The Dialectic of Stupid

By Rebecca Hewer (Editor)

I love words: beautiful soft words which roll off the tongue and bloom as they meet the air; jagged hard words which contort the face and are spat from pursed lips; short words with immediate impact; long words which seep quietly into the atmosphere and resonate at an illustrious frequency. Yesterday I learned a new word: ‘labile’ (easily altered). What a supple word, yielding to tongue and lips. Almost sexy. Perhaps as satisfying is re-discovering a neglected word, a word you knew but have long failed to consume, relish. In weeks past I found myself embracing a word I likely, as an adolescent, spent with reckless power; a word I have long since put away with other childish things. That word is ‘stupid’. Stupid is an amazing word, and I would urge you to introduce it into your vocabulary and watch as it works to simplify your life view.

In any event, in honour of this rekindled romance, I thought I would devote my blog column inches to telling you about some things I think are stupid. Like, really, really stupid. Here I use stupid colloquially – hoping to draw on narratives of ‘not good’, ‘bad’ and ‘undesirable’, rather than connotations of the intellectually deficient.  Disclaimer: I am conscious that ‘stupid’ is an inherently subjective measure and that my analysis is therefore inherently interpretivist. This is, in essence, my ‘Dialectic of Stupid’.

Undercover Boss USA is a stupid television programme. Folks, if you haven’t seen it, take it from me – it’s stupid. I was recently brought low by a heavy cold, and temporarily confined to my sofa as a result. Whilst lying around listlessly, piteously, I mistakenly watched an entire episode (the remote was missing). In this beguiling chapter of the social saga, a shiny, orange-skinned multi-millionaire transformed himself into an honest to God regular person. Donning a salt and pepper goatee, a greasy ponytail and a single painful ear-piercing - he morphed into a commoner before my eyes. Like Clark Kent to Superman, only depressing and offensive. I was mystified; enthralled; too lazy to get up and turn the telly off. Newly clad, the millionaire took on various low-paid, precarious jobs in various locations of his vast international hotel chain: receptionist, janitor, handywoman (guys, guys - it’s a gender neutral term which just so happens to use a gendered signifier, don’t get huffy), and so on. Here he discovered hardworking types with difficult lives: a woman without adequate healthcare coverage, whose child suffered with a life-threatening medical condition; a young man with aspirations for the future who could not afford University; a former gang member trying to turn his life around. Single tears slipped from the multi-millionaire’s eyes, finding rest in his stupid, stupid goatee. The show concluded with the multi-millionaire dispensing ten thousand dollars here, twenty thousand dollars there. “Here”, Mr Orange-Shiny-Pants said (back in his ridiculous pastel suit, sans greasy ponytail), “have some money so your kid won’t die before her ninth birthday”. “Here, young man, is a trust fund for an education, work hard!” “Here former gang member, some start-up capital for your own business – I’m your first shareholder.” And the woman whose child has been saved, and the man whose future suddenly looks as if it might be furnished with the rich abundance of learning, and the guy who gets to forge his own path, are so thankful. Of course they are – their frightening precarity, poverty, and dependence on a system fundamentally rigged against them, have all been temporarily alleviated. So let’s celebrate the formerly bearded multi-millionaire with an empty hole in his ear and tears streaming down his face! Let’s lift him onto our shoulders and sing his praises – what compassion, what unabated love! Shall we? Shall we? NO. THAT WOULD BE STUPID. The multi-millionaire is stupid and the show which idolizes him is stupid. Celebrating him is stupid and being moved by his stupid self-serving compassion is stupid.

Undercover Boss USA is stupid because it fundamentally fails to recognise that global capitalism, and the neoliberal ideology which underpins it, is fundamentally premised on a hierarchy which benefits some, and disadvantages others. Let me put it bluntly: the woman with no healthcare, and the man with no education, are so afflicted because there is another man who is so rich that he can hand out tens of thousands of dollars like each grand is a tic tac and he owns a tic tac factory. Extraordinary affluence and grinding poverty are co-symptomatic, related – both resulting from the chronic and systematic maldistribution of material wealth and opportunity[1]. The Undercover Boss is a beneficiary of a system which oppresses poor people across the globe. His tears of compassion are not, therefore, to be celebrated. They are not tears shed for a broken system: they are tears shed for himself because he feels virtuous and good, they are tears of self-indulgence.

