Friday, February 20, 2015

Mystery and stupidity

This is an odd topic for a longish post, but as the end of the first draft of A Hangman for Ghosts draws near, as an ambiguous detective hunts down the conclusion of an intricate and ambivalent case, I've had cause to consider the nature of stupidity, as a theme of the novel and in society.

By stupidity, I don't mean simple, individual foolishness, but consistent, willed idiocy in grave matters of public life, from the spectacular boorishness of a New Zealand talk-radio host attacking a respected writer for disloyalty to – of all things – the government; to the exceptional callousness of the Australian Prime Minister, who refuses to prevent the further brutalisation of children held in detention and instead moves to change the subject; to rewriting the charter of a respected university to diminish truth and enquiry, to – most dangerous of all – admitting the reality of global climate change while not recognising the human cause.

In many of these cases, from the cruelty of Mr Abbott to putting humanity and the planet at risk, there is an element of harm, as cruelty and stupidity go hand in hand, even as there is also a violent disrespect for persons and their good sense in the other instances. Of course, folly, bigotry, self-interest, and deceit are nothing new – unsurprising, in fact – but what is worrying is that this stupidity has become naked and shameless, that there is no attempt to reason or persuade, only a bald assertion that should be as embarrassing to the speaker as it is irritating to the audience. Was there not a time when political leaders, rightly or wrongly, would at least attempt to persuade us of their case, on whatever grounds?

How is this related to mystery? Because I think that in a good mystery there is a satisfaction in the discovery that truth can be found, that the detective, whether a private individual or an official, can use reason and observation and imagination to track down the real facts of the matter. In this way, the mystery narrative schools us or engages us in a certain kind of thinking. By the same token, the dark forces the detective might confront, malice and crime, are aligned with stupidity as well as the fog of circumstance. Hence, in A Hangman for Ghosts, in the harsh environment of the Australian penal colony or on the doorstep of the empire, my reluctant investigator, an outsider even in exile, must confront official stupidity as well as the complexity of the crime, because this kind of stupidity is about preserving the order of the system rather than justice.

Which brings me back, from another direction, to my first point. Just as propaganda in a totalitarian society is not about reality but bullying and demeaning the subject, official stupidity is not about the facts or even reasons, but about muddying the waters, creating confusion in the hopes that confusion seeds doubt, not to sway the majority by argument but to target the wavering few by obfuscation. As such, stupidity is the great red herring, the concealer, the distraction from who is guilty.

Eleanor Catton was subjected to a stupid personal attack because she demurred, mildly, to act as a cheerleader for a New Zealand government she thought at odds with her values. The response to her in some media shows that on the contrary, her writer's role as critic, conscience, and doubter is even more vital.

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