Image credit: Pauline Baynes
*This is a new entry of my hypertext book Me, Looking for Meaning.
SPOILER ALERT: This page contains spoilers about book series The Chronicles of Narnia.
In the last book of the famous fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia, the reader finds out how the end of Narnia was inadvertently triggered by actions of two unlikely friends.
C.S. Lewis starts his seventh volume, titled The Last Battle, by introducing to us a donkey named Puzzle and an ape named Shift. By manipulating the naive Puzzle into wearing a lion's skin they have found together, Shift intends to persuade everybody in Narnia and beyond that Aslan - the lionlike creator of the book's world - has come back and asked Shift to rule Narnia on his behalf. Considering that the series was written to introduce children to the values of true Christianity (according to C.S. Lewis), it is not difficult to see that the author meant Shift to represent corruption of the church, the institution that can pretend to connect people to God while scaring them into submission for the benefit of the clergy.
The names chosen by C.S. Lewis speak for themselves. The verb “puzzle" means "cause someone to feel confused because they cannot understand or make sense of something"; the donkey is, indeed, quite confused until the very end of the story, when he realizes what he has done and repents. "Shifty", on the other hand, is a word to describe somebody as "appearing deceitful or evasive", which is exactly how the ape shows himself in this story (he is not spared by the wrath of Aslan when this feline deity finally interferes).
By tying the fall of Narnia to the choices made by Shift and Puzzle, C.S. Lewis's story simultaneously reveals and feeds into a popular perception: problems come from actions of those who are stupid and/or mean.
If you wonder whether you yourself share this view, this is easy to test. Think of a person whose words/actions have recently angered, saddened, frustrated, or irritated you. It can be your family member, a politician, or somebody you work with. Maybe it is a person who cut you off on the highway earlier today, or a rude sales assistant who could not (or did not want?) to help you resolve a problem last week. You might imagine a bureaucrat who refused to stamp a document you really needed. Or somebody on social media who wrote a rude comment to your post. Whoever comes to mind, make sure that your emotions are real and strong. Now see if any of the following two phrases sums up your feelings about the person in question: "What a jerk!"..."What an idiot!" The second expression is pretty self-explanatory: idiot = stupid. As for "jerk", according to Merriam-Webster, it is "an annoyingly stupid or foolish person" and "an unlikable person, especially one who is cruel, rude, or small-minded". So "jerk" is actually "mean and stupid" conveniently rolled into one.
Notice also that when you are deep in such emotional states as anger, frustration, sadness, or fear, you may not be willing to go beyond the mean/stupid explanation of the other person’s actions. Making this effort seems counterproductive (“He/she is just a horrible person! There is nothing else to it.") or even insulting (“Why would I waste my time trying to understand this idiot?!”). When we decide that somebody is just mean or stupid, we close our mind to an opportunity to look for any other reasons.
I recall texting a friend sometime after a presidential election (won't tell you which one); in response to my regular “What’s up?”, he shared how frustrated he was that half of the country did not want, in his words, "to turn their brains on." The tendency to blame problems on mean and stupid people can be expressed through many different words. It can disguise itself in sophisticated language of comparisons and metaphors. But don't be fooled. Whenever we refer to somebody's moral failings or intellectual deficiencies, it's the same old "mean and stupid" idea dressed up in a different suit. If you pay close attention to what other people say when they discuss their personal challenges and big social problems, I bet you will notice this idea popping up with some regularity.
To be fair, "mean" and "stupid" are not the only labels we use to describe people whose actions we feel strongly about. Other possibilities include "lazy", "sick", "greedy", "biased", "insensitive", "selfish", "just doesn't care", or "just a bad person." What all these words and phrases have in common is that they prevent us from seeing individuals behind them. Despite this variety, "mean" and "stupid" are the most popular labels, in my opinion. The division of people into "good vs. evil" and "clever vs. ignorant" are the most basic tropes in stories we tell ourselves and others about the world.
It is important to consider several assumptions hiding behind these labels:
1) Mean people hurt others on purpose and often enjoy the process.
2) Stupid people have inferior intellectual abilities, so they do not understand how they hurt others.
3) Stupid and (especially) mean people are responsible for their failings; therefore, it is acceptable to blame them for their actions.
4) "I [the person making the judgment] can make mistakes, but I am not essentially stupid or bad."
The last assumption is a manifestation of the cognitive bias known as fundamental attribution error. As it is summed up here, "we judge others on their personality or fundamental character, but we judge ourselves on a situation. [Example:] Sally is late to class; she's lazy. [I'm] late to class; it was a bad morning."
Most people prefer to think about themselves as good and smart, which means that they don't hurt others and they make good judgments most of the time. The fact that you sometimes recognize a mistake you made does not mean that you go through life convinced that you make mistakes on every step. This allows you not to see yourself as fundamentally stupid. By the same token, most people do not like it when somebody calls them "bad person." So, in your own mind you are not essentially mean and stupid (otherwise you would be advised to get a therapist and do some serious work on yourself). Coupled with the belief that only mean and stupid people hurt others, you would most probably argue that you do not hurt others most of the time.
Life is more complicated than any labels and binaries. People do not hurt each other because they are mean and stupid (or selfish, or lazy, or greedy). C.S. Lewis most probably did not think about himself as any of these things, yet his well-meaning stories contributed to ideologies of colonialism and racism. In his famous series, dark-skinned people residing to the South of Narnia are presented as inferior to light-skinned and fair-haired northerners, and to the British visitors. The newcomers from England are summoned to Narnia multiple times to save it and sometimes even to rule over it. Last but not least, it is never explained why everybody in the magical world (including animals) speaks English.
When we strongly believe that only mean and stupid individuals (which we are not) can hurt others, we very conveniently ignore how we can actually cause pain and discomfort to those around us. It's not uncommon for people to be consumed with their own emotional pain to the point that they miss other people's unmet needs. It's also not uncommon for people to suppress their empathy and knowingly hurt others for a variety of complex reasons (e.g., soldiers who are told to fight the enemy). Even though some of us may be more attuned to feelings and needs of others, or find it more difficult to suppress empathy in themselves, I believe that all of us sometimes lack understanding and sensitivity.
Labeling people whose actions we dislike is unfair and unproductive, and it also means ignoring complexities of free will. We blame mean people for their insensitive actions, and we suspect that even stupid people could get smarter if they were more open to learning. But can we really say that individuals can make a conscious choice to understand things the way they do, or that everybody can fully comprehend the impact of their actions? Can we give some people credit for being more empathic than others? It's highly possible that characteristics we so simplistically call "smart", "stupid", "mean" and "kind" are shaped by circumstances outside of people's control.
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I often use this blog to share new or updated entries of my hypertext projects. If you see several versions of the same entry published over time, the latest version is the most updated one.