Vicious or Stupid?
Aunt Pike’s Graduation Advice


The air spoke of cannabis smoke.  A goat in cap and gown strolled through the Pomp and Circumstance crowd. An M-80 exploded overhead.  But, I was focused on my Cousin Ben.  Was he vicious or stupid?

“Let’s define our terms,” said my Aunt Pike  — a Literature professor and word junkie.  “Vicious is savage, dangerous, malicious,” she said. “Stupidity, on the other hand, is dimwitted, inane, stupefied by the commonplace.  Vicious and stupid:  Both are polarizing judgments and both acts strike things senseless. Both carry the weight of human failure.”

So what was Cousin Ben’s failure?  Was he vicious or stupid?  Or both? How much of what he did was malice and how much was just plain dumb?  Was he out to get me?  Or out to lunch?  I was searching for a diagnosis.  And my family was there, at Aldrich Park, to help.

“Vicious or stupid?   The words carry a degree of drama,” Aunt Pike said.  “Your Cousin Ben, though flawed, is certainly not the embodiment of viciousness or stupidity.”

Agreed.  No Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Alfred E. Neuman or Goofy was he.  His ethical misstep was a tiny turd in the giant punch bowl of life.  But it was in MY punch bowl. 

I think Emma Goldman, the great American activist-anarchist would have something to say right now:  “The most violent element in society is ignorance.”  If that’s true, then vicious is stupid.   Stupid, however is rarely vicious.

“Let’s play the vicious or stupid game,” Aunt Pike said.  “Joseph Stalin — vicious or stupid?”

My family responded with a chorus of “vicious” and then a pause — “Stupid,” said Betty Lou.

All my family joined in.

J. Edgar Hoover — vicious or stupid?
Dick Nixon — vicious or stupid?
Edward Teller — vicious or stupid?
Colonel Klink — vicious or stupid?”

“Exactly,” said Aunt Pike.  “When the Mercedes cuts in front of you; when a friend screws you; when Charles Manson winks; when the neighbor turns you in; are they fully aware of what they’re doing, just plain ignorant, or a bit of both?   Are you vicious for thinking they’re stupid?  Are you stupid for thing they’re vicious?  It all boils down to a motive or an accident.  Did you trip over your own feet or did someone trip you up?

“It's a no-brainer that you want to avoid someone who’s vicious,” Aunt Pike said. “It’s trickier to see the danger in stupidity.  I know you’re not much on Christianity, Nathan, but look at it this way.  Jesus, who, whether he was the Son of God or just a guy with a good point to make, when tortured on the cross said, ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do.’

“Right there in the Bible.  People are stupid.  Jesus said it, for Christ’s sake. He might have said that those Roman soldiers were vicious.  And, of course, from the perspective of pain, they were. But Jesus called them stupid — ignorant.  They knew not what they did.  So speaking for the New Testament and the perspective of grace,” Aunt Pike said, “your Cousin Ben was stupid.

“It might be a delusion to see someone’s viciousness as ignorance.  But that may be the best response.  From my experience, it’s hard to underestimate the value of suspending your disbelief.  Sometimes that suspension is a good thing — a kind of poetic faith… magic.  Frankly, I’m amazed at how well things go, considering how much viciousness and stupidity there is in the world.  It could be the suspension of disbelief that saves us.  Vicious is stupid.”

It was 1972.  A lot of viciousness and stupidity lay ahead.  The goat tugged at my robe.  I pulled away.  Cannabis laced the air.  Another M-80 exploded overhead.   The university had just given me a degree, but I got my education from Aunt Pike.

— Nathan Callahan

First Broadcast January 25, 2013

© / Nathan Callahan / all rights reserved


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