People are Stupid…Until They’re Not

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Human beings often act in a stupid way, but we also are capable of great things. Instead of blaming us for our flaws, perhaps it’s time to start understanding and forgiving.

People are stupid! Those are the words one of my adolescent patients threw at me recently. She was responding to the near constant harassment she endures at school from many of her peers. She said it defiantly, almost like she was daring me to contradict her. And as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t, not really. Because she is right. People are stupid.

Human beings are the only animals on the planet that consistently and purposefully hurt each other with malicious intent. People are the only ones who commit genocide, cause ethnic cleansing and perpetrate heinous forms of violence, even toward those whom we purport to love. No other species builds weapons of mass destruction, methodically destroys the very planet on which they live or causes the extinction of other forms of life simply because they can. But humans do. We are prejudiced, intolerant, unkind, selfish, and yes, stupid. We are so very, very stupid. Until we aren’t.

I was reminded of that this week after the horrible destruction and loss of life in Moore, Oklahoma following the tornado that ripped through the town. Just in the last few days, I’ve seen fundraisers held, items donated and blood given, in order to help people we don’t even know. There is the group from Joplin, Missouri — a town still recovering two years after their own deadly tornado — coming to help the residents of Moore adjust to their tragedy. This same type of thoughtfulness and generosity occurred after the awful explosion in West, Texas too. People from as far away as Eastern Europe cared enough to offer what assistance they could.

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Our times of intelligence extend to more than just people providing a helping hand in times of crisis and tragedy, though. There are also organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund and numerous others, that work hard to protect people, animals and the environment, often at great risk to themselves. Then there are the countless individuals who speak out against injustice and stupidity, who sacrifice their time, money and sometimes even their lives in order to do what is right. Instead of all of our flaws, these people demonstrate acceptance, bravery, compassion, selflessness and sometimes even unconditional love. They definitely are not stupid.

Given all of this, what do I say — to my adolescent patients, in particular — about the nature of human beings? How do I explain to someone who still sees the world in all or nothing terms that people are complicated, that sometimes we are stupid, while other times we are not? More importantly, how do I explain to someone who is persecuted on a daily basis, merely because of (pick one) her gender, sexuality, race, level of intelligence, class, religion, political beliefs or just because she looks different, that people have reasons for behaving the way they do, and that good people sometimes act badly (and vice versa)? That was a tough one.

So here is what I did. I agreed with her that people are indeed stupid, because they are invariably so. However, I also talked about times when I did things that are stupid: times in which I did things I regret, said things I didn’t mean, or simply didn’t understand the implications of my actions for someone else. And I mentioned how much I would hate it if I were judged only by the things I did wrong, instead of also by the things I did right. I asked her to think of times when she acted stupidly, and if she would like to be evaluated based solely on those instances. In other words, I tried to move her black/white thought process into the more profound area of gray. This led to a deeper conversation about people’s motivations and how, once you understand those, you can determine a more effective course of action. In other words, bullying is never the fault of the victim, but responding differently may help.

While I don’t know how much of that she understood — these are hard concepts, especially for someone so young — it occurred to me that US society in general seems to be moving away from rather than toward the complicated shades of gray in morality and behavior. We are less understanding, less forgiving and definitely less accepting of other people’s faults or even just differences. It is why I am hearing more about bullying, not just in schools but also in workplaces, families and especially in politics and national conversations. And it is why we are having such trouble in general. If only we could return to the more complex ways of thinking, if we could understand and accept others’ motivations and how we need to respond, then perhaps we too could better not only our lives, but those of others as well. But we have to want to do this and we have to work at it. I truly hope we start doing this soon, before it is too late. To do anything else would be, well, stupid.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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