The Importance of Saying “This is Stupid”

The Importance of Saying “This is Stupid”

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

Aviation safety research has shown that some pilot errors that caused crashes were known to the co-pilot, but in deference to the pilot nothing was said to correct the error. It is important in every arena of life to follow the chain of command and follow the direction of those in authority. It is also a principle of leadership that when a leader is making a clearly dangerous or unethical decision, that someone speak up and point out a potentially disastrous result. A co-pilot must, in essence, have the liberty in those rare situations, to say “this is stupid”.

I know that we teach our children and discipline ourselves to avoid personal insults in a debate over facts and opinions. The weakest of arguments is the personal attack known in the study of logic and discourse as the “ad hominem fallacy”. When we run out of good reasons to disagree, we are tempted to discount the other person and accuse them of stupidity. Rather like former President Obama did when accusing officers of  “acting stupidly” after they conducted a very justifiable questioning of the President’s friend who appeared to be trying to forcibly enter a house that, unknown to the officers, he owned but had misplaced his keys.

We’ve become more sensitive about such labels because they are hurtful and not helpful in a discussion. To say something is retarded is a cruel reference to a word that was useful at one time in describing a person whose mental development has slowed, but because of that perjorative use we now use a more clinically appropriate term of developmentally disabled. Even the word “disabled” has come to be avoided so that we talk about being differently abled in order to be careful to preserve the dignity of persons who fall on a spectrum of talents and abilities outside of the bell curve of “normal”. This is a healthy advance in our understanding of the value of our fellow humans.

We still use idiot, imbecile, and moron as insults even though those words once were clinical categories of mental ability. Such name calling never resolved a dispute. We speak of ignorance in insulting terms although it simply means that someone is without knowledge. When it comes to astrophysics, for example, most of us are ignorant. Ignorance is curable. But when someone acts in a way that is clearly against common sense and is beyond a mere mistake or error, the word stupid may still have some value as an accurate observation of that behavior. We have all made stupid decisions when, by all standards, we knew or should have known to do differently.

When police officers are pulled from schools to make some political statement that is stupid and deserves to be labeled as such. When officials declare that public safety is better served if police stop contacting those committing traffic violations, that is stupid. When laws are passed that prohibit police from pursuing bad guys, that is stupid. When repeat offenders are allowed to continue their criminal activities in the hopes that they will mend their ways if we just excuse or justify or explain their behavior, that is stupid. When police budgets are cut with the idea that it can solve historically embedded social problems, that is stupid. Feel free to add to the list.

We don’t have to say that the pilot in an emergency situation is stupid, but when a realistic observation by another informed member of the cockpit that the pilot’s decision is stupid, it’s better to say so than to avoid hurt feelings and let the airplane crash and burn.

Our elected and appointed leaders are not stupid. I’m not saying that at all. But illustrations of stupid decisions by legislators, prosecutors, and others with positions of influence are not hard to find, and the results are reflected in rising crime and disorder. Many, to their credit, are admitting as much. Cities are scrambling to hire back police officers and restoring funding, schools are reinstating School Resource Officers, bail policies are changing in some places, voters are attracted to candidates pledging more resources for public safety, and extreme statutory restrictions on law enforcement are being amended to align with reality.

Just as ignorance can be cured by knowledge, stupid is cured through experience, if we survive the crash. There is hope.