that way
  • Cause high-brow people lose their sanity
  • And a common man is what Ill be
  • John Conlee, Common Man, http//www.cmt.com/lyr
  • Matthew Tully has covered government and politics
    since 1992. He started his career at the Gary
    Post-Tribune, later covered the U.S. Senate for
    Congressional Quarterly, and has worked for The
    Indianapolis Star since 2002. . . . Tully
    graduated (barely) from Indiana University in
    1992. A lifelong fan of Elvis Presley and the
    Chicago Cubs, he lives in Indianapolis with his
    wife, Valerie. Indianapolis Star,
  • What the difference between a hockey mom and a
    pit bull? Lipstick. Sarah Palin

Presidential speech
  • Flesch Readability Scores comics 92 Readers
    Digest 65 New York Times 39 Internal Revenue
    Code -6
  • Annual Message 1790 30 (college), 2006 60 (8th
  • Inaugurals 1979 20, 2005 60
  • Public papers from 50.3 to 69.9
  • Queens speeches to Parliament 1988 ff. 40
  • Sentence length from 40 words to 20 from 60 to
  • 2003 Census 43 read at 4th grade level or below
  • NB appeals to common sense in public
    papers/year TR 1, GB 50
  • Soundbite in TV ads 1968 42.3 seconds, 2000 7.8

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Populism the rhetorical techniques
  • Leveling expertise
  • Denigrating eloquence and the media
  • Monologic debate
  • Insisting on absolute standards
  • Selective use of skepticism
  • Foregrounding truth in conviction
  • Making provincialism a virtue contrary to
  • A mission from God

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life Just How
Stupid Are We? Why Smart People Can Be So
Stupid Dumbocracy Dumbing Down Dumbing Down or
Smartening Up The Dumbest Generation The Age of
Unreason The Assault on Reason The
Anti-Intellectual Presidency The Myth of the
Rational Voter Foolish Words The Most Stupid
Words Ever Spoken Idiotocracy
  • 80 dont know that the Senate has 100 members
  • 60 cant name the three branches of government
  • 65 dont know that Congress can override a veto
  • average score on a poll of college students on
    basic civics 55/F
  • 25 believe that the Constitution makes
    Christianity the official religion
  • 48 reject belief in any form of evolution
  • 42 say that human beings have existed since the
    beginning of time

  • Interviewer While Sean is wrestling with his
    decision, his wife Tracy firmly support the
    McCain/Palin ticket. So we wanted to hear from
    her as well. Whats the most important issue for
    you in this election?
  • Tracy The one who has the most faith in the Lord
  • I Thatsmake or break for you?
  • T That should be make or break for everybody.
  • I And when you hear people saying, Well, we
    understand your faith, but what if you are going
    to vote against your husbands interests to the
    American worker? (sic?)
  • T The Lord will take care of us. Thats the way
    I look at things.
  • I For Tracy Curry, this election is not so much
    about politics as it is about values. She says
    she doesnt feel Barack Obama shares her
    conservative, religious worldview.
  • T I cant imagine having a president of the
    United States being named President Obama! I
    really have a problem with that. And I am not
    the only one.
  • I Because, that means what to you?
  • T His background. huh A mother what was an
    atheist huh that really gets to me. um A father
    that was a Muslim. That should get to everyone.
  • I And when Barack Obama and his wife Michelle
    say, But, were faith-based, were Christians?
  • T The church they were members ofthats not the
    Christianity I know. Thats not the Christianity
    thats in the Bible.
  • I And so for you, your are firmly decided?
  • T Definitely.
  • I And what do you say to your husband, who is
    still on the fence?
  • T I will pray for him. He knows what the right
    religion is.

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The Brights The primary impetus for the Brights
endeavor is the need to constructively address
the marginalized situation of persons who have a
naturalistic worldview. If we are successful
over the long term, then politicians,
media, do-gooders, friends and family,
acquaintances and employers will acknowledge and
justly attend to the voices of the many and
diverse brights. The movement's three major aims
are --Promote the civic understanding and
acknowledgment of the naturalistic worldview,
which is free of supernatural and mystical
elements. --Gain public recognition that persons
who hold such a worldview can bring principled
actions to bear on matters of civic
importance. --Educate society toward accepting
the full and equitable civic participation of all
such individuals. http//www.the-brights.net/
Why is Stupidity Appealing? Answer II
Democratic polity creates both populism and
rationalism. Each becomes stupid by definition
against the other. Both involve breakdowns in
social imagination.
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Why the verdict was stupid
  • The charge Socrates is guilty of corrupting the
    young and of not believing in the gods in whom
    the city believes, but in other new spiritual
    things (24b).
  • The charge was contrived, the motives political,
    the defendant innocent he had corrupted no one,
    was quite pious, and promoted no religious or
    political doctrine.
  • In his speech of defense, Socrates demonstrates
  • He does not discredit the gods or turn common
    beliefs upside down
  • The prosecutor does not care about the youth of
  • No reasonable person would corrupt close
    associates, as that would bring harm on oneself,
    and none of his associates have spoken against
  • Although he has offended people by exposing their
    ignorance, that is no crime
  • He has been a model citizen in war and peace
  • His questioning is a service to the city
  • Rather than being impious, he is following a
    divine command.

