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I'm an Idiot, You Moron

The Greeks, at least, knew the value of an entertaining opinion

December 21, 2003|Stephen Bayley

Dude, who stole my brain? It's a question that needs answering.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a deadening conformity in matters of opinion. In politics, the ritual responses of right and left are wearily predictable. Academic discourse is numbed by dual constraints of peer-group review in truck with the stifling nostrums of correctitude.

In business, governance principles of excruciating probity along with diligence requirements of baffling exactitude gag corporate chieftains, reducing our 21st century hunter-gatherers to bland ciphers treading water in very deep pools of mediocrity. At home with friends, we mumble lazy platitudes.

Research at the University of Chicago has shown that extroverted lab rats live longer than politically correct ones. Yet we are under daunting pressure to conform, not to be too exciting.

But intellectual life should be a battlefield: a combat zone where hostilities are legitimized and turned into conversation. Take the dinner party. Too often it is a costive, strangulated, squirm-making conversational graveyard, a danse macabre where personalities die on the job and wit withers before it takes root.

People should be discussing the relationship of sodomy to earthquakes, or the belief that evolution occurred because God was disappointed with monkeys.

More than a century ago, the great French novelist Gustave Flaubert was so incensed by the dreary platitudes of his dinner companions that he satirized them in his "Dictionnaire des Idees Recues," an ironic guide to the lazy conversational tropes of his day. If Flaubert were alive today, he would have written a thicker volume.

Then as now, rare is the occasion when wit flourishes or booming ideas resonate around the table. Locked in a delicate and passionless quadrille of misguided politesse, guests trace a blameless path of non-confrontation while the angel of silence hovers above, leaving the dining room mute as the quenelle travels from plate to mouth.

Why is this?

It is simply because people do not have enough interesting opinions. We have a bias against them. The dictionary defines an opinion as a "judgment resting on grounds insufficient for complete demonstration." If we are honest, that means an exciting and interesting idea, because there can be few things more stultifying than "complete demonstration." As the French know, "le secret d'ennuyer est de dire tout" ("the knack of being boring is to say everything").

Much better to take a conceptual risk and struggle to give birth to an idea. What we need are more daring demonstrations; ideas need to be launched long before their design has been finalized or their journey fully mapped. But the suggestion is always that to be "opinionated" is an unattractive quality. What a condemnation of our slack ways! Surely, to be opinionated is to be in possession of the juice that lubricates the moves of civilization.

Not everyone agrees. Discussing the value of opinion with a desiccated philosopher on the BBC, I discovered the density of the opposition. The philosopher believed that sensory data alone were adequate for the formation of ideas. I argued that something else was required to make the world interesting and gave the following example: My sensory data tell me, I said on air, that you are sitting there in a beige sweater. My opinion, however, is that I wish you were not. And that you have terrible taste.

And I think I won the argument.

It is exactly the same distinction that binary pioneer Claude Shannon made between data and information. Data is measurement, or what Donald Rumsfeld would call "known knowns." But information is altogether superior because it is data with the added value of meaning and direction. Data records facts, information changes ideas.

The Greeks, of course, had a word for it. That word was "idiot." Only lately has it come to suggest intellectual impairment; originally an idiot was a person of strong and independent views who was unafraid to air them.

In this sense, idiocy is immensely important. "Let's invite a lot of idiots to dinner," far from being a recipe for disaster, is the specification of an entertaining evening.

The risk is surely worthwhile. Risk and error are handmaidens of authentic idiocy. As Henry Ford knew, making a mistake is just an opportunity to start again more intelligently.

Ludwig Wittgenstein said if people never did silly things, nothing worthwhile would ever happen.

The consequence of discouraging well-meaning idiocy was perfectly understood by humorist O. Henry, who once said, thinking of the dinner from hell, "I drink to make other people amusing."

As, in desperate search of entertainment, you raise yet another glass, just meditate whether you might not be (even) better off with some chewy opinions than another large glass of spicy Napa Pinot Noir.

Stephen Bayley is author of "A Dictionary of Idiocy" (Gibson Square Books, London, 2003).

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