A non-blog by Luca Ammendola

Category: Social


From the Film “Dumb and Dumber” by Peter Farrelly

In 1976 Carlo Cipolla, an Italian economic historian, set out to find a sociological definition and theory of human stupidity. The essay, entitled “The basic laws of human stupidity”, was meant as a humorous pamphlet to be given out to family and friends as a Christmas present. I know Christmas is gone already but I thought I’d share with you beloved, albeit few, readers and friends a summary of his work. Let’s call it a late Christmas present! 

Cipolla states in his introduction: “this essay is neither the fruit of cynicism nor an exercise in social defeatism – any more than a microbiology book is. The following pages are, in fact, the result of a constructive effort to investigate, know and therefore possibly neutralise one of the most powerful and dark forces that impede the growth of human well-being and happiness.” Despite it’s amusing tone (or rather because of it) I believe the essay explores some fascinating social dilemmas worth diving into.

On a personal note, and in an attempt to include our current climate of political correctness into the text, please note that the words stupid or stupidity are not meant as an insult or denigratory remark but rather a technical definition of a human reality.

First Law: Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

No matter if you are a cynic or an optimist, you certainly have been shocked many times over by the stupidity of fellow members of the human race (and I’m willing to bet it has happened at least once in the past ten days). Cipolla invites us to consider that:

“However high the quantitative estimate that one makes of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently amazed by the fact that:

a) people whom one has judged in the past to be rational and intelligent then suddenly turn out to be unequivocally and irremediably stupid;

b) day after day, with incessant monotony, one is hindered and hindered in one’s activity by stubbornly stupid individuals, who suddenly and unexpectedly appear in the least opportune places and moments.”

Second Law: The probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

For Cipolla stupidity is not determined by cultural factors but by biogenetic. Some people are born tall, some have red hair, some have green eyes and some are simply born stupid. In other words there are no class, race, gender or creed discriminations in stupidity. He adds: “I firmly believe that stupidity is an indiscriminate prerogative of any and every human group and that this prerogative is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion.”

Furthermore: “In this regard, Nature truly seems to have surpassed itself. It is well known that Nature, quite mysteriously, manages to keep the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena constant. (…) We do not know how Nature achieves this extraordinary result (…) The extraordinary fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature manages to make sure that this frequency is always and everywhere equal to the probability regardless of the size of the group, so much so that one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether they take into account very large groups or very small groups. No other kind of phenomena under observation offers such a singular proof of the power of Nature.”

To prove the point a series of studies were conducted in various Universities around the world. They divided the populations of these university into four broad categories meant to express class and level of education: janitors, employees, students, faculty. The amazing result was that the percentage of stupid people remained the same in the four categories. They repeated the test with Nobel Prize winners, the elite, the “crème de la crème”, and the result was to discover that a comparable percentage of Nobel Prize winners are stupid (I don’t know about you but that doesn’t surprise me at all!).

Technical interval

“At this point it is necessary to clarify the concept of human stupidity”. Cipolla quotes the famous affirmation by Aristotles that “man is a social animal”. No matter if you live in a metropolis or in the woods, sooner or later you’ll have to deal with other human beings. And in doing so we are forced to carry out, or not, some specific action. He adds: “From any action, or non-action, each of us derives a gain or a loss, and at the same time determines a gain or a loss for someone else.”

He illustrates this in this graph: 

From these two factors, one must consider to explore human behaviour, we obtain four groups of people (plus an additional one, ineffectual people, comprised by people who refuse all action). These four groups are: intelligent people, bandits, helpless people and stupid people. These groups are defined as follows:

Intelligent people: people who’s actions bring benefits to both themselves and others.

Bandits: people who’s actions bring benefits to themselves but losses to others.

Helpless people: people who’s actions bring benefits to others but losses to themselves.

Stupid people: people who’s actions bring losses to themselves and to others.

Third Law: A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

“Faced with the third basic law, rational people instinctively react with skepticism and disbelief. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty conceiving and understanding unreasonable behaviour.”

We can all understand the actions of an intelligent person based on the effectiveness of the results. We can also understand the actions of a bandit, who despite a dubious moral ground, acts and behaves following a logical pattern. We can also understand the failures of a helpless person for his or hers failed attempt is still driven by a legitimate logic. But it is difficult for a rational person to come to terms with the illogical, unreasonable, absurd and incoherent actions of a stupid person. “Nobody knows, understands or can explain why that absurd creature does what it does. In fact there is no explanation – or rather – there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid”.

