It is so common to hear people going on and on and on about how somebody famous and/or powerful is a complete idiot for doing something. They don’t understand how someone can be so totally bone-headed.
If you find yourself ever thinking like this (and I think this happens to all of us once in a while), stop and consider this question:
If that guy is such an idiot, and you can clearly see his faults, how come you are poor and unknown and that person is rich and famous?
In other words, the people who are in charge did not get there by being idiots, so if they are doing something that seems idiotic to you, which is more likely: that they are being idiots, or that you don’t have all the data, you are not seeing all the angles that they can see, and hence you are making mistaken assumptions based on an incomplete understanding of the situation?
Take, for example, the case of Kapil Sibal asking Google, Facebook, and co. to actively screen and filter all content before it is uploaded on their sites. Yes, on the face of it, it does seem rather an idiotic thing to say. However, my dear reader, I am willing to bet that Kapil Sibal is much smarter than you and me combined. He is a lawyer, he was the Solicitor-General of India, he had cleared the IAS exam (which is ridiculously difficult), and he has beaten Kyuki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi in an election. So the best you and I can say is that we don’t really understand why Kapil Sibal is making such statements. There could be any number of reasons that you’ll never know. Maybe this is a move designed to win over rural voters. Maybe this is just a public stunt to soften up Google, Facebook for a backroom deal later on at terms very favorable to the Congress party. Maybe this is a way to make sure that Google, Facebook are very co-operative and pliable when police (or other government bodies) approach them with requests for private data. Maybe he is the unlucky one who got picked by Sonia to make ridiculous statements to divert media attention away from the FDI issue. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Specifically, if you don’t understand Kapil Sibal’s motivations, you can’t really call him stupid.
Update 1: Do I agree with Kapil Sibal? Of course not. Pre-screen is neither possible, nor desirable. But I’m willing to bet that Kapil Sibal already knew both those things. My point is, saying we should oppose this is not the same as saying Kapil Sibal is an idiot
Update 2: Some people are interpreting my argument as “If you are not rich or famous, you shouldn’t air your opinion.” I’m definitely not saying that. All I am saying is that if your opinion is predicated on the fact that someone rich/famous is an idiot, then you really haven’t understood the situation, and should probably spend some more time thinking about the situation. Feel free to express your opinion, and disagree. Feel free to even call that person an idiot. But if you actually think that person is an idiot, you are deluded.
Update 3: This article is not really about Kapil Sibal. The issue is broader. There are lots of people who keep saying/thinking that CEOs/VPs of large companies are idiots, or top actors/actresses are idiots, and talentless. SibalGate was a lucky coincidence which gave me a very current example to hang my argument on, but my argument is more general.
For example, consider all those who think Rakhi Sawant is a talentless idiot. Really?! Her job is to be in the news, be controversial, and keep getting paid to appear on TV and in movies. And she is doing her job far better than most of us are doing our own jobs. How then is she a talentless idiot? She is very smart, and does have lots of talent (in PR and marketing) – just not the talent you were looking for (acting). (By the way, I stole this argument from Scott Adams.)
What I’m talking about can more generally be stated as: “If everyone else is such an idiot, how come you’re not rich?”. This is a also known as the “Fallacy of Chesterton’s Fence.”.
This argument was long ago presented by G.K. Chesterton as follows:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.
So next time you think the world is being run by idiots, stop and think a little more…