Stupidity, thoughtlessness and political leaders


By Gurnam Singh | Opinion |

Guru Tegh Bahadur, the 9th Guru of the Sikhs was publicly beheaded on 11th Nov 1675 on the orders of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in Delhi. His ‘crime’ was that he sought to defend the rights of Kashmiri Khatri Brahmins to practice their faith and to resist the policies forcing them to Islam. The very same Janeu or sacred thread that the 1st Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Nanak ji rejected 200 years earlier is now being defended by the the 9th Guru; what is going on?

Of course, the point of Guru Tegh Bahadur’s opposition to Aurangzebs policy was not about defending a Hindu ritualistic practice, but to defend the absolute right to freedom of thought. To commemorate this great sacrifice, Sikhs across the world will be holding dialogues and religious programmes. But given he laid down his life for humanity, not Sikhi as such, perhaps it should be the whole world, the UN and certainly the Sanatan Dharam that should be leading the commemoration!

Fast forward 270 years from Mogul India to Imperial Germany and the personality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian and anti-Nazi dissident. Amongst his thinking was an astute analysis of the role of ‘stupidity’ or what the moral philosopher and Holocaust scholar Hannah Arendt terms, ‘thoughtlessness’.

Tyrants and violent individuals are usually characterised as having psychopathiec personalities. But, Bonhoeffer suggested that often it was ‘stupidity’ rather than some general hatred that was at the root of genocidal violence. He warned of the dangers of associating intellectualism with ‘non-stupidity’. You can be a very qualified and well read person and still be pretty stupid! I know, as an academic and journalist, I occasionally come across such individuals. I can think of a number of political leaders of so called democratic nations that also meet this criteria.

Like Arendt, Bonhoeffer conceptualised stupidly not as a personality disorder but a psycho-social phenomena. Stupidity for Bonhoeffer is where the individual, despite his or her intellectual abilities, demonstrates a stubborn refusal to accept an alternative viewpoint. It is therefore understood as a product of context, group behaviour, ideology and socialisation, and how this culminates to impact on one’s thought process.

A key aspect of stupidity as a a manifestation prejudice thought is what cultural theorists and psychologists term ‘othering’ . This is a phenomenon where certain individuals or groups are defined and labeled in terms of some general differentiating characteristics. Most importantly othering is not only about constructing identity based on such things as race, ethnicity, religion, nation etc, but presenting those general characteristics as deviant, dangerous or dysfunctional. In this regard, ‘othering’ can be seen as a labelling mechanism for the justification of discrimination, dehumanisation and ultimately genocide.

Most stupidity is relatively harmless, but when ‘stupid people’, that is to say those individuals who have little or no regard for morality and or/the potential dangerous consequences of their (lack of)thought process, have power, then it can be extremely harmful. This can range from a lone wolf terrorist who, stupidly accepts hateful rhetoric on the internet explodes a suicide bomb to kill dozens of innocent bystanders, thorough to the kinds of genocidal violence we saw associated with the Nazi’s that led to the deaths of millions.

When we reflect on such large scale horrific crimes in human history we try to comfort ourselves with a view that this could not happen today, that there were a unique set of circumstances and that culprits were simply pure evil personified. But tragically, the the ideas of Bonhoeffer and other Holocaust historians, such as Zygmunt Bauman have highlighted, the ‘politics of stupidity’ isn’t something that has been consigned to history; it is a recurring feature of history!

So I challenge you to reflect on the and ask yourself, have you ever become drawn towards the allure of stupidity or thoughtlessness? And if this to too threatening to contemplate consider those around you, in your work place, your community. Are there individuals, irrespective of their educational achievements, that you feel had displayed traits associated with stupidity?

Shifting onto the bigger stage, think of present day political leaders, are there any that you feel fit the description of stupid? Can you identify any such individuals? And if the answer is yes, then the next question is, what do you thing we should? What prevents people from taking a stand?

As we contemplate the stupidity of hate, the stupidity of environmental destruction, and the madness of human on human violence, one is left with the question, can humanity ever rid itself of this stupidity and live up to its self proclaimed description of ‘Homo sapiens’, in Latin means “wise man”?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer bravely confront the stupidity of the Nazi’s, and for this he was imprisoned and eventually put to death. Within the Sikh tradition we have many similar example of courage, but perhaps the most powerful is that of the sacrifice of Guru Tegh Bahadur ji, who chose to confront the stupidity of the genocidal policies of the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb. In defending the principal of freedom of belief, conscience and speech he paid the ultimate price of forfeiting his life. The question we need to consider is, what price are we prepared to pay to confront stupidity?

Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.


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  1. Stupidity simply means lack of intelligence or common sense.
    It would be contradictory then, to consider someone stupid, when he clearly demonstrates remarkable intellectual skill and mindset.
    Hitler was in no way stupid.
    Was the whole German nation in a stupid mode, in 1940?
    Are the world leaders presently, who failed miserably at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow just recently, really stupid?
    Irrationality , Greed, Personal Glory, self- Aggrandisation, Corruption, Evil genius, and many more malevolent personalities and thought disorders manifest themselves, in the horrors the world has witnessed so far, and will continue to do so. The mind is still mysterious!
    This is a very interesting illumination on our Gurus, of years ago.

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