“The worst illiterate
He is the political illiterate.
He doesn’t hear, he doesn’t speak
nor does he participate in political events.
You don’t know that the cost of living,
the price of beans, fish,
of flour, of rent, of footwear
and the medicines
They depend on political decisions..
That political illiterate poem attributed to the German playwright Bertolt Brecht is, in other words, An idiotin its almost original meaning.
The word ‘idiot’ comes from the Greek ἰδιώτης idiṓtēs and originally it was not a disrespectful, derogatory or insulting adjective.
Nor did it have any relation to the intelligence of the person he was referring to.
It was used to refer to someone average or a private citizen, as opposed to a scholar or someone who acted on behalf of the State or held public office.
But since the Greeks highly valued civic participation, recognizing that without it democracy collapsed, it was expected that all citizens were interested, and conversant, in public affairs. I mean, they weren’t idiots.
Remaining on the margins of public life was a sign of ignorance, lack of education, misinformation and abandonment of duty.
He who did not contribute to the debates, declared Pericles, the great statesman of Athens, was considered “not as lacking in ambition but as absolutely useless.”
It is in this context that, over time, idiṓtēs began to acquire a negative connotationand become a term of reproach and disdain.
To live only a private life was not to be fully human.
“If a man’s behavior and speech ceased to be political, he became idiotic: self-centered, indifferent to the needs of his neighbor, inconsequential in himself,” explains Christopher Berry in his book “The Idea of a Democratic Community.”
And that kind of idiocy was perhaps more serious than the one that resulted from the metamorphosis that had begun and would lead the word to become what the Royal Academy now says:
1. adj. Dumb or short of understanding. U. tcs U. tc insult.
2. adj. Conceited without basis for it. U. tcs
From politics to medicine
After becoming a pejorative term for those who refused to participate in the politics that affected them, it became one that called someone ignorant, crude and uneducated.
With that interpretation, it reached Latin in the 3rd century, and from there to other languages.
Although the political meaning survived for a time, as the culture and traditions of ancient Greece fell behind, the new meaning replaced it.
Then another fact would cling it even more to the current meaning.
At the beginning of the 20th century, French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon created the first modern intelligence testwhich calculated IQ based on whether children could perform tasks such as pointing at their nose and counting pennies.
Psychologists became so enamored with the scientific nature of testing that they created classification systems.
Anyone with an IQ above 70 was considered “normal,” and anyone above 130 was considered “gifted.”
To deal with people with IQ less than 70, they invented a nomenclature.
An adult with a mental age less than 3 years was labeled as “moron”; between 3 and 7, “fool”; and between 7 and 10, “weak-minded”.
“Idiot” then became a technical term used in legal and psychiatric contexts.
Using that word, as happened with the Latin ‘imbecile’ to describe degrees of psychic handicap, led to it also ending up being an insult that refers to the mental gifts of the insulted.
In some cultures, “idiot,” as well as “imbecile,” fell out of use in medicine a few decades later because it was considered offensive.
In Spanish, however, idiotismo or idiocia continues to appear in the RAE as the name of a type of intellectual disability:
1. f. Med. Disorder characterized by a very profound deficiency of mental faculties, congenital or acquired in the early ages of life.
Hence an idiot also means…
4. adj. Med. Who suffers from idiocy. U. tc s.
Despite such a lackluster history, since the 19th century there have been thinkers who advocate that the word be used more widely, but recovering its original meaning.
One of them is Walter C. Parker, professor emeritus, University of Washingtonfor whom this ancient etymology can be a valuable tool for a contemporary understanding of democracy and citizenship.
Parker, who is dedicated to civic education, explained to BBC Mundo that his purpose is to help individuals in the transition from that private world of family and kinship to the public world of government, a crucial transition because “in liberal democracies it is “The people who govern.”
“In that sense, we can go back to Aristotle 2,000 years ago, whom I often quote when I write about idiocy. For him, an idiot is someone whose private life is his only concern, someone who does not take initiative in politics.
“They are immature people, with truncated development, who can have a social life, but not a public life.
“So There is a private life, a social life and a public life, and to be a flourishing individual and prosper you need all three.”
But how can we distinguish between social and public?
For Parker, the person who has thought about it the best since Aristotle has been the historian and philosopher Hannah Arendt.
“Basically, it says that we can all have a social life – with our friends and family, social networks, work, play – without necessarily having a public life.
“A public life is a political life.”
“The ideal of liberal democracy is that we, the people, participate, establishing the government and creating the rules by which we will live together without tearing each other apart, and we will try to defend ourselves from the kind of public life we do not want.”
“But the idiot rejects all that. He simply buries himself in his private life and his social life, thereby risking us being governed by those we least want,” as the Athenian philosopher Plato already warned in “The Republic.”
That’s why Parker wants to rescue the original meaning of the term.
“Because it helps us talk about what it means to develop a political voice“, says.
“We can’t be idiots.”
It all starts at school, says Parker.
“In teaching, we must promote the debate of controversial public issues with other people, whose opinions are similar or not.
“It does not matter.
“Whether you like someone’s opinions or not is important in social life, but not in public life.”in which we have to connect and relate and talk and listen to other people regardless of whether they agree with you.
“The purpose of civic education is to shore up liberal democracy, which is in danger today around the world, including in the United States, as we have seen with Trumpism,” says the expert.
This exchange of opinions that has been so important in recent decades often takes place on social networks, which serve as a space for discussion, but can be a sounding board for lies and information that is destructive for democratic society.
“There is always the danger that the idiot will take his idiocy into the public sphere, to use the terms we are using in the context in which we are talking,” explains Parker.
But something also “terrible,” the academic laments, is indifference.
It has been documented that new (and not so new) generations are not interested in current events.
Despite living in a world where more people than ever have the means to access information, they choose not to pay attention. They simply don’t care.
“Indeed, we are receiving more and more research showing that young people have an active private and social life, but not a public life.
“And that is a very dangerous breeding ground for demagoguery,” he explains.
Now: exalting public life is not to the detriment of the two other spheres, Parker clarifies.
“The objective of reclaiming the term idiocy is not to deny or dismiss in any way the importance of private or social life.which are so crucial to our flourishing as human beings.
“That’s where our family, our friends and our work exist.
“But the public persona is the missing link, if you will, to make it possible for us to live together in society with our differences intact.”
It is in that public life, he points out, where we learn to deal with strangers with different ideologies in different cultures.
“The purpose is to develop a modus vivendifrom Latin, a way of living that allows us to prosper together without killing each other.
“We have to cultivate the public self and, to achieve this, we cannot be idiots“.
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