Frequency distribution

Of course no human being behaves in a constant and coherent matter all of the time. We all have bad days, so to speak. An intelligent person might sometimes act in a matter that approaches banditry or helplessness. But because he’s fundamentally an intelligent person “most of his actions will have the characteristic of intelligence”. The same can be said of bandits and helpless people. The only category that breaks the pattern is, of course, that of stupid people. “The reason for this is that the vast majority of stupid people are fundamentally and steadfastly stupid — in other words, they persistently insist on causing harm or loss to other people without any gain for themselves”.

Stupidity and power

All humans, through their actions, have an effect on their community; the intensity of which is determined by the degree of strength, they genetically posses, of the traits inherent to their category. That is how intelligent, helpless, criminal or stupid one is. But also, and more dangerously, it derives from the position of power and authority they occupy in society. If, like discussed earlier, the same percentage of stupid people can be found in university janitors and Nobel prize winners, it is safe to assume that a relative percentage of stupidity will be present amongst heads of states, military leaders, economists, heads of industry and so on and so on. With the additional problematic that their “capacity to harm others is dangerously increased by the position of power they occupy”.

“The question that reasonable people often ask is how and why stupid people manage to reach positions of power and authority.” This is Cipolla’s answer: “Class and caste were the social institutions that allowed a steady stream of stupid people in positions of power in most pre-industrial societies. In the modern industrial world (…) instead of class and caste, there are political parties, bureaucracy and democracy. Within a democratic system, general elections are a highly effective instrument to ensure the stable maintenance of a percentage of stupid people among the powerful. It should be remembered that, under the Second Law, a percentage of people who vote are stupid and elections offer them a magnificent opportunity to harm everyone else, without any gain from their action. They accomplish this by helping to maintain a constant level of fools among the people in power.” Just take a look at most politicians around the world and you’ll notice this is true.

The power of stupidity

According to Cipolla the real power and danger of stupidity resides in it’s irrationality. An intelligent person can fight a bandit for they both fight with the same weapons: logic and rationality. A fight between an intelligent person and a bandit resembles a chess game where the best tactical moves will determine the winner. This is not the case with a stupid person for a stupid person will irremediably behave irrationally. 

“Since the actions of a stupid person do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:

  1. generally one is taken by surprise by the attack;
  2. even when awareness of the attack is acquired, it is not possible to organise a rational defense, because the attack, in itself, lacks any rational structure.”

Fourth Law: Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.

It is no surprise that a helpless person would not recognise the danger of a stupid person. They are helpless after all. What is surprising is that an intelligent person or a bandit would make the same mistake. They should know better. The only hypothesis Cipolla can conceive are that, when faced with stupidity, intelligent people are overwhelmed by a sense of superiority or pity or contempt. Also, an intelligent person generally tends to believe that a stupid person can only hurt himself, but that means confusing stupidity with helplessness. Cipolla adds: “Sometimes it is even tempting to associate oneself with a stupid individual with the aim of using him for your own aims. This manoeuvre can only have disastrous effects because: 

  1. it is based on the complete incomprehension of the essential nature of stupidity 
  2. gives the stupid person extra room to exercise his talents. (…) Due to the erratic nature of stupidity, one cannot foresee all the actions and reactions of the same and in a short time one will be crushed and pulverised by his unpredictable actions. 

Over the centuries, in public and private life, countless people have not taken into account the Fourth Basic Law and this has caused incalculable losses to humanity.”

Fifth Law: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

The fifth law has profound consequences for the social, political, cultural and economic well being of a community. When the stupid “go to work” they create nothing but losses, for themselves and others, and the whole society is impoverished. 

When a society is healthy and growing the damage done by stupid people is kept in check by intelligent ones. But if a society is in decline stupidity becomes more active because intelligent people tend to disappear and bandits occupy more and more places of power. This inevitably strengthens the destructive power of the stupid and brings the country to ruin.

Personal conclusion

There is one aspect of Cipolla’s study that leaves me unsatisfied, and that is the consideration of truth. In order for stupidity to be analysed following his system we must first define the proper starting point of our analysis. If stupidity is to cause harm to others without any gain for oneself we must first define what constitutes harm. Of course in most cases this is self evident but in more subtle and complex situations this is not always the case. Let’s use a current example: Covid vaccines. If the vaccines are a good medical product those refusing to take it are, by Cipolla’s definition, stupid. But if the vaccines are a bad product then those refusing to take it are intelligent. So in order to define stupidity we need to have a clear definition of good and bad. And this is not always easy to do. 

