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The Smart-Articulate and Dumb-Stubborn Spirals

A Personal Perspective: One possible explanation for today's "decency divide".

Key points

  • Though we think of words as for communication, they are actually fundamental to how we think.
  • The more one stretches to express onself in words, the more one can explore with curiosity and subtlety.
  • The less one develops a capacity to communicate, the more simplistic and stubborn one becomes.
  • Some subcultures fail to cultivate curiosity and subtlety through the promotion of pat blind-faith answers.

When I’ve taught, I often had a student who sat toward the front of the class and was eager to speak though not very articulate. Students behind them would smirk, but I think that was a mistake, not merely heartless but a misinterpretation of the student. I saw the fumblers as on the lip of what I call the wordwise spiral. They had ideas that stretched their vocabulary leaving them fumbling for words they would eventually acquire, which would then enable them to think still more complex thoughts.

I was that kid. I grew up in a highly articulate family. I felt punked daily by my more articulate brothers, but it stretched me in ways I’m grateful for today. I couldn’t spit it out, and then I could. As my vocabulary expanded so did my thoughts. My ideas could be wrong. People disagree with them plenty. But I’m rolling my way up the wordwise spiral. Words aren’t just how we communicate, they’re also how we think. A subtler vocabulary makes for a subtler mind and a subtler mind reaches for subtler language.

It’s not just words but the whole writing process. These videos, for example. I gestate a thought, I capture it when I’m as eager as that student in the front row waving his hand madly to be called on. I put out my idea. I get some critique. I digest the critique, inspiring more thoughts. It’s confronting my own thoughts too and noticing the inconsistencies.

At the dawn of writing, there was a sudden uptick in the complexity of writers’ thoughts. Greek philosophy was spurred by people being exposed to their inconsistencies in print, especially in Plato’s dialogues. Dialog is great for exposing inconsistencies, since one voice can play devil’s advocate, kicking the tires on another voice’s inconsistencies. As a writer, I spend my days in dialogue debate with myself, correcting my errors, editing and re-editing, combing out the tangles.

I think that’s good for the soul. It’s humbling. All that fumbling to say what I mean compels me to identify as learning, not learned. I don’t balk at my errors. By now I assume I can fix them. When someone points out an inconsistency in my thinking, it’s not the first time I’ve seen one. It doesn’t startle me into defensiveness. Indeed, by now, I find inconsistencies in my own thinking the most interesting bits. They pay off in new ideas, which are the currency for a writer.

So that’s the wordwise spiral. Stretch your words to say what you think and soon you’ll think more complexly. Little by little you grow your thoughts and your articulateness. You gradually get smarticulate, smarter and more articulate.

There’s an opposite spiral. Inarticulateness and being a jerk feed on each other. The less articulate we are, the simpler our thoughts, the more defensive we get, all the way down to being a total jerk who jerks people around with the simplest, convenient, self-reassuring, hypocritical platitudes and deflections.

Jerks aren’t curious. They assume reality should be as simple as they want it to be. They say “that’s irrelevant” or “you think too much” when really it would hurt their heart to consider what you’re saying. Jerks often play proud victims of oppression. What they find oppressive is having to reconsider anything. They identify as learned know-it-alls when they’re just learned out, burned out on learning.

Jerks short-circuit their thinking with master excuses. If you challenge them, they call you whatever loaded names make you wrong. It’s simple. I’m mindful; you’re mean. I’m MAGA you’re woke.

It’s surprising that there aren’t more terms that combine stupid with jerk, since those tendencies feed on each other. The only term I’ve found is dumbass. The dumbass cycle is the opposite of the wordwise cycle. Being a jerk means never having to think harder thoughts; never thinking harder thoughts one becomes a jerk.

Sympathy for the devil, jerk, or dumbass is always a challenge. I don’t assume that people have full control over whether they fall down the dumbass spiral. Some are just education-deprived in a culture that cultivates proud blind faith and encourages dumbassery. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

Innocent evil is real. People do terrible things for whatever understandable reason. I have empathy and compassion for dumbasses. I can put myself in their shoes and remember when they were mine, for example, punked and getting defensive when growing up.

But I don’t have much sympathy and charity for them. We can’t make reality as simple as they’d like, and there’s a limit to how much we can bend to pretend it is that simple. Some folks make life a whole lot harder than it has to be by pretending it’s simpler than it can be. Meanwhile, as the world gets more complex, we’ve got to try to keep up.

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