Gov. Brian Kemp (R) dumbfounded and dismayed many recently with his decision to allow nonessential businesses to reopen in Georgia when even Trump said this move is too soon. It followed Kemp’s astonishing announcement earlier this month that he had not known asymptomatic people could transmit the highly contagious coronavirus, although every governor in the country had previously been briefed on this. His behavior left many wondering if Kemp really could be that clueless or whether something else is going on.
As a clinical psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, I am often faced with untangling questions like these: Are people genuinely unable to grasp a concept, or are they hiding knowledge from themselves for some reason unknown even to them, or are they aware they know better but are simply pretending not to know? Bluntly, are they just plain stupid (genuinely of low intelligence) or more insidiously pseudostupid—feigning a lack of understanding that can serve various motives and purposes? As a concerned Georgia resident, Kemp’s handling of this pandemic has resurfaced this question for me front and center.
Kemp ran as a gun toting conservative and may truly believe no invisible enemy is going to get the better of him or his constituents. This would be an example of a kind of everyday denial—"I can smoke all I want, cancer’s never going to get me.” That’s just plain stupid. Or he may understand fully the risks of his decision but realize his political survival depends on the success of his gamble. His preposterous disclaimer in early April followed now by his decision to throw caution to the wind then would exemplify pseudostupidity.
The elevation of pseudostupidity and disavowal of its consequences is a Trump characteristic his followers celebrate as a strength, not a failing, in part because its aim is to upend and provoke. It leads to a celebration of ignorance and an eschewing of strategic choices that transcend “winging it.” Finding solutions to complex problems is inherently demanding. A natural tendency is to shirk the work and blame others for poor results. Easier to plead ignorance, deride knowledge, scapegoat, blame, make excuses, deflect responsibility, tear things down, and wallow in victimhood rather than accept that the buck really does stop here.
In this pandemic we are witnessing the result of failing work. Literally it is lethal. At its root is a regressive group psychology overriding better instincts and capacities. The refusal to think hard and strategize well in the face of a major challenge combined with a celebration of pseudostupidity are dangerously intertwined. It feels like revenge of the C student (some think this is grade inflation) and it would be funny were it not so deadly serious.
What to do about it? There may be no cure for those invested in this way of thinking since it involves deliberate but disavowed states of mind that are impenetrable. If cure is elusive, next best is a set of remedies. Effective communications to counter the appeal of pseudostupidity matter. Questioning an “official view” and demonstrating its consequences are crucial. “Help me understand how you could have remained ignorant about asymptomatic community spread when the rest of the world knew it and you had CDC experts literally within a stone’s throw of your office? Same for your decision now to reopen businesses without following even minimal guidelines or consulting with the mayor of your largest city? Undoubtedly, you are concerned about your citizens and your health care workers. What gives?” Though such messaging is unlikely to get through to Kemp, it is important for it to reach the public widely.
Unfortunately, demonstrating the consequences in this pandemic is all too easy and they will continue to accrue through mounting death tolls and economic suffering. These consequences are harder to disavow though attempts to rationalize and blame them away already abound.
The longer-term remedy is to address the underlying conditions that make pseudostupidity appealing. Insecurity, fear, and the wish for easy solutions are inevitable when large swaths of the population have had the rug pulled out from under them and when effective adaptation strategies remain elusive. Dignified, meaningful work for those displaced along with health safety regulations to protect those who must return immediately to the workplace are in humanity’s enlightened self-interest and grasp. Indeed, in the Möbius strip that is life—with a logic that loops back on itself—the disaffected may feel the elite has been pseudostupid to neglect their plight, thus pulling for pseudostupid provocateur tactics to become their weapon of choice.
Whether we are ready to tackle these larger—and hard—societal challenges that will weaken the pull of pseudostupidity remains to be seen. Otherwise we may continue to see a doubling-down. As Forrest Gump might put it, “Pseudostupid is as pseudostupid does.”
Wendy Jacobson, M.D. is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Training & Supervising Analyst at Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute.