On being stupid

2010-11-11 00:00

I HAD hardly recovered from Julius Malema’s latest missive — apparently it is the responsibility of the youth to party — when an escapist walk at a mall jerked my mind back to worrying about our country and the world’s youth.

I wondered whether this Malema character had heard of young people such as Muziwakhe Anton Lembede (the ANC Youth League’s founding president) who at the time of his untimely death, aged 32, had contributed structure to the concept of African Nationalism. Lembede, a teacher and a lawyer already, died while pursuing a doctorate.

Surely Malema would have heard of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, who also died before his 35th birthday but had, like Lembede before him, confounded the aphorism that youth is wasted on the young.

Then I took my walk and I began to understand why some young people end up thinking like Malema. We have a pop and youth culture that creates an impression that there are only two options: crass materialistic debauchery or a bohemian existence.

Fashion label Diesel is running a campaign titled “Be Stupid”. Apparently it is now a fashionable thing to “Be Stupid”. Being over 35 (which does not necessarily mean being a style philistine), I entered the store to ask what they meant by “Be Stupid”. The assistants giggled nonchalantly saying it was “just a campaign”.

It may be “just a campaign” from Diesel’s point of view. But even they ought to know how impressionable the market they serve can be. To make being stupid an element of being socially acceptable scares me.

It reminds me of the satirical 2006 movie Idiocracy. The film is about two ordinary men who are taken to a top-secret military hibernation experiment that goes wrong. When the two wake up 500 years later they discover that the world has degenerated into a false Utopia where advertising, commercialism and cultural anti-intellectualism are rampant, and the perpetuation of defective genes has resulted in a uniformly stupid human society devoid of individual responsibility or consequences.

I saw life imitate art as I looked at the poster through the shop window. There is already a creeping anti-intellectualism that reached a crescendo in Polokwane in 2007 when former president Thabo Mbeki fell, with one of his sins being that he was “an intellectual”.

It is nothing new. Pink Floyd achieved great acclaim in the seventies when they sang: “we don’t need no education; we don’t need no thought control”.

Can such projects be defended as being “just a campaign” or youngsters simply having fun? I accept that Diesel is no one’s parent and should therefore not be held responsible for the bad choices of their consumers. But if corporations don’t care about what effect they leave after they have sold a pair of jeans then they must be made to.

If cigarette companies can been stopped from distributing free cigarettes to youths at parties because of the dangers of smoking, we must be even more protective of their minds.

In the same way that modern societies have rejected campaigns that force young girls to starve themselves to death just so they may look “pretty”, Diesel should not be allowed to ask our nation’s youth to “Be Stupid”.

It cannot be right to make a generation believe there is anything cool about being an idiot. I am not asking Diesel to run a campaign asking for youngsters to read books or save whales. But to ask them to “Be Stupid” is no different to the campaign of the eighties of “liberation now; education later”.

I don’t know of any society that chose to be a dystopia that went on to achieve anything of note. If anything, such societies are always a slip away from barbarity.

Societies that have achieved things of value are those that have placed intellectual progress and order over being “cool”.

The Afrikaners pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, tightened their belts and sank their heads into books (and yes, they brutally oppressed the majority in the process) to become a middle or upper-middle-class people in less than two decades, with military capability that made South Africa a bad neighbour.

I accept that I am entering territory fraught with all sorts of political interpretations, but a New York Times article published in January this year said that whereas Jews make up 0,2% of the world population, they make up 54% of the world chess champions, 27% of the Nobel physics laureate­s and 31% of the medicine laureates.

The same article continues to say that Jews make up two percent of the United States population, but 21% of the Ivy League student bodies, 26% of Academy Award-winning directors, 38% of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists, and 51% of the Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction.

The article said Steven L. Pease, author of The Golden Age of Jewish Achievement, attributed this record of achievement to the Jewish faith, which encourages a belief in progress and personal accountability, and which is learning-based, not rite-based.

If by “stupid” Diesel meant daring, and not slaves to convention or fearing failure, then they should say so. These attributes in any case are not “stupid”.

As it stands, Diesel’s message has no place in a society that values progress. It may be hip but it is anarchist and anti-progress.

We already have Malema; we can do without Diesel polluting the minds of our young.

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