The second aspect that I’d like to point out is that being helpless, bring benefits to others but losses to oneself, could be considered both a weakness or an act of absolute ethical and moral integrity. Didn’t Jesus of Nazareth, after all, sacrifice himself for the good of humanity? Didn’t Gandhi? St Francis? Isn’t the sign of a materialistic mind to consider helplessness a weakness rather than a virtue?

This said, it seems to me, that the proliferation of stupidity in all fields of today’s social life is a clear sign of the decline of the capitalist era. A system that has put profit and material pleasure above everything else created a cultural vacuum of Biblical proportions. Within this empty space the virus of stupidity has reproduced itself to staggering amounts. Hedonistic capitalism, having eliminated the classical ideas of universal ethic, finds itself at it’s logical conclusion. We bartered virtue for pleasure, culture for entertainment, economic justice for social justice, philosophy for memes, the transcendent for the immanent, political ideals for blind ideology, Pink Floyd for Justin Bieber and the results are in folks! May all the number of the stars give light to your fair way!


From the film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” by Pier Paolo Pasolini

The following article doesn’t contain any spoilers. No need to have read the books to follow but if you haven’t I suggest, in a friendly manner, you do so. 

In the Twentieth Century, two English writers Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, set out to write the two most iconic science fiction novels about totalitarianism in modern times: “A brave new world” and “1984”. The two novels painted two types of totalitarian societies diametrically opposed. In “A brave new world” Huxley describes a totalitarian system that is, on the surface, benevolent; he paints the picture of a futile and hedonistic society where people are ruled through pleasure and controlled through technology and science. Inversely “1984” represents a world, divided in three blocks, in a perpetual state of war, where workers are oppressed through violence (in all of it’s forms) and are watched over by the all seeing eye of Big Brother, the incarnation of a bureaucratic repressive and omniscient power. 

The questions I invite you to explore today are: which of these two dystopias was more accurate in describing our present condition of turmoil and dysfunction? And which of these two typologies of totalitarianism is most likely to function in our modern world? 

Both books, at a fundamental level, share a common philosophical enquiry: what is the place of the individual in a world that, through scientific and technological progress, is more and more directed towards mass production and consumption. It is therefore not surprising that both dystopias have many details in common. 

Both writers saw a future shaped by weapons of mass destruction, they agreed about the danger of dividing humanity into categories, determined by biological engineering and psychological conditioning (Huxley) or traditional class combined with a sort of loyalty system (Orwell). Both men imagined sex as a key element to implement totalitarianism (on the subject I advise you to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece “The 120 days of Salò”), though in diametrically opposite ways: state-enforced repression and celibacy in Orwell’s book; deliberate, narcotising promiscuity and hedonism in Huxley’s. Manipulation of language and falsification of history is common in both novels. Both novels imagined a future dominated by America. Both men thought that future governments would spend a lot of effort permanently trying to incite economic consumption.

The main difference between these two visions could be considered as a difference in length of vision. Orwell described 20th century totalitarianism following his experiences fighting Fascism in Spain. He saw totalitarian power for what is was during his lifetime. He gave an accurate and terrifying account of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism. His work was the work of an historian of sort. Huxley on the other side was more interested with the speculative idea of what totalitarianism would look like in the future. He created a perfect dystopia using his knowledge of psychology, science and technology to create the “perfect” totalitarian state. His work was the work of a philosopher. 

Huxley had the genius intuition of understanding that in the future true totalitarianism could not be implemented through force. Ultimate control would be implemented through pleasure, not pain. Because this is harder to escape. If a dictator, wearing a uniform, oppresses the people through violence he creates a situation that is impossible to maintain on the long run. This is because of three main reasons: first of all the oppressed is aware of being oppressed, secondly he knows who’s oppressing him (the problem of the uniform) and finally (because he knows he’s being oppressed and he knows who’s doing it) it is only a matter of time before the oppressed picks up a weapon and fights back. What Huxley realised is that a truly effective dictatorship needs to make the oppressed believe he’s not oppressed at all but a free agent in a free society, secondly the dictator (power) needs to hide in plain sight and drop the uniform for a suit and a tie, which gives him an air or normality and respectability, and finally he needs to do everything in his power to make sure the people he’s oppressing are happy enough not to revolt. The key to this? In Huxley’s mind it was a mixture of sexual hedonism, medical drugs and consumerism. Again: control through pleasure. Because who’s going to rebel against pleasure?

