One of the smartest things anyone ever told me came from a former journalist. He was an irascible little man, not all that friendly and certainly not one to suffer fools, who worked in the public relations department—colloquially called the “News Bureau”—of the public utility where I was doing employee communications. One day, commenting on one of the company’s media positions, he said, “People ain’t stupid.”
That always stuck with me. I take it as an article of faith. It’s a rock I cling to when everyone about me seems to be going mad—or simply going nowhere good.
Now, “people ain’t stupid” does not mean people are uniformly smart. They may not be insightful. They may now and then do stupid things, believe stupid things, and exhibit the peculiar madness attributed to crowds, mobs, and urban riots. But at some basic, grounded level, and averaging out the shining brilliance of an Einstein and the stumbling obtuseness of the Three Stooges, people are not stupid.
What those three words mean to me is that, in the long run, you really can’t hoodwink the public. This is in line with Lincoln’s observation about fooling some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time. If you’re telling a lie or working an angle, it might succeed once or twice. In that case, it’s best to consider yourself lucky and not try it again. But, eventually, with long practice, a lie or trick will be found out. Make a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, underestimating the crowd’s intelligence, and pushing your own advantage with disregard for what happens to the other fellow, and sooner or later you get tripped up and brought down.
As an author, I take those three words to mean being careful about what I write and where I try to lead my readers. I’ve always tried to respect the reader’s intelligence. I take care to follow strict logic in my stories, look out for gaps and transitions that would make an intelligent reader wonder what happened and why. I try not to violate the reader’s sensibility about the nature of reality. And I never tell a checkable lie.1
Still, I write about the things that I personally find interesting and relate them at a level of logic and language that I find comfortable, trusting that my readers have the brains and intuition to follow along with pleasure.2 As I write, I try to curb my natural, hyperliterate3 tendency to use needlessly highfalutin language and triply compounded sentences. But I also know that like-minded readers want more than cookie-cutter sentence structure with a rocking horse rhythm and are not allergic to words of more than two syllables.
More than that, “people ain’t stupid” means it’s always dangerous to despise people or think you know more than they do. We see a lot of this in advertising and politics today. The providers of messages seem to take a dim and shallow view of the average intelligence of the buying public or the body politic. Being in a position to send a message and have it simply heard, let alone respected and followed, should be a privilege in the “free marketplace of ideas.” Those around you are listening with courtesy and forbearance. They will trust you to a certain extent and give you the benefit of the doubt. But they are not puppets or Pavlov’s dogs to be manipulated. Try to fool them—or fool them once too often—and they’ll slam the door on you.
Those three words are an encouragement for the rest of us to live honestly and deal plainly. While the average person might enjoy the notion of winning the lottery and getting something for nothing, that’s not the way most people want or expect to live. The old certainties with which your mother raised you still apply. You must work for what you want. You should value what you have and what you earn. You should be careful when you hear an offer too good to be true. You must read everything you sign. You must think about the things you really believe. You have to trust people, but don’t hesitate to check their facts. America, especially, wasn’t peopled with fools,4 and that kind of backwoods wisdom is still strong and fresh in this country.
There are two ways to be foolish. One is by thinking you know too much, that you have x-ray eyes to see through the other fellow, that you’re smarter than he is, and you can make him dance to your tune—and ultimately to any tune you choose to call. The other is to think everyone is out to cheat and deceive you, that no one can be trusted, that politicians and marketers always lie, that bartenders and barbers flatter for their own purposes, that anyone who is not your family or sworn friend, or who hasn’t been under your knife, is a thief and a scoundrel.
“People ain’t stupid” also means people are not wholly good or bad. Most people try to live according to some kind of code, ethic, or personal understanding of the universe’s underlying laws. Yes, there are criminals and con men among us, as there are saints and saviors—but they are a statistical minority, along with the outright geniuses and morons of this world. The rest of us are just trying to get along.
“People ain’t stupid” ultimately means that people are a lot like you. They may differ in their understanding and interpretation of what’s going on. They may come from different cultures and traditions, and so be preloaded with conceptions you might not share. They may be strengthened or damaged by their past personal experiences. But they still were born under the stars of either the Big Dipper or the Southern Cross, and they feel the same heat of the Sun and wonder at the same cold light of the Moon.
“People ain’t stupid” means: You don’t consider yourself stupid, do you? So why not give everyone else the benefit of the doubt?
1. That might sound cynical, but it’s a workable principle. I’m not a stickler for perfect accuracy or some kind of ultimate, all-weather truth. I don’t mind rounding my figures—like tossing off that the galaxy contains 100 billion stars, when the very latest astronomic survey counts two to four times as many. “Ballpark” and “order of magnitude” estimates are close enough for most rhetorical purposes. I don’t mind expressing my opinion, theory, or guess as if it were something like a fact, because this is a free country and I’m a member. But this is also the age of Google and Wikipedia, where every fact is retrievable and verifiable in a matter of seconds—although you can probably find as much opinion, error, and bad judgment in a Wikipedia entry as you find silt in a mountain lake. But I won’t tell a tale or use information which I know or suspect to be patently untrue and which any person with at least my level of smarts and suspicion would sense, if not know, to be false. And I won’t tell an untruth about an actual person or respectable institution, period. But for most everything else—well, I write fiction, after all.
2. Some writers consider this a dangerous approach. They think it proper to make an estimate of the “average” reader’s intelligence, vocabulary, and appetite for complication and then write consciously to that level. They may be aiming for some kind of mass market audience. However, I’m comfortable with the notion that the book-buying market is fragmented, that every author and every book finds its own following, and that readers will express their frustration with an author who either writes down to them or makes them work too hard by not buying his or her books and not recommending them to friends. So be it. It’s a big world out there.
3. I am one of those people who reads and writes constantly, thinks in complete and rounded sentences, mulls rhetorical structure and precise wording for the fun of it, and takes delight in plays on logic and meaning. Somewhere between learning to read as a child and living to read as an adult, I realized that “hyperliterate” is the word that best describes people like me. Language isn’t just a way of coping with the outside world, it’s a raison d’être.
4. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.