Updated: Nov 22, 2020
I spent the morning thinking about the word witless. Is it derogatory, a useful descriptive term, or a term to add to our everyday word list? Although there has been a time when I remember getting walloped so severely I was witless. I was without my wits, and I was positive I had lost them. I had thrown a cross-body block on this opposing player during a football game. His knee caught me in the kidney while running at top speed. The most important thing in my life for the next week was to stop the bleeding coming from my kidney. The earth could have had a thousand other emergencies, and I am confident that unless it had to do with the death of a loved one, I would not have been interested. And yet, there have been times when I have been made witless by the most subtle of psychological manipulations. The clearest example for me is believing there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Unfortunately, it turned out verification eluded not only me but the entire country.
Sometimes we project our witlessness unconsciously. My youngest son’s baseball coach was the most helpful guy anyone could have hoped to have had to coach their child and did super good helping develop my son’s confidence as a ballplayer. He, our wives, and I got to be good friends over the years and stayed in touch. On our last visit, we went out to dinner. For some stupid reason during the dinner conversation, I repeatedly kept making references to bald people. Of course, my friend was even more follicle-ly challenged than me. How or why my brain made that happen, I will never understand. I do know that lead to an end to our friendship. I later sent a note and apologized, but my callousness had broken the bond of friendship. I believe this witlessness is a natural yet controllable human behavior. It takes different forms, too. In the example above, I was using someone else to satisfy my witless needs, albeit somewhat unconsciously. To this day, I don’t know what caused me to be preoccupied with such perseverance on something so random. Humans can be strange ducks. What about when we are victimized by others to fill their witless needs? I lost a good friend that evening.
Believing something just because someone says it is so can be dangerous, but we do it all the time. As an example of trusting without verifying or, as Malcolm Gladwell says, defaulting-to-truth. Let’s review what British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain discovered when he met Adolf Hitler.¹ In the months leading up to World War II, Chamberlain needed to know if Hitler could be trusted. Threats to invade Czechoslovakia concerned the British Parliament and most certainly would lead to full-scale war. Chamberlain decided to meet with Hitler face to face to get the full measure of the man. On return to Britain, Chamberlain reported Hitler wanted the Sudetenland. Chamberlain took his word for it. In the following months, Chamberlain made two more visits to Germany. In all, Chamberlain and his staff found Hitler and his officer corps to be amicable, declared they could be trusted, and there would be “peace for our time.”
Earlier, the Prime Minister of Canada also met with Hitler and determined a similar likeness. How could so many professional diplomats misread the geopolitical map? Gladwell tells us we, by our nature, default-to-truth, believing first and assuming our vulnerability only as a second possibility. We rely on our ability to “see-through” people to get to the layers of falsehood that hide under the surface. Unfortunately, we are not very good at seeing through the layers and detecting what lies hidden beneath. It seems we are hardwired to trust those who provide the cues we seek to gain confidence, i.e., a firm handshake, a look in the eye, a polite smile. Witlessness comes naturally. We let ourselves get sucker-punched with falsehoods and psychological mind games. We become victims.
A Lesson I: Insights on Truth - Fallacy Detection found earlier on the Lesson/Blog page should provide resources to open your attention to understanding the methods used to victimize us into becoming witless and uninformed. Enjoy the insights from the reliable sources included for your review. It never hurts to keep our wits about us; after all, as Rudyard Kipling is to have said, “If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, the world is yours.”
¹ Gladwell, Malcolm. Talking to Strangers, Little, Brown, 2019, pp.28- 36.