He understood that a truly Machiavellian dictator would not try to eliminate freedom. All he is required to do is to define what freedom looks like. Or to quote Henry Ford: “You can have your car any colour you want… as long as it’s black”. In Huxley’s mind future totalitarianism will make us love our condition of slaves by giving us the impression of being in control when in reality we do exactly what power wants us to. We think we are free but aren’t. Humanity would be  tranquillised by pleasure and drugs and the voluntary distractions of “civilised infantilisation”.

In the man’s own words: “My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power (…) the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

By now you’ve probably gathered that it is the writer’s humble opinion that Aldous Huxley “wins the battle” hands down. I’ve reread “Brave new world” this summer (and its sequel “Return to brave new world”) and was astonished by the accuracy of it’s predictions. From biogenetic as a technological system to breed perfect children that will form the class system of the future (a practice still at it’s dawn but being implemented as I write. On the subject I suggest you read about Dr. Steinberg and the Fertility institute of California), to emotionless, neurotic, promiscuous, impersonal sex promoted as a sign of civilisation, to the wide spread use of legalised antidepressants, anti-anxiety and sedative drugs (even on children), to infantile mass entertainment (I’m looking at you Marvel), to the lullingly, deadeningly, numbly pleasant society promoted left right and center through advertising and television, to pleasure in all of it’s forms as the sacred Graal of capitalism, to sources of distractions as a mean to control the conversation, to science and technology as the new religion it is scary to see how much our society resembles a dystopian fantasy written some 80 years ago. 

He even foresaw Facebook (in the form of gigantic card-indexes, true, but he got the gist). Facebook’s mission statement “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” sounds a lot like the new world’s motto “Community, Identity, Stability” and the complete ban on the sight of breast feeding is common to the novel and to the website (being a symbol of our humanity and our relation to nature). Furthermore: the public nature of relationship status, the idea that everything should be shared, and the idea that “everyone belongs to everyone else” are also common themes of the novel and the company. And above all, the idea, perfectly put by Zuckerberg and perfectly exemplifying Huxley’s main theme, that “privacy is an outdated norm”.

But what of Orwell? Well it’s one of those cases of “when the new system doesn’t work revert to the old”. Repressive violence is still very much an option when benevolent totalitarianism fails (for a recent example of this I invite you to read my previous article BACK TO THE FUTURE? – or try to walk around without a mask). Orwell also foresaw the mass surveillance state of our modern day societies. From CCTV cameras with facial recognition, to the patriot act, to accessible (by the state) cameras on your computer, iphone, car, TV and so on we are indeed constantly watched over by Big Brother. Our world also has an increasing number of strongmen leaders (I’m looking at you Trump) who rewrite history and ignore the truth (I’m looking at you every American president probably since Kennedy), and a growing emphasis on crimes-by-thought. We don’t have an official “Two Minutes of Hate”, as Orwell’s state does, but our social media equivalents come pretty damn close. Finally the idea of permanent low-level war as a new norm looks a lot like the 19 year global “war on terror”. Finally the oppression of workers is very much a modus operandi of our economic systems (if you don’t believe me go talk with an Amazon worker).

It is therefore fair to say, and I say this with a heavy heart, that our modern “shining” democracies look more and more like a hybrid of the two novels. And that is not a pretty picture. 

Of course there is one country that is ahead of us in the race towards the perfect totalitarian state (but worry not we will soon follow) and that is China. If China proved one thing it’s that capitalism works much better under totalitarian rule than democracy (after all what could we expect from an economic system based on the Hobbesian motto “Homo homini lupus”?). China functions on a thin rope-walking act between “Brave new world” and “1984”, between hedonistic Capitalism and oppressive Communism (although China is communist in name only): total control of it’s citizens – to the point of having a social credit system (a carrot and a stick system that asks you to trade your freedom for small narcissistic or materialistic benefits) – but enough freedom and entertainment for people not to want to rebel. In my pessimism I believe that’s where we’re also heading, and the totalitarian turn our Western societies have taken during this year only confirms it. 

I leave the last words to Aldous Huxley for I share his thought: “Though I remain no less sadly certain than in the past that sanity is a rather rare phenomenon, I am convinced that it can be achieved and would like to see more of it”.


From the film “The great dictator” by Charlie Chaplin

Couple of days ago I posted a silly joke on Facebook. Here it is:

“Pfizer announced a vaccine for Covid! It’s 90% effective! Now I have a question: if you were about to jump out of a plane and the instructor told you that your parachute is 90% effective… would you jump?”

