This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.
I’ve done many stupid things, but by far the stupidest is the year I spent pretending to be smart after moving to New York. About five years ago, I came up from Texas for a media internship and cannonballed directly into the city’s enclave of young writers and editors; people I’d admired from afar. The move was an experience in culture shock: That summer was the first time I heard about liberal arts college, or sipped beers alongside people who graduated from Ivy Leagues (to me, Harvard and Yale existed only in the fictional world of Gossip Girl). I’d gone to a good school, but it was still a public state school in Texas—one that hadn’t even let me in at first, and where I’d made barely mediocre grades. Compared with my new peers, I felt like a large idiot. (Like most insecurities, this was all in my head and sounds ridiculous now.)
My inferiority complex was only magnified by how much I’d idolized this group of people. They worked at fancy publications, and I’d read some of their articles in my college courses. I wanted so badly to fit in and was terrified of saying something incorrect that would expose me as a fraud. To blend in, I relied on the same tactics I’d used in high school, when I’d just as badly wanted to fit in with the popular crowd: I watched, listened, and nodded a lot. I blindly agreed with opinions on essays I’d never read; shared opinions on people I’d never heard of. I picked up a couple of smart-sounding hypotheses and spat them out in other conversations, like some kind of pseudo-intellectual eye dropper. Sometimes I fucked up, like when I thought it was correct to like the Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (it was incorrect). Looking back at my Instagram from that period, I barely recognize this bizarre version of myself, who did things like go to lit mag parties, and captioned photos with phrases like “mise en scene” (I don’t know what this means). It reminds me of reading journal entries from when I was 14, pretending to like flavored vodka, and cosplaying different versions of “high school girl” that didn’t quite fit.
I wasn’t making any genuine friends—most people, I’ve learned, can tell when you’re bullshitting them—and I was mostly miserable. So, after way too much time, I gave up the act. Just as I’d done as an unhappy teen, I privately accepted the fact that these simply weren’t “my people,” and relaxed into the sublime, simple bliss of my own semi-stupidity. It felt nice; I felt like myself. In the following years, I got more comfortable with my own relative idiocy, sometimes even using my comparatively inferior education and intellect like some kind of fucked-up flex: Look how dumb you can be and still attain relative success!
So imagine my immense feeling of betrayal last year, as I watched the same people I once feigned intellectuality for act like total idiots online. Stupidity has become en vogue. Throughout 2019, tweets about “my lizard brain” proliferated in my feeds; I couldn’t go online without seeing one of my generation’s brightest minds outing themselves as “baby.” Watching people I’d always understood to be intellectuals make jokes originated by teenagers will never feel normal to me; it’s extremely “How do you do, fellow kids?” vibes. Just when I’d lived in New York long enough to finally feel like I could keep up with the intellectual current, it completely switched directions. If I’d known being dumb would be cool in 2020, I might have waited a few years to move to the city.
But why the sudden shift in cultural values? I have a few ideas. Maybe the calamity of the world around us has rotted our brains. Maybe, with age, we simply feel nostalgic for the relative idiocy of youth. Or maybe it’s just the circle of life: The walnut-brained jocks wielded the most social capital in high school, then intellect reigned supreme throughout college, and now, several years into adulthood, we’ve all circled back to stupidity as a form of power. It is certainly powerful to literally not know what’s going on; I can see why you’d want to adopt a posture of cluelessness. “Blissfully unaware” is aspirational. The dumb jocks in movies and in real life are the ones who always seem to be having the most fun.The only people who can get away with that are the extraordinarily privileged and the supremely dumb. Both of those life positions are peaceful, in their own ways.
Booksmart, a movie in which two straight-A students who never strayed from the proper path try to have one night of pure stupidity. (It doesn’t go entirely well. Their friendship is momentarily wrecked, and in the end, they learn that even the chilled-out party kids are stressed out and insecure, too.) I watched the same cliché play out in real life as a senior in high school, when the top students, having secured college admission, started coming to the same drunken house parties the idiots had been getting blitzed at for years. They all got way too drunk and never came back again, having completed their cultural anthropology and decided their own lane was the best one to stay in.
Beyond the ick-factor of faking a persona, smart people have an unyielding tendency to strip the fun out of delightfully dumb things. Christopher Hooks, a journalist in Texas, summed up this problem well in a tweet last October, when this phenomenon was really starting to peak: “[A]t some point, the principle that both ‘low’ art and ‘high’ art could both have great worth became generally accepted. Which is cool. We’ve sailed past this into an insistence by many people that the dumb art they like is ‘high’ art.” Think of the flurry of think pieces about The Bachelor, Love Island, and the band 100 gecs—all of which try too hard to extrapolate meaning from things that are simply dumb (the whole reason they’re good). We binge Love Island because it’s essentially visual quaaludes, and 100 gecs rules because their music is pure chaos and nothing more. Like good colonialists, smart people arrive at the artifacts of the dumb and strive to make them their own, acting like they’ve discovered the dumb shit by trying to wring meaning out of it. This is both boring and pointless. There’s no meaning to be found—that’s why we like it.
It’s like that Allen Ginsberg line (which I had to google, because who can quote this from memory?): “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by acting stupid, for fun.” I only wish this had been the trend when I first moved here. It would have saved me a lot of time.