There are idiots on both sides

      9 Comments on There are idiots on both sides

I was thinking about politics the other day, and realized something. Everyone has heard, probably several times, the following sentence or an equivalent.

“There are idiots on both sides”

Some of you, including me, probably said it at some point too. It seems obvious. No matter what kind of political views you hold, there’s probably some moron somewhere who agrees with you. But there’s one thing I noticed. I, personally, have never heard anything along the lines of “There are geniuses on both sides”. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that there are smart people on both sides. I think that’s important.

Of course, I might be wrong. That’s why I asked a couple people before writing this. Out of the seven random people in my life that I asked, none remembered ever hearing such a thing. That’s deeply unscientific, and purely anecdotal, but considering that all seven of them had heard the other saying dozens of times, I think there must be something here.

The question is, why is it like that?

After thinking about it for a little while, I have an hypothesis. In everyday life, people take sides. As Scott Adams said in a recent interview, if people were truly rational, we wouldn’t be split almost evenly on nearly every political issue. The more you try to learn about anything political, the more you will end up believing you are right in your opinion about it, no matter what the evidence actually says, most of the time. This means that cognitive dissonance literally prevents you from changing your mind in most cases.

So what happens when somebody on your side says some crazy stuff that is obviously untrue? If you support Trump, then a Trump fan says we should deport all mexicans and blacks and muslims, how do you react? If you support Hillary, then a Hillary fan calls for someone to assassinate Donald Trump ASAP, how do you react? Well, it’s a given that there are idiots on the other side, since they are on the wrong side and are wrong about most topics. So now when a person that is literally a living embodiment of everything you said was a strawman of your side shows up, you accept that there are idiots on both sides.

Now considering that you, personally, are a smart person. You’re right about mostly everything, and you have solutions for most of the world’s problem. You’re pretty close to what people would call a genius. That’s at least one on your side. Everyone you talk to on the other side ends up being a stubborn person who won’t listen to the truth you are holding, and are almost dogmatist about it, they certainly can’t be a genius. They won’t even listen to reason! Most people have literally never met a person they would see as smart on the other side, since their definition of smart usually includes not being on the wrong side.

Also, most people think they are at least a little bit smart. At least average I’d say. I have never met someone who thought they had lower than average intelligence. Now smart usually requires you to have above average intelligence. If someone is smarter than you, and they think you are wrong about pretty much everything political, odds are that they are right. Since you can’t possibly be wrong, again, cognitive dissonance whispers to you that this person is, in fact, not smarter than you. I think that’s why, even on a subconscious level, people don’t want to say that there are geniuses or smart people on both sides of most issues. That would imply that they have reasonable odds of being wrong.

And nobody wants to be wrong.

Am I right?

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  • Kingfisher12

    I have a bit more charitable hypothesis. I think the general attitude is that most people are smart, and that being wrong about something doesn’t automatically make a person an idiot.

    So when people say ‘there are idiots on both sides’, it implies that these idiots are the minority – on both sides. The remainder are not idiots, even if they are wrong.

    But as for the statement ‘there are geniuses on both sides’, I think this is a nonsense statement, because being a genius is considered the opposite of being wrong.

    I’ll happily say that there likely are geniuses on both sides, but this is because I have a slightly different attitude of what makes a genius.

    Genius is a special type of crazy, and the only difference between genius and regular crazy is being right. Geniuses often find themselves at odds with each other over paradoxes. They are both clearly right, and they are both clearly wrong – that’s the paradox. It takes a special kind of rare genius to resolve the paradox.

    The thing is, when one of those geniuses comes along, s/he erases the conflict entirely, by introducing a new perspective that resolves the paradox.

    The reason why it seems that you can’t have geniuses on both sides, is because if either side actually had a genius, there wouldn’t be two sides for very long.

    • Kaito Kid

      How about the more moderated “There are smart people on both sides”? Have you ever heard anyone say that in a conversation? If yes, does it come up as often as the idiot version, and if no, why do you think it’s like that?

      • Kingfisher12

        I have heard that in conversation, but not casual conversation. You’ll hear it a lot in think-tank settings and professional circles, and in internal policy discussions. I don’t ever hear it in a public discussion, or in a casual conversation.

        • We should also remember that there can be more than two sides:-) The human tendency to dichotomise [is that a word?] is very strong. As to geniuses, smart people and idiots: of course any debate worth having has a full range of people on both [all] sides, sometimes saying smart things and other times saying damn silly things. One other quick point: KF suggests geniuses are special crazy with added rightness. I’m not at all sure about that: one of the smartest and most intellectual people in British politics in the last 50 years was Enoch Powell, but he had a total bee in his bonnet about racial purity, made the infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech: and was DEAD WRONG. It takes a special kind of smart guy to be so spectacularly wrong. In a different field, the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle was brilliant – but looking back at his career with historical 20/20 hindsight, he was dead wrong on pretty much every scientific position he took.

          • Kingfisher12

            There is the human tendency to dichotomise (if it isn’t a word it should be), which is probably why you don’t hear the ‘smart people on both sides’ very often, since our brains have a hard time reconciling the fact that a person can be smart, and also wrong.

            I stand by my statement that genius is a special kind of crazy, but I’m personally starting to hate the word ‘right’ when describing abstract philosophical qualities. I need to stop using it.

            Crazy people think differently than ‘sane’ people. It’s like a cognitive mutation. Most of the time the mutation is harmful, and any concepts it generates whither and die. But sometimes the mutation is advantageous, and it spawns a new branch of ideas, concepts, and art-forms that flourish and thrive.

            What I’m saying is that the difference between ‘genius’ and ‘mad’ is a kind of cognitive Darwinism, applied to ‘rightness’ of ideas instead of ‘fitness’ of biological traits.

            • Good points, KF, I’m largely with you re: special crazy geniuses, I guess I was just (as usual) saying: it’s more complex than that. I’m happy with genius = kind of crazy in most cases, and agree with your “all progress is made by the unreasonable man” (to quote GB Shaw). I’m suggesting that adding “geniuses are also right” is sometimes true, sometimes spectacularly false (the examples I gave, Enoch Powell and Fred Hoyle). i.e. it’s not a defining characteristic of genius.

              There’s also the point “right about what”? even if you think (say) I’m unfair on Fred Hoyle in his astrophysics home turf, and he was more right than I credit him for, there’s still the fact that he declared the famous fossil Archeopteryx fake based on some pretty crap evidence, i.e. on other people’s turf where he had no special expertise, he offered a pretty arrogant opinion – which was dead wrong. Scott has made this very point, that we’re all stupid at some things, or at some times. He had a nice story in one of the earlier Dilbert novels of when he felt stupid – his pager didn’t work, he tried several things himself, then took it to the technician, who flipped the battery wrong and handed the working pager straight back, saying nothing:-)

              • Kingfisher12

                Everything is more complex than we like to make it out to be. Complex things are often incomprehensible to our puny minds.

                I think the aberrant nature of genius makes them actually more likely to be wrong than right, especially in matters they are not experts in. A common stereotype of a ‘genius’ is one of a frenzied mind; brilliant in certain insights, but completely inept at other mundane tasks.

                The mutation perspective helps with this. Andre ‘the Giant’ Roussimoff had an aberration that made him a literal giant, and also shortened his life. A cognitive mutation might make a person a mental giant in one particular area, but cause serious disability in others.