Granted it is not a great joke, and not even an original one at that – the original is from Bill Burr (an American comedian) and was based on the percentages of divorce in America – but it was enough for all hell to break loose. Two factions began arguing and fighting over vaccines, new world order and whether Bill Gates is a philanthropist or a criminal. This, to me, says a lot about the elementary level of dichotomy in the debate out there but that’s not the point of this rant. Needless to say I deleted the post given that I have no intention of being the involuntary vehicle for sterile dog fights. 

To me this silly episode also indicates a growing aggravation of the discourse and the inability to find humour within the problems we face. One of the comments I’ve received read something along the lines of “people are dying out there… there’s nothing to joke about”. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe humour to be the first and most effective way to challenge tragedy and hardship. But because I detest formulating my opinions on ideological beliefs I went and did some research about humour in tragic contexts. Here’s what I found (I don’t claim the following to be original research; it’s a sort of mash-up of four papers/studies I’ve read).

Auschwitz, during the second world war: a group of Jewish women are pushed into a room upon arrival at the infamous concentration camp. There a group of soldiers proceeds to shave off their hair. The women are scared, angry and desperately looking at their beautiful long hair falling on the floor. They cry and cry. One of these women, who just finished having her hair shaved, looks at the others and with a smile on her face says: “What are you all crying about? You know how much my hairdresser Misha was asking for a haircut? A hairdo for free? Never in my life!”. The cries stop and some laughter and smiles make their appearance. Cutting hair was a way to dehumanise prisoners. A silly joke was a quick and effective way to refuse such dehumanisation.

When faced with tragedy most are overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and compassion, which is obviously understandable. But sadness and/or seriousness, on the long run, is an ineffective way to cope with tragedy. Sadness leads to depression, depression leads to hopelessness, hopelessness leads to giving up, giving up leads to death. 

Humour and joy on the other side address the same tragic situation through a form of emotional release. Humour forces you to be optimistic about the future, it allows you to stay afloat amidst tragedy and despair. Laughter provides a momentary mental escape. Or, in the words of Conrad Hyers: “Comedy expresses the refusal to give tragedy the final say”.

Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, a prisoner in the concentration camps, and author of the masterpiece “Man’s Search for Meaning” (one of the greatest books of the past century, in my opinion) noted that humor was one of the things that helped people survive in the camps. He tells this story: a prisoner accidentally bumps into a Nazi guard. The guard turns and shouts, “Schwein!” (“pig” in German). The prisoner bows and says, “Cohen. Pleased to meet you.” The joke clearly demonstrates how humor helps reverse who’s in control. Furthermore the oppressor has no defence against humour. If he tries to fight back he only appears more ridiculous. Even in the terrible conditions of the camp, such jokes provided a means of momentarily overcoming extreme adversity.

Finding humor in the face of death was called “gallows humor” by Freud. His classic example was of a man who was about to be shot by a firing squad, and was asked if he wanted a last cigarette. “No thanks,” he said, “I’m trying to quit.” Again, the joke helped the doomed man turn the tables and take emotional control of the situation. 

It it also worth noting that Adolf Hitler had no sense of humour. He feared being laughed at and made any anti-Nazi jokes illegal. Such jokes were considered an act of treason. That’s because he understood that laughter is a defence mechanism, it helps internalise abnormality, it helps solidifying the fighting spirit, to overcome fear. Above all it undermines the power of the dictator for it is the proof of an autonomous self that makes choices outside of social/political authorities and thinks outside their ideological framework. In other words laughter is rebellious and humour sets you free. This is a lesson we should all keep in mind in these strange times of ours in which we are too dangerously toying with dictatorial ideas. 

Of course there is another side of the medal: a smart dictator will allow humour for he knows that it alleviates the frustration, pain and anger of the oppressed. It is rumoured that Stalin’s communist propaganda machine had an office specialised in creating jokes against the regime. A form of perverted control through release. I think this lesson has been learned all too well by people in power today. Real oppression today is not carried out through violence but through benevolence. But this is another topic which is best represented in the two antithetical types of dictatorships presented by Huxley and Orwell in their books “Brave new world” and “1984”.

So to answer my friend who claimed that “people are dying out there… there’s nothing to joke about” I leave you with the words of Rudolf Kalmar, an Austrian journalist who wrote a satyrical play on scraps of paper found around a concentration camp while being imprisoned there:

It is the old song 
that you see here in the play 
But always keep a word in mind 
Everything is hell 
soon it will get well
through this magic word: humour, humour!