In this scenario one strand of this relationality, this interconnectedness, is easily identified – the artist formerly known as Goatee owns a company which fails to pay a decent wage or provide adequate healthcare coverage (we’re in America, don’t forget). If Monsieur Multi-Millionaire were prepared to become a plain-old-run-of-the-mill millionaire, if he were prepared to trim his profit margin, then his employees might be able to live lives free of desperation – lives with healthcare and education and all those other wild luxuries poor people are always whining on about (am I right?!). But it’s actually more ingrained than that, more systemic, more societal – this is not a story of one greedy man and the workers he neglects, this is a story of a world designed for one social cohort at the expense of another. Señor Bossy-Ear-Hole is able to keep his profit margins high because he lives in a liberal capitalist society which keeps statutory minimum wages low – these are the same low wages which keep poor people poor. Captain Cries-a-Lot is able to protect the stability of his company by relying on precarious contracts of employment - if his profit margin dips, he fires some staff. He’s back to dousing himself in orange paint, but his former labourers are screwed. But more than that, the neoliberal ideology which provides the justificatory narrative for these business practices, is the very same narrative which prevents America from establishing a nationalised health system – a narrative which venerates freedom of choice, marketization and privatization; and which condemns state intervention and communitarian responsibility[2]. It is a narrative which claims that the freedom of consumerism is worth the deaths of those who cannot afford it. Similarly, the capitalist contradiction of celebrating meritocracy whilst only making education available to those lucky enough to be born to parents who can afford it (which disadvantages worker numero dos), means that Professor Weepy will get to send the mealy-mouthed fruit of his loin to an expensive University. And said fruit will probably excel, because their whole life has been leading up to that very moment in the sun, and because they aren’t struggling with curable illnesses or working low-paid precarious night jobs or eating cereal for dinner. And even if they are idiots of the highest order and do poorly, they will still be chosen for high-flying jobs over their far brighter counterparts – because they are white, and they are American, and because they have abundant social and cultural capital up the wazoo (the accent, the heritage, the nepotism, the lived experiences of opera houses and silver service dining)[3]. See George Bush Junior for details.

And then – in the future – the children of Undercover Boss can go and cry at some different poor people. And we can make a television show about them and we can celebrate them and say “They deserve their money, they worked really hard - they went to Harvard, they are wealth creators. But it is so compassionate that they give their dollars away like tic-tacs”. Let’s not do that – you know why? Because that would be stupid.  

But there is nothing radical about that - who doesn’t enjoy berating unsuspecting millionaires? I certainly do. Gosh, I had so much fun writing those last handful of paragraphs that I think I might need to lie down. Luckily, we aren’t millionaires, right? We aren’t the beneficiaries of a twisted web of systemic oppression – we like equality! We think poor people and gay people and BAME people and women people deserve as much wealth and happiness as the next middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual white guy! We’re allies. We didn’t consent to this capitalist patriarchal racist society, we did not build it, and we do not own jet planes or have Lamborghinis parked in our driveways. We cannot possibly be understood to be complicit. Right?

NOPE. Of course it’s our fault. It’s my fault and it’s your fault. Here’s some blame for you, and for you, and for you. Here’s some blame for everyone. You know why? Because we are society – we are its foundations and its walls and its windows and its doors, we are the wire and the glue and the cement that holds it together. Society is not a dilapidated building which continues to exist when there is nobody in it. Systems of oppression don’t float around like clouds zapping people with disadvantage lightning bolts. Nor is society a handful of evil men in smoky rooms, plotting and conniving and laughing at the disenfranchised and the dispossessed. Society is not (just) the undercover boss and his allies, forming cartels and oppressing us from above. Society is inscribed in us, it constitutes us and we reproduce it through our everyday lives, micro-actions and words – through the institutions we staff, the symbolic capital (language, images) we trade in, the way we dress, the things we like, the way we form and sustain relationships, and so on and so on. Society exists in our selfhood and relationships to others. It’s hard to admit, but occasionally we reproduce societal norms at the expense of ourselves. I do it. I diet and wear make-up, I perennially worry that I’m too large for life (too loud, too fat, too abrasive), I make myself responsible for things I could not possibly hope to control. And this internalisation is externalised and projected outward – in my behaviour, in my choices. I am simultaneously the subject and the object of my own oppression, because I am a person forged in the fires of a world created with someone else in mind. But, here’s an even bitterer (and more important) pill to swallow – if you are a man you benefit from the oppression of women, if you are a white person you benefit from the oppression of the BAME community, if you are a middle class person you benefit from the oppression of the working classes. It’s not a zero sum game, but neither is the system innocent. You may not have built the system, you may not like it – but you probably benefit from it, and you likely play a role in sustaining it. Like the undercover millionaire, your wealth and luck contributes to the disadvantage of another. The world is designed for one social cohort – structurally and ideologically – and, in the same breath, designed against (or on top of) another[4].

