Am I an idiot?

This was the question I heard a student ask me 10 minutes before his supplementary exam, a week or two ago. Supplementary exam’s, for those not familiar with them, are a second-chance offered to students who end the semester with a final mark of 45%-49%. Seeing as a pass is 50%, the thinking is that they may simply have had an off-day during the initial examination, and deserve a second chance.

Seeing as he would have to repeat the entire semester course if he failed this supplementary exam, and seeing as he knew me as an honest person, and also as one not afraid of speaking the truth about idiocy, it was peculiar that he wanted to hear my answer to that particular time, where you’d presume his state of mind to be somewhat fragile. But the question was asked.

So, I set about answering, and was instantly struck with the atypical nature of my response, which went along the lines of telling him that I couldn’t possibly tell whether he was an idiot or not, based on the evidence available to me. Even though my course does teach and test basic reasoning skills, I said, it’s entirely possible that he simply wasn’t paying attention in class, or had a bad day at the exam, or may be a good thinker without being a good writer (a significant proportion of the final mark is derived from written assignments). I concluded by saying that I couldn’t know, and that he’d be in a better position to answer the question.

He nodded thoughtfully at times, and listened without interruption to an exposition on idiocy that lasted a good 5 minutes. Then he said: “Where did that come from?”, looking at me, clearly confused. The confusion transferred to me, given his question that started the encounter. I said, well, you asked me if you were an idiot.

“No – I asked ‘are you married yet?'”

And I had to laugh at the misheard question, and also answer in the affirmative, for two reasons: one, that the truthful answer was ‘yes’, and two, that I realised that the very tone and content of my response to the question that I thought he was answering served to answer his actual question also. One of the things that has happened in the course of meeting and then marrying S is that the answer that would have come naturally – typically a rather blunt and unsympathetic one – had been replaced by a different style of answer – one that no longer sees my interactions with random others as a competition by default, where it’s paramount to get your blows in first, just in case they don’t get the point that you’re higher up the food chain than you are. The arrogance is quite sad, in retrospect – and if there are any out there who I’ve offended needlessly in the past, I’m sorry. No apologies to any actual idiots, of course – you need to hear the truth, just in case you’re able to do something about it.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.