Panel III: Stupidity

David Auerbach, Miklós Haraszti, Ivan M. Havel and Drago Jančar discussed issues ranging from stupidity, the advantages and disadvantages of computers, Internet anonymity and the future of journalism. Moderator Thierry Chervel opened the discussion by asking whether the child in Hans-Christian Andersen’s fairy tale who stated that the Emperor has no clothes was stupid or heroic and whether the same question could be asked of dissidents under communism, such as Václav Havel.

Thierry Chervel. Poto: Peter Župník

“My brother would have relished the idea of a panel on stupidity being dedicated to his memory”, noted philosopher Ivan M. Havel, however, Václav Havel had spent all his life writing against hidden stupidity, the most dangerous kind. However, he pointed out that “apart from stupidity and wisdom there is a third, important point of the triangle – the jester’s wit.”

Ivan M. Havel. Photo: Peter Župník

Miklós Haraszti recalled that communism was enforced organized stupidity. “The protest had to start as fight against self-censorship, i.e. stupidity inside oneself, only later expanding into a fight against institutionalized censorship. “If the fight against stupidity is not directed against oneself it will be futile as it will only perpetuate organized stupidity.”

Miklós Haraszti. Photo: Peter Župník

Stupidity is a subject that many find fascinating, said Drago Jančar, judging by the number of people who google the term each day. “One can be wrong without being stupid but one can also be stupid without being wrong”, pointed out David Auerbach, adding that there are two kinds of stupidity: 1) lack of intelligence and 2) failure of intelligence. The first kind is represented by computers, the second by humans using computers. “In the 19th century Jacob Burckhardt thought we were entering a world of oversimplification, and that is even more true now.”

Ivan M. Havel identified three phases of stupidity in recent history: the first, in the 1950s, when many people succumbed to the idea of communism; the second was in the 1970 when the regime no longer demanded faith, only pretence and people said what they were expected to say and what wouldn’t hurt them, rather than what they believed. Now, in the šrd phase, “we are experiencing a crisis of horizon. People got used to looking only 3-4 years ahead, to think only of immediate benefit rather than what will happen to us in 100 years.”. Returning to the subject of stupidity: “It is not computers that are stupid, stupidity is a feature of human beings,” said Ivan M. Havel declaring himself a chronic optimist: “In 20-30 years we will have come to terms with computers, just like nowadays nobody discusses the advantages and disadvantages of book printing.”

Looking back, it is hard to imagine what anti-communist dissent would have been like if Internet had existed.  It may have made communication easier although “the Internet would not have helped as the political system was not ready,” believes Drago Jančar. According to Miklós Haraszti, Twitter is good for expressing what you are against, not what you are for.

As for the role social media have played in the recent wave of revolutions, David Auerbach thinks it is vastly exaggerated – the revolutions would have happened without the Internet, it just made it easier to keep the rest of the world informed. However, Twitter and Facebook helped people organize relief in New York in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 

David Auerbach. Photo: Peter Župník

Miklós Haraszti and Ivan M. Havel believe real discussion is possible only face-to-face, not under conditions of anonymity fostered by the Internet. Miklós Haraszti believes it will take some time for “an elite club of responsible journalism” to develop on the Internet, just like in the print media. However, it will coexist “alongside an ocean of endless rubbish.” Drago Jančar finds the aggression and stupidity of the Internet frightening and warns against overstating its importance: “It is not the greatest invention in history. The biggest invention is the alphabet.”

Drago Jančar. Photo: Peter Župník