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How not to be an idiot

My answer is as short as it’s simple. We all know what an idiot is. After all, we have to deal with several, possibly every day. I’d wager none of us has any trouble identifying one, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 06, 2008 22:41 IST

What’s an idiot? That might strike you as a strange question, but it’s one that’s just been pronounced upon by our Supreme Court in terms that I find hard to comprehend. So let’s start at the beginning. Do we know what an idiot is, or does it need defining?

My answer is as short as it’s simple. We all know what an idiot is. After all, we have to deal with several, possibly every day. I’d wager none of us has any trouble identifying one.

However, step back and consider how we do this. We do it on the basis of a hunch or as a reaction to certain types of statements and behaviour. Rank stupidity is obviously idiocy. But so too can be ignorance, as well as a range of unthinking, insensitive or opportunistic acts. They all qualify to be idiotic.

But is being thought of an idiot a permanent and unalterable judgement? Clearly not, because being an idiot is not necessarily an all-defining quality. You can be idiotic in some things or at some time, but not in all things nor at all times. Indeed, it’s even possible that what at first seems idiotic may turn out to be sage and wise. One man’s idiot could be another’s genius! So idiocy, you could argue, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Now none of this is to be contradictory or sophistical. It’s simply an acknowledgement of reality. Indeed it’s equally true of the question ‘what’s a genius’? Or ‘what’s a saint’? Or, even, ‘what’s a sinner’? In each case, we instinctively know the answer and we happily use the term without any hesitation of getting it wrong. But, of course, geniuses can be fools at some things while saints can be guilty of serious lapses and sinners can, occasionally, be the embodiment of goodness. Yet, that doesn’t stop us from understanding the terms nor using them effectively.

The problem arises when you try and define them. For instance, we know what an idiot is, but when you try to answer the question ‘what’s an idiot?’ you’ll find it’s not the easiest thing to do. And if you turn to the dictionary you won’t find much comfort there. “A stupid person, an utter fool” is the answer it offers alongside “a person of extremely low intelligence”. But what is stupidity, or foolishness or even intelligence, you might ask? Look further and you’ll discover it’s bewilderingly circular. Stupidity, the dictionary defines as unintelligent or foolish, foolishness is said to be unwise or stupid and intelligence is an attribute of being clever i.e. the opposite of stupid!

All the dictionary does is use synonyms to explain the terms. The assumption is if you know one you’ll understand the other. But does a synonym define what an idiot is or simply describe the term? Like idiots, we all know fools and we’ve all met stupid people but can we define foolishness or stupidity?

My answer is we can’t, at least not linguistically. More importantly, we don’t need to. There’s a lot we understand but cannot define precisely. No doubt philosophers will struggle to do so, but for the rest of us, such labour is both unnecessary and misleading.

Well, blow me down if the Supreme Court hasn’t ventured into this territory. They’ve defined the word idiot and I wonder what you make of their incredible definition. Here it is:

“An idiot is one who is of non-sane memory from his birth, by a perpetual infirmity, without lucid intervals; and those are said to be idiots who cannot count (to) 20, or tell the days of the week or who do not know their fathers or mothers or the like.”

Mystifying as this definition may be for most of us, it’s quite frankly excellent news for those you and I call idiots. By this definition, they definitely are not. Indeed, by this definition it’s very hard for any one to be an idiot. In fact, I would go one step further, by this definition the Supreme Court has made the world idiot-free!

Now, isn’t that something to cheer about?