Why a reasonable juror could vote against Socrates
  • Socrates begins his speech by distinguishing
    between clever speakers and those who speak the
    truth, and then proves to be a clever speaker
  • He devotes a good portion of the speech to
    addressing gossip that is irrelevant to the
  • His argument against the prosecutor begs the
    question of whether the jury cares about the
  • His arguments about harm are counter-intuitive or
  • He demonstrates only that he believes in a god,
    not the gods of the city
  • He ridiculed their judicial procedures and their
    need for emotional and ethical proofs
  • He told a jury of politicians, artists, and
    craftsmen that politicians, artists, and
    craftsmen were ignorant
  • He told a jury of citizens engaged in public
    service that he had avoided public life because
    he was too honest to be engaged in what occupies
    most people wealth, household affairs, the
    position of general or orator or the other
    offices, the political clubs and factions that
    exist in the city (36b)
  • He claimed exemption from political
    accountability because he was on a mission from

Why they voted to kill, and how he framed it
  • After Meletus proposed death, Socrates proposed
    free meals for life in the town hall where
    Olympic victors were entertained. . . . And, so
  • The first sentence was closer to the original
  • His proposal smacked of hubris
  • ???
  • Socrates explanation
  • Socrates refused to weep, bring in character
    witnesses, or ask for mercy

The Great Divide
  • Rationality, truth, the individual, liberty,
    private virtue, critical reason, withholding of
    the self from others
  • Rhetoric, emotion, the people, solidarity, public
    virtue, democracy, the exclusion of difference
    from the community
  • Both reject resources for deliberation and
    community contained in the other both distort
    the relationship between self and society both
    generate from a common predicament
  • Two excesses to exclude reason, to admit
    nothing but reason (Pascal).

Rationalism the rhetorical techniques
  • Leveling expertise
  • Denigrating eloquence and the media
  • Monologic debate
  • Insisting on absolute standards
  • Selective use of skepticism
  • Foregrounding truth in conviction
  • Making provincialism a virtue contrary to
  • A mission from God

Euthyphros argument
  • I say that the pious is to do what I am doing
    now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about
    murder or temple robbery or anything else,
    whether the wrongdoer is your father or your
    mother or anyone else not to prosecute is
    impious. And observe, Socrates, that I can cite
    powerful evidence that the law is so. I have
    already said to others that such actions are
    right, not to favor the ungodly, whoever they
    are. These people themselves believe that Zeus
    is the best and most just of the gods, yet they
    agree that he bound his father because he
    unjustly swallowed his sons, and that he in turn
    castrated his father for similar reasons. But
    they are angry with me because I am prosecuting
    my father for his wrongdoing. They contradict
    themselves in what they say about the gods and
    about me. (5e-6a)

Socrates command
  • And while he was saying this, he was holding the
    cup, and then drained it calmly and easily. Most
    of us had been able to hold back our tears
    reasonably well up until then, but when we saw
    him drinking it and after he drank it, we could
    hold them back no longer my own tears came in
    floods against my will. So I covered my face. I
    was weeping for myself, not for him--for my
    misfortune in being deprived of such a comrade.
    Even before me, Crito was unable to restrain his
    tears and got up. Apollodorus had not ceased
    from weeping before, and at this moment he noisy
    tears and anger made everybody present break
    down, except Socrates. What is this, he said,
    you strange fellows. It is mainly for this
    reason that I sent the women away, to avoid such
    unseemliness, for I am told one should die in
    good-omened silence. So keep quiet and control
  • His words made us ashamed, and we checked our
    tears. (117c-e)

Reason in a Corner
  • Ehthyphro Socrates expresses no interest in
    prudential reasoning about a particular case,
    opting instead for a standard of universal reason
  • Apology Despite being charged unjustly, Socrates
    refuses to use available resources for persuasion
    to save his life, and contrasts the use of reason
    to the social knowledge and rhetorical practices
    of the democratic community
  • Phaedo Socrates lives consistently to the end by
    forbidding his friends from any show of emotion
    while they are grieving.
  • In all three dialogues, he shows little real
    interest in the particular standpoint of his
    interlocutor. It appears as though he loves
    justice, Athens, and his friends--but only in the
  • The frigidity of Socrates. Platos PTSD
    harsh suppression of anger and grief due to
    institutional betrayal. To avoid forgiving
    Athens, compassion has to be banned. Hence,
    reason and democracy are joined in a traumatic
    history. Even if that history is not
    influential, it reveals a paradigmatic condition.

