Why Those Who Think They Are, Aren’t
December 24, 2009 10 Comments
Although as I’ve said it’s difficult to define the Smart People, there are some general observations that can be made of their properties. The most striking Smart People trait is that they all think they’re so smart. Smart People may not consistently be smart but they sure are consistent in how smart they think they are.
Smart People, whether genuinely smart or not, put their Smartness out there for others to gape at and admire. They advertise it. They wear it on their sleeve. They seek out and take advantage of any and all opportunities to show it off. They want to make sure that everyone else gets it, i.e. that they, themselves, are really really Smart. And of course this includes everything up to, perhaps especially, calling other people Dumb. Smart People, even otherwise nice Smart People, call certain types of other people Dumb so often and in such a callous/juvenile manner that it’s almost impossible to explain any other way than as just yet another irresistibly backhanded, thoughtless attempt to call themselves Smart.
One often gets the impression that the vanguard of the Smart People are drawn disproportionately from the folks who grew up ‘gifted’ as children. They were told they were ‘gifted’ by all the adults around them, praise was lavished on their supposed giftedness by their teachers and parents – they were Special. Their childhoods were a dizzying and seemingly neverending whir of gold stars, A-pluses, ‘advanced’ classes, experimental tests filled out with No. 2 pencils, etc. Perhaps this sense of being gifted became so fully integrated with Smart Peoples’ personalities that they came to depend on it, like a crutch. Never having developed an independent sense of self-worth, they came to feel an emotional reliance on this constant stream of praise from others. So when it suddenly and inexplicably stopped (after schooling was over and it was time to grow up) they instinctively sought out ways to replace it, to fill the void in their lives left by its absence.
Many Smart People issues can be best understood as desperate cries for help meant to fill this void. Wring your hands about Climate Change and advocate some overhaul of society and the economy – maybe you’ll get a gold star. Start openly applauding something, anything called Health Care Reform regardless of whether you let alone anyone else knows what’s in it – gold star please? Let’s have terrorists captured on a battlefield in foreign nations tried in domestic courts – extra credit?
Maybe it’s a mistake to take any of these political policy positions seriously. Maybe they’re not meant as serious, real-world policy positions at all. Maybe they’re better understood as something closer to class projects. Real-world implications never mattered for any of their class projects before, why should they now?
This observation may not seem all that earth-shattering. It may even seem obvious. Of course Smart People think they are smart, you might say. Because they are!, you might say.
To that let me just say this: I have lived and worked around some awfully smart people. Ranging from the fairly-smart to the super-smart. And the smartest people I’ve known simply do not behave like Smart People. They don’t go around calling other people Dumb. They don’t go around seeking out ways to advertise their smartness. They don’t speak in dogmatic terms of absolute certainty. They don’t advocate sweeping overhauls of society to bring it in line with some vision they have.
There is just a huge gulf between how genuine supersmart people (people who truly are smart, and know it, but are secure in that knowledge and don’t feel the need to advertise it) behave and how, say, Al Gore behaves. It is almost impossible to overstate the size of this gulf. I look at how Gore and some of the other Smart People behave and, at times, I become genuinely embarrassed for them.
The point of this post is that I’m not sure the general public understands that. I fear that the layperson may tune into these Smart People and simply assume that that’s how real smart people are, because they haven’t been around enough real smart people to recognize the difference. This would explain why the signals Smart People are so busily trying to send all the time so often seem to work: a lot of people buy it and conclude that Golly, those Smart People must be awfully smart.
After all, just look at how smart they’re always saying they are.
What I’m trying to explain here is that it’s not exactly true that ‘saying you are smart’ is a sign of smartness. In my experience, it’s something close to the opposite. Indeed, all else equal if I see someone trying to advertise their ‘smartness’ I’d tend to downgrade my estimate of their intelligence a notch.