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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who became a leading member of an anti-Nazi conspiracy, wrote the following while he was in prison awaiting execution:
Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.
Part of this rise in stupidity is reflected in the use of weird, special words, ways of speaking…the ‘catchwords’ to which Bonhoeffer referred. In recent decades in America, this pattern started out as clearly silly, but not necessarily actually evil. For instance, years ago, a blogger noted:
I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.
One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?
The requirement for students to use terminology like this, IMO, has nothing to do with teaching the enjoyment of literature and little to do with teaching the analysis of literature. Rather, the lesson being taught is one of submission to a specified way of speaking.
Today we see much more sinister forcing of phenomena and events into verbal categories…’Colonialism’ and ‘Whiteness’ being two examples. The Hamas sympathizers currently active on America’s campuses frequently exhibit such verbal behavior, with the term ‘Occupier,’ for instance, being applied to eight-year-old hostages.
The French writer Andre Maurois suggested that people who are Intelligent, but not at all Creative, tend to latch on to intellectual systems created by others and to hold to them fiercely. Intelligent but not at all Creative applies to a lot of American academics, journalists, and government officials, at least using a certain limited definition of ‘Intelligent.’
An earlier version of this post appeared at Chicago Boyz in 2018. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts seem especially relevant in the West today.Published in