The Democratic Predicament
  • Democracy replaces the distributions of a
    social structure (e.g., kinship) with the
    communicative practices of a community of
  • Stranger relationality requires restructuring
    speech as public address
  • Public address creates public media that
    delocalize meaning and diffuse community
  • Public judgment and action depend on both
    disembodied reason and relational solidarity
  • In these conditions, there are strong incentives
    for strategies of both relocalization and
  • Biblical literalism Socratic dialectic
  • Christian evangelicalism Socratic rationalism

The Repair
  • To review Democracy generates characteristic
    forms of stupidity populism and rationalism
  • Both reflect a breakdown in social imagination.
  • Thus, repair of cognitive errors or deficiencies
    will not be sufficient.
  • What is needed is a shift in attitude toward
    others in the community of strangers.

Definitions of Compassion
  • A painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of
    another persons undeserved misfortune
  • Deep awareness of the suffering of another,
    coupled with the wish to relieve it
  • The humane quality of understanding the suffering
    of others and wanting to do something about it
  • Understanding without judgment
  • Recognition of anothers suffering independently
    of judgment but not of obligation
  • Seeing and listening with humanity, speaking with
    care not to harm unnecessarily, judging with
    integrity and humility
  • Synonyms sympathy, empathy, pity, mercy,
    kindness, charity, humanity, quarter,
    righteousness, clemency, quarter, sorrow,
    commiseration, fellow feeling, understanding,
    condolence, heart, altruism, . . .
  • Antonym Indifference

Caveats Compassion should not be
  • sentimental
  • condescending
  • merely emotional
  • tyrannical
  • Impractical
  • sovereign
  • Therefore it must be discerning, egalitarian,
    intelligent, deliberative, specific, and humble.
  • Thus, the Big Idea about compassion is that it
    neither needs nor articulates Big Ideas. It does
    not lend itself to abstraction and it is realized
    fully only as a way of being in the world, with
    all the limitations therein. Indeed, it is so
    deeply human that it needs stupidity

  • The element of tragedy which lies in the very
    fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself
    into the coarse emotion of mankind and perhaps
    our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we
    had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary
    human life, it would be like hearing the grass
    grow and the squirrels heart beat, and we should
    die of that roar which lies on the other side of
    silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about
    well wadded with stupidity. (George Eliot,

US Altruism Data (Robert Wuthnow, Acts of
  • 45 of adults (18 yrs) engage in voluntary
    caring activity
  • Each volunteer gives 5 hours per week
  • 1/4 devoted to informal volunteering (friends,
    neighbors) 3/4 formal volunteering
  • 60 have stopped to help someone with car trouble
  • 50 have given money to a beggar 23 in the last
  • Only 2 said that helping people in need was
    not important to them
  • However
  • 37 said they could not count on immediate
    neighbors for help
  • 36 said they could not count on church or
    synagogue members for help
  • 33 said they could not count on relatives
    outside the immediate family
  • 50 said they could not count on volunteers
  • 67 said they could not count on social welfare

The problem of language
  • Language, democratic citizenship, and the public
    use of reason all depend on abstraction, vs.
    compassions focus on particular individuals and
    embodied relations
  • Discourse reproduces social hierarchies that both
    sustain and damage relationships, vs.
    compassions emphasis on seeing through social
    ascription to repair relationships
  • Integrity in language use vs. the slippage
    necessary for doing practical moral work

Speaking, listening, and seeing with compassion
  • The big picture working toward a language shift
    in the vocabulary of Western political thought
    from reason to relation from knowledge
    production to wisdom from justice to humane
    community from the social morons of
    neoclassical economics to visions of human
    flourishing. . . . .

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Speaking, listening, and seeing with compassion
  • The hermeneutical principle To become
    compassionate, one should learn to discern how
    speech reflects suffering, and how images call us
    into community.
  • The rhetorical principle To speak
    compassionately, one should learn to address
    suffering on behalf of the common welfare.
  • The ethical principle one should avoid emotional
    manipulation but not at the cost of surrendering
    all political agency, unless that act empowers
    others on behalf of a humane world.

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Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human
face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen
in each eye W.H. Auden, In Memory of W. B.
Yeats (1939)
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