Although the general tendency is to think of stupidity as a defect or deficiency in the individual, what we perceive or regard as stupidity is often a matter of different priorities. Priorities that differ from our own or what we take to be the norm. Priorities which we may find quite incomprehensible. Priorities so skewed that behaviour prompted by them seems totally irrational. It looks like the behaviour of someone who is just not wired right. It looks like stupidity – as we normally understand that term – when in fact it’s just that the ‘stupid’ person has different ideas about what is important.
Boris Johnson’s decision to scrap all Covid ‘restrictions’ (more correctly, precautions) in England looks like plain old-fashioned stupidity. An impression gained all the more readily on account of it being only the latest in a catalogue of behaviour that is most easily explained by some lack in the capacity for reasoning. When we’ve already concluded that the evidence points to a person being stupid our default response to any behaviour on their part which we find difficult to comprehend will be to dismiss it as just another product of that individual’s ‘proven’ stupidity.
At some level we may know that even clever people do stupid things, yet we persist in thinking of stupidity as residing in the person rather than the behaviour.
Boris Johnson urges that we should “learn to live with this virus”. But there is a very big difference between learning to live with the virus and living as if the virus doesn’t exist – which seems to be Johnson’s ‘plan’. In fact, learning to live with the virus was exactly what we were doing – some better than others. Pretty much all we’ve been doing for the last two years is adjusting to the new reality of inevitable pandemics and the likelihood that one of those pandemics will threaten civilisation and perhaps even the human species. In the time before Covid, we were, for the most part, blithely ignoring the threat posed by potentially deadly pathogens in a massively connected world. Covid forced us to recognise this threat and everything since has been a search for ways to deal with that threat while restoring as much as possible as what we have come to regard as ‘normal’ living.
Pandemics happen when we override the ‘natural’ disconnects of distance and obstacles such as mountain ranges, rivers and oceans. What we’ve been doing for the last two years is trying to restore, reintroduce or replace those disconnects. A lack of isolation facilitated the pandemic. We’ve been obliged to put back some of what we took away. If transmission of viruses and other pathogens isn’t being stopped by distance and mountains and oceans then it must be stopped by measures such as social distancing and wearing masks. We have created a world in which it is possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train is host to a virus which two or three days earlier existed only in the jungles of Borneo. Basic hygiene and simple good sense demand that we implement some means of preventing transmission of the virus to substitute for the geographical factors that are no longer sufficiently effective.
That’s what we’ve done. Or at least, that’s what the sensible people have done – and continue to do. That’s what Boris Johnson proposes to sweep away. He equates “living with the virus” to making ourselves more vulnerable to it. And, presumably, hoping for the best. The virus is unlikely to oblige. The virus won’t oblige. It’s not a thing that viruses do. Viruses don’t negotiate.
If there is an opportunity for a virus to be transmitted then it will be transmitted. Regardless of the actuarial probability of transmission, we have to treat it as inevitable. Lives may depend on doing so. If we remove obstacles to transmission, we necessarily create more opportunities for transmission. And more frequent transmission. Boris Johnson intends to remove (in England) most of the obstacles to transmission – including those that are most effective in preventing transmission. On the face of it, this is stupid. Boris Johnson wants people to take “personal responsibility” for precautions. Leaving aside the fact that he’s referring to people who insist they drive better with a drink in them; people who think only wimps wear helmets when cycling; people who consider it a mere prank to stick a compressed-air hose up the new kid’s arse, or launch a rocket from their own. Leaving aside all of that and the fact that he’s talking to a population largely made up of stupid people and people who are clever but prone to doing stupid things; Boris Johnson is asking people to impose on themselves ‘restrictions’ which he himself has just declared unnecessary. On the face of it, that is stupid.
Making individuals responsible for taking sensible precautions against the transmission of disease causing agents might make sense but for the fact that these are the same people whose irresponsible behaviour has contributed to creating the pandemic. It might make some kind of sense if the sensible precautions were solely for the benefit of the individual and if that individual was the only one impacted by declining to take those sensible precautions. But that’s not the way it is. Failure to take precautions puts others at risk. Not only that, but one person’s failure to take sensible precautions reduces the effectiveness of the precautions taken by more sensible people. It reduces the overall effectiveness of efforts to combat, contain and control the virus. It puts everybody at increased risk.
What Boris Johnson is doing is stupid. But, as noted earlier, this need not imply that he is stupid – as in suffering from some defect or deficiency affecting his ability to reason. He is undoubtedly ignorant. As ignorant as anyone who imagines they already know all they need to know. But not necessarily stupid. What would be stupid is if he behaved in a way that was not informed by his priorities. It would be stupid to act other than in accord with those priorities. So we can safely say that if Boris Johnson is not inherently stupid then this necessarily implies that his main priorities are other than the prevention of widespread disease with its attendant human suffering and untimely death. It just stands to reason that if he is intent on removing precautions against the transmission of disease-causing agents then preventing the spread of disease cannot be among his top priorities. Unless he is stupid in a clinical sense.
Each of us will come to our own conclusions about what Johnson’s priorities really are on the basis of what we know of his present and past behaviour. It actually doesn’t matter. In this instance, what matters is what his priorities aren’t. Evidently, they are not the priorities which we would hope for in a national leader. Or, for that matter, in any human being. The priorities which fail to make Boris Johnson’s list are the priorities of a basically decent person. They are the priorities of someone who is not stupid.
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