Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anti-Intellectualism/Intellectual Arrogance

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” - Isaac Asimov (via Daring Fireball).

True enough. However, there's a much older cult, transcending national boundaries, of arrogance among intellectuals, nurtured by the false notion that "my intelligence is better than your creativity, your physical skills, your mechanical ability, your bravery, your resourcefulness, or your virtuousness."

We're all born with certain gifts and deficits, and there's a natural tendency to measure others by the faculties in which we excel. But no group does so with more blunt intolerance or withering condescension than the intelligent (having met Isaac Asimov, I can report that he struck me as the very poster child for intellectual arrogance [note: this observation is rebutted in the comments]). This has, for time immemorial, put less intelligent people unfairly on the defensive. And it's perfectly proper in a democracy not to deem oneself a lesser citizen because one's skill set is jiggered this way or that.

So pushback is apropos. But one fault of all human beings is our inability to respond to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism. And so the pendulum has swung too far, and unintelligent people are supported for leadership positions requiring intellect, solid scientific theories are blindly opposed, and intellect, generally, is shunned in some quarters. But it didn't happen in a vacuum. Intellectual arrogance spurred this mess.

Each of us has deficits. The trick is to recognize when you're over your head - no one would play Stephen Hawking as an NFL linebacker - without losing respect for self or for others.


Seth Godin said...

I knew Isaac Asimov.

Isaac Asimov was a friend of mine.

And Jim, Isaac was as far from being arrogant as anyone I know. He was relentlessly self-deprecating, except when it came to his imagined prowess with women.

It's true that he was whip-smart and facile in speaking, and there's no doubt he might have come across to some as intellectually impatient, but it wasn't the case. I spent years working with him on a project and loved it.

Michael Crichton, on the other hand, was also smart, very shy and he came off as far more arrogant. Just fyi

Jim