Book Review: Surrounded by Idiots

Surrounded by Idiots is a book written by Thomas Erikson, originally published in Sweden and titled, “Surrounded by Idiots: How to Understand Those Who Cannot Be Understood.” It is unlikely to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it should lead everyone to ask themselves some fundamental questions around the thought of being surrounded by idiots, questions along the lines of what do we gain by devaluing people as a result of their physical differences, intellectual differences, behavioral differences, or across other lines of difference? Does referring to people as “idiots” take away from their worth and dignity and agency to live their best lives? Is learning not continuous and must everyone’s path be linear? And it is thinking questions like these that highlight some of the issues with this book.

Chapter 1 – No System is Perfect

Imagine reading something like, “People are not Excel spreadsheets.  We can’t calculate everything.  We’re way too intricate to be described in full.  Even the youngest child is far more intricate than anything that could be conveyed in a book.”

Then imagine coming across another paragraph, not long after, that reads, “Though individual actions can, of course, be right or wrong, there is really no pattern of behavior that is right or wrong.  There is no such thing as proper behavior or incorrect behavior.  You are who you are, and there’s no point in wondering why.  You’re fine no matter how you’re wired.  No matter how you choose to behave, no matter how you are perceived, you are fine.  Within reasonable limits, of course.”

What that sounds like is bad advice, but more bad advice would follow, “Words can have incredible power, but the words we choose and how we use them vary.  As you have seen from the title of this book, there are different interpretations of – yes, you got it – words.  And when you use the wrong word, well, maybe then you’re an idiot.”  This all seems extreme, and simply adding “within reasonable limits,” does not excuse it when what is reasonable, or otherwise known as right, is what is being questioned.

Chapter 2 – Why Are We the Way We Are

The charlatanism just so happens to extend beyond chapter 1 and into chapter 2 and it includes the following, “Even before we’re born, the foundations for behavior have been laid.  The temperament and character traits we have inherited affect our behavior patterns, … a process already begun at the genetic stage.  Exactly how this works is still a bone of contention among scientists, but all are in agreement that it does come into play.” Not only is this not as complicated as it is made out to seem, it is out of place and also an example of the chunks of bland that are scattered throughout the book.

Chapter 12 – Adaptation – How to Handle Idiots (i.e., Everyone Who Isn’t like You)

Ten chapters later, the fodder still persists, “As I have said in the introduction, when I was young, I was often struck by the fact that people who appear to be very intelligent could, at the same time, be such complete idiots.  They didn’t see what I saw.  Some people delicately say that such individuals lack the right “intellectual elasticity,” but that’s only because they’re too well bred to let the word “idiot” come out of their mouths.” But it gets worse, “In the best of worlds, everyone can be themselves and everything functions smoothy from the word go.  Everyone agrees at all times and conflicts don’t exist at all.  This place is said to exist, and it’s called Utopia.  But it’s not that simple.  As I said at the beginning of this book, if you think that you can change everyone else, you’ll be very disappointed.  It would surprise me if you could change anyone at all.” Words like these make me think the book might best serve as a metaphor for some of the things that are wrong with society.

Contrasting this book with other ones

In Margaret MacMillan’s book History’s People: Personalities and the Past, one of the personalities that is featured was former US President Richard Nixon, and what he is quoted as saying is quite significant.  It has to do with his belief that determination and willpower could overcome obstacles in one’s path.  “If you are reasonably intelligent,” he told a friend, “and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence and personal gut performance.”

The key word used by former President Nixon is “reasonably”, and the context around that word should be understood to mean that there is no special requirement for someone to be smart.  The only thing that intelligence requires is a commitment to consistency and continuity, never forgetting that learning is a life-long process, and that different people have different starting points that may result in different ceilings.  But lower ceilings are rarely self-imposed, more often they are circumstance-imposed, they are not indicative of intelligence nor idiocy and people are capable of shattering these ceilings.

Another book that addresses the existence of contradictory and opposing qualities, something that this author takes issue with, is Evangelist Pastor Craig Groeschel’s book titled Lead Like It Matters.  Minister Groeschel popularized the idea of a leadership paradox, where leaders who have “it” often tend to exhibit extremes that are contradictory and even opposing leadership qualities, but when combined they create for a synergy of undeniable leadership impact.

Transitioning from “bad thinking” to “better thinking”.

If someone feels it appropriate to label others as “idiots” then they should be able to answer “compared to who and why?” If that “who” happens to be a rural worker or inner-city youth that might not be up to par with someone’s imaginary standard, then skills and behaviors are aspects of a person that are learned and can subsequently be improved over time.  If that “why” has to do with other people having a different set of beliefs, a different set of mannerisms, a different set of etiquette practices, or any other differences, then it is important to understand that our interconnected world will introduce us to people who have been shaped by cultures elsewhere, but all of us can always be moulded into something better.

Ultimately, better thinking would allow us to understand that a better measurement of intelligence, or a lack thereof, would be a metric that looks at how a person treats other people, and, in today’s world, EQ, your emotional quotient is likely to get us farther than IQ.

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