Tuesday, September 01, 2015 10:35 AM
Some people are smarter than others. Some people are really stupid. In a classroom, we get an obvious display of differences in intelligence—some kids get it right away, other kids struggle. If you stay in the classroom, you get smarter—not intrinsically smarter, just smarter because you have more information to work with—you’re better able to analyze, contrast, and compare. Thus the second graders think the first graders are stupid because they haven’t learned their times-tables yet.
The grade-level thing works itself out, in time, but varying levels of education and insight will continue to make some people smarter than others. Ordinarily it doesn’t matter—when me and my neighbors are mowing our lawns, we’re all smart enough for the task at hand. Someone’s lawn may turn out greener than the rest of us—but that’s not intelligence so much as interest—having an abiding interest in any subject will make one more knowledgeable. Not by magic, of course, but because one will pay attention to that subject and seek out new information related to it—it’ll catch your eye.
Back when I was a programmer, I was above average—not because I was smarter, but because I had affection for algebra, algorithm, and the trickiness of programming-language syntax—things that leave most people cold. Interest parallels intelligence in this way—we are all pretty expert in the things we love. Those who love reading, who love discussion, who love learning and research—these people will naturally stick out as smarter-than-average. But their smarts are as much a matter of their preferences as of their innate intelligence.
Some of us will be lucky—we will be inspired to read by our librarian, or be inspired to learn by that special teacher—and some of us will learn to love those things through loneliness, boredom, or privation. Either way, we will learn something not consciously taught in schools—we learn to enjoy our own company—this is where the ‘nerd’ factor comes in. Playing with the other kids can be a challenge—it becomes less so when one has the alternative of being by oneself. When solitude is the norm, however, important social skills are left unlearned.
Meanwhile, our childhoods will contain variations in parenting, income, educators, and environment—we can never know what would happen if all the kids in a community had mature, responsible parents, or went to a school with all great teachers. But even in a world of nerds, we can still assume that differing levels of smart would present themselves. I imagine that given optimal educational stimuli, we might experience the paradox of intuitive, non-scholastic intelligence becoming the most admired type of smarts. In an environment where everyone studies like mad, those who can juggle, or always have a ready quip, or have a knack for persuading people—might stand out as the ‘smart’ kids. (Indeed, this is true in reality—but mostly because scholastics are less exciting, not because they’re pervasively uniform.)
Learning facts, understanding relationships between facts, and scholastic pursuits in general are all categories of intelligence—but there are many others: empathy, charisma, intuition, salesmanship, social skills, communication, team-building, entrepreneurial activity, sensitivity—there are many important mental strivings beyond the simple ‘smartness’ of a straight-A student. That’s why top colleges care more about essays and ‘extracurricular’s than they do about SAT scores. That’s why ten different programmers can write a program for a certain job without any of them writing the same code—because there are as many ways to use intelligence as there are types of intelligence.
We use tests to ascertain certain intelligences—if you can pass a road test you are smart enough to be a licensed driver; if you pass the bar exam you are smart enough to practice law. But we have no tests for parenting, for managing, or for voting—intellectually demanding activities that can be attempted by people of any education or intellect—no matter how small. But then, there’s no test for being born, either. On the other hand, testing itself is a questionable method for determining skills—it’s just the best we can do with existing systems, and we have to use something to ascertain minimal competency in licensed activities like driving or practicing law.
But the most difficult aspect of intelligence is that having certain knowledge doesn’t protect the informed from disagreement by the uninformed. In my experience the most drastic example of this is when religiosity is used in place of information—I can know some facts for certain and still be unable to convince another person, because they perceive that information to run counter to their religious teachings. From my point of view it is legalized insanity—from their point of view it’s freedom of religion—but either way, it’s incorrect—and I know that, whether others remain unconvinced or not. And they say they pity me, but no more than I pity them. But they pity me for not sharing their delusion, while I pity them for being willfully blind to information that’s there for all to see, if they’d only let themselves see it.
Religiosity also bothers me because differing levels of intelligence will always be there to confuse an issue—and the religious delusions just add a whole ‘nother layer to that confusion. If you want to tell me there’s a heaven, a hell, a white-haired old guy, or a pearly gate—I’m all for it. None of that stuff bothers me. But if you want to make direct connections between what’s actually happening in life and those crazy fairy tales, there’s where I run into trouble. When religion is all good news and good vibes, it’s wonderful—but when it steps over the line into judgement, division, and hate, that’s a problem. And it’s never the religion itself that does that—it’s always some clown who’s taking an ego-trip or running a scam who decides we should all live within the confines of his personal dream of purity.
One type of intelligence is persuasion. People can be good at persuading other people, without having much of the more traditional forms of intelligence. We see this today in the Republican Party members—they persuade their followers of many things, but they’re not very concerned about the veracity of what they’re persuading their constituents to learn. They ‘educate’ to persuade, not to inform, and their believers mistake it for real education—they’re even taught to doubt the people who speak in earnest for the public good, like scientists. If the GOP can vilify scientists, who’s next—teachers?—literacy itself? This is why right-wingers always wear business suits—they think that if they resemble dignified people, it will dignify their propaganda. It probably helps them take themselves seriously, too—as long as they don’t look in a mirror.
Politics creates its own reality. When a politician faces an unpopular issue he or she will have two choices—please the crowd, or lose the election. We used to have a more authoritarian mind-set in this country—a politician had a shot at convincing us that their leadership was true, that we all had to bite the bullet for the common good—like when Johnson sent the National Guard to the Deep South. Now we’ve reached the point where an educated politician (who knows better) is forced to publicly cast doubt on evolution, or global warming, or the need for women’s health care. How those poor bastards get any sleep at night is a mystery to me.
And now they’re stuck with this guy, Trump, who has a PhD in persuasion—and almost no intellectual property outside of persuasion—and he has made their private sins into a public celebration, and they’re uncomfortable with that. They know that a lot of their hot-button issues are ‘naked emperors’ that won’t bear honest inspection—they know that the key to fighting progressives is to spread fear and confusion—not to bring these things out into the sunlight, as Trump is doing. He recognizes that many people are bigoted against Latinos—what he doesn’t recognize is that it’s a leader’s job to tell the haters that they are wrong. The rest of the GOP have at least that much understanding of public service—that one must use ‘dog-whistles’ to attract the haters without joining their ranks, where one is forced to defend the ethics of hatred—an impossible task.
Trump crystallizes the difference between ‘being correct’ and ‘winning the argument’—he can win almost any argument, but I have yet to hear him say anything that is true. I heard one talking-head on TV yesterday say, ”Well, it’s August…” I guess that means we’re all supposed to revel in stupidity while the sun is shining, and we’ll all get back down to earth when the leaves start to fall. Personally, I think we’re all being stupid enough, all the time, without taking a summer brain-break.