Thursday, 5 September 2019

What is ... performative stupidity?

When Jeremy Corbyn and Labour abstained on the motion to dissolve parliament and hold a general election, Boris Johnson responded by claiming that he can only speculate about the reason.

But in reality he's been told repeatedly that Labour are keen to fight an election, they're just waiting for the legislation to prevent No Deal By Default to be passed into law before they agree to hold a general election.

He knows that they're delaying the election until after they've disarmed the trap that he tried to set them, but he's pretending not to understand for effect.

When Johnson pretends to be incapable of understanding the simple strategy he's had explained to him multiple times already, he's engaging in performative stupidity.

Performative stupidity is an increasingly popular trend in political discourse, and it's utterly infuriating.

Instead of taking the traditional approach of saying something along the lines of "this policy is stupid because [reasons]", it takes the form of "I'm too stupid to understand this policy, so it must be stupid".

Johnson isn't the first to try it by any stretch, in fact until recently performative stupidity has been far more common on the Remain Ultra side of the Brexit divide.

Pretty much everyone had seen some dolt pretending to be too stupid to understand Labour's Brexit position, especially BBC Politics pundits who seem to take some kind of perverse pleasure in pretending to be too stupid to understand, and having it explained to them again, and again, and again. The same pretence of faux stupidity week after week.

The interview goes something like this:
BBC Presenter: But Labour's Brexit policy is sooo confusing, how can anyone possibly understand it?
Labour Spokesperson: It's actually quite simple. We want to stop the Tory No Deal Brexit disaster from wrecking the UK economy. Then we want to seek renegotiation with the EU to develop a means of leaving the EU that doesn't involve devastating the entire UK economy. Then we'll put the renegotiated fail safe deal to a final say referendum with Remain on the ballot.

Presenter: Gosh, that's a lot of mouth words you just used! How is it even possible for ordinary plebs to hold so many different thoughts in their heads at one time? Why can't you just keep it easy to understand by picking one side and telling the other half of the country to piss off?

Spokesperson: That would be the simple thing to do, but it would be the wrong thing to do. Someone needs to try to heal this terrible Brexit divide David Cameron and the Tories created, and it's impossible to do that by completely alienating one side and ignoring their concerns to pander exclusively to the other side.

Presenter: Well now that's even more mouth words isn't it? So now I'm going to pretend to not understand what you're saying some more in the hope that a load of mindless idiots watching this show will imitate my behaviour and go around pretending that they're also too stupid to understand the basic concept of compromise too. Thank you and good night.
This kind of performative stupidity debating tactic is an infuriating debasement of political discourse, because it takes such bad faith to pretend to be incapable of understanding something that's already been explained to you over and again.

Just think about it.

Other bad faith debating tactics like lying, smearing, straw-manning and whataboutery result in the debasement of political discourse because they lower the bar, and pollute the discourse with dishonesty and personal abuse.

Performative stupidity is more insidious because it involves deliberately pretending to be stupid in a pathetic ruse aimed at convincing the gullible that a reasonably simple and oft explained issue is just too complicated for them to even bother to think about.

This kind of tactic doesn't just debase the discourse because it lowers the bar, it's actively intended to make "I'm too stupid to understand this" an acceptable alternative to reason-based critique.

And the more popular performative stupidity tactics become, the more political pressure will be exerted on our political leaders to develop glib, facile, over-simplistic solutions to complex problems, because anything detailed, or nuanced, or strategically sophisticated will be shouted down by the "I'm too stupid to understand this" performative stupidity brigade.

So the next time you see a politician or political commentator claiming to not understand something (that it's their actual bloody job to understand and critique), ask yourself if they've really honestly failed to grasp the idea, or whether they're seeking to actively erode the standard of political debate by just pretending not to understand.

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Anonymous said...

Yes, that HAS been infuriating. Agree or not, the Labour position WAS simple enough to understand.

I think difficulty arose when different MPs tried putting their own spin on it of course but that's a given. Never listen to the MPs, listen to the leader, what he says WILL be the actual policy. Leaders will let you THINK what you want but ultimately try to keep their hands clean. I saw MUCH of this during the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, Alistair Darling was utterly shameful in his behaviour. But ultimately his words were always deniable, he wasn't a party leader never mind PM...

Anonymous said...

No. Labour clearly called for a general election multiple times over the last t three years when no deal was on the table, they don't want one now because their polling worse then Trump in this country. Thomas propagandising for damage control as per.

Anonymous said...

Cue "performative stupidity" being used in place of any real debate on these pages.

Gulliver Foyle said...

@ Anon 06/09/19 - 07:15.

No. The imminent possibility of the UK leaving the EU without a deal changes only the date of a GE which Labour still want, they just want it at a time that can impose maximum damage/humiliation on De Pfeffel (and why not). We're only talking about delaying it a few weeks for obvious political reasons, that De Pfeffel has manufactured a situation where he is no longer in control of the timing of a GE is entirely his own stupid fault.

And Labour were much further behind in the run-up to the 2017 GE but still managed to deny T May her majority.

But congratulations on demonstrating your own performative stupidity......

Unknown said...

I dont think this comment is performance stupidity so much as good old fashioned stupidity. The other parties dont want an election either.

Iain said...

Also known as being deliberately obtuse.

Anonymous said...

This is a REALLY good post. Presents an idea that I think many people have felt in the deterioration of public discourse but not been able to put their finger on. The BBC in particular is infuriating in their refusal to take an idea as received and honestly communicate it to their audience.

Unknown said...

This sort of thing?

Paul Byrne said...

Performative stupidity! that's it in a nutshell
The BBC /MSM off to a T
I can see I will need to borrow this a lot in the future because a lot of people I know
tend to parrot the BBC piss poor journalism.
I despair sometimes because they are well educated but seem to lack any ability for critical thinking.
"It could never happen here," they said but it is and they still try to blame Corbyn for it.
If anyone is to blame for this shambles its the so-called moderates and centrists.
Keep up the good work mate.

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