Here’s the good news – whilst we are to blame and whilst many do benefit, most of us cannot meaningfully be described as culpable or strategically committed to the role that we play. That’s kind of the point – you don’t need to enslave someone or beat them or in any way actively subjugate them to be involved in the system which oppresses them. And of course it is not really possible to opt out of society. You could make an attempt, but I dare say it would be a tumultuous road to travel – a road without money, or services, or relationships. As French sociologist Bourdieu once said, “resistance can be alienating, submission can be liberating.”[5]  And in any event, you were shaped by the world that bore you so I suspect you’re probably screwed, one way or another. So, what to do? Three things: accept that you play a role in the system; if you have some lying around, be prepared to give up your privilege; and don’t demand a cookie for any small act of reparation you perform. Look at it this way, if we truly want gender parity in our governing bodies we need to do one of two things: nearly double the number of constituencies available to sit in or have fewer male parliamentarians. If you are a man with political ambitions, the latter means that your likelihood of success is lessened. Not eradicated – just lessened. And that’s entirely fair – unless you think that political ability is distributed disproportionately to people born with penises. Do you think that? I mean it’s cool if you do, but that’s essentially the definition of sexism. Also, I think it might be stupid to assume that what constitutes political acuity grows from the ground like a daffodil in spring – we define that stuff, and act upon it accordingly. Assuming that you are male and not a sexist, are you ready to have your life chances lessened or constrained? Essentially, you cannot achieve gender equality without disturbing the lives of men – no amount of leaning forward can change that. We are interconnected, related – domination and oppression are two sides of the same coin.

And more than that, still: systems aren’t just sustained by things which can be weighed and measured and counted – they depend on contingent narratives and ideologies, on the stories we tell ourselves to make our world intelligible[6]. Stories which are naturalised through constant reiteration and reproduction. So maybe, on reading my latter point, this familiar refrain came to mind:

“Women should only achieve political office if they display the merit – any other path would be unfair to men and insulting to women.”

Seems reasonable. But why aren’t we saying this:

“The fact that men are more likely to achieve political office than their women counterparts - despite the fact that political acumen is probably equally distributed across genders and/or socially constructed - means that meritocracy has broken down and men are being elected just because they are men. How insulting for the men! Poor men that people only want them for their men-ness. Also, poor old women: chronically under-represented and unlikely to reach positions of political seniority.”

And instead of saying:

“Well, women are less likely to be successful and senior because they choose to have children.”

Perhaps we should be saying:

“Wow, isn’t it surprising that a significant proportion of our population could push a baby out of their genitals and yet childcare is barely subsidised and thus prohibitively expensive? And isn’t it odd that men are just as complicit in creating those babies, but appear to remain unaffected as far as employment goes? And God, what would happen if women ‘chose’ not to have babies – probably, like, the annihilation of the human race! One would think that, with stakes like that, we’d stop impoverishing them for falling pregnant!”

Perhaps, in short, we should explore narratives which work against the grain of the social and political institutions which structure inequality, rather than blindly accepting those which naturalise them.

It’s not stupid to want the best for oneself, or one’s children, or one’s state. It’s not stupid at all. But what if that’s not commensurate with a fairer and more benevolent system overall? Are you happy to service your self-interest at the expense of another? Are you happy to wave the banner of feminism, anti-racism, anti-capitalism, but only if it does not affect you or yours personally? In short: what are you willing to give up in the name of equality?

P.S. To the makers of Undercover Boss USA – I think your format is redeemable. Do what you do, but rather than asking your millionaires to hand out a thousand dollars here, and two thousand there, get them to give their entire capital portfolio to the state on the condition that it is spent in accordance with a redistributive agenda. If they refuse – viva la revolution. High stakes! I would watch that even if I knew precisely where the remote was. 

P.P.S. Here are some other things I think are stupid: coats, skirts, and trousers without pockets; social mobility as a method of redressing equality – it doesn’t work and someone always ends up poor; the proposition that white middle class men are the most oppressed group in society – nope, nope, nope; relatedly, the great ship Daily Mail and every soul who sails in her; the complete dissolution of identity politics – I’ll stop identifying as a feminist, when the world stops systematically disadvantaging women on the grounds that they are women; Jo Johnson for planning to deprive the world of Boaty McBoatface; and trolls. Oh, oh and people who call me ‘girl’ even though I’m thirty – why’d you want to infantilize me? I was born in the 80s!


[1] Anna Grear, “Vulnerability, Advanced Global Capitalism and Co-Symptomatic Injustices: Locating the Vulnerable Subject,” in Vulnerability: Reflections on a New Ethical Foundation for Law and Politics, ed. Martha Albertson Fineman and Anna Grear, New edition edition (Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2013); Thomas Biebricher and Eric Vance Johnson, “What’s Wrong with Neoliberalism?,” New Political Science 34, no. 2 (June 2012): 202–11, doi:10.1080/07393148.2012.676398.

[2] Wendy Brown, “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” Theory & Event 7, no. 1 (2003), doi:10.1353/tae.2003.0020.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: Polity Press, 1992).

[4] Sara Ahmed, “Selfcare as Warfare,” Feministkilljoys, 2014,

[5] Bourdieu and Wacquant, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, 24.

[6] Pierre Bourdieu, “Language and Symbolic Power,” in The Discourse Reader, ed. Adam Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland, 2 edition (London; New York: Routledge, 2006); Norman Fairclough, “Critical Discourse Analysis and Critical Policy Studies,” Critical Policy Studies 7, no. 2 (2013): 177–97, doi:10.1080/19460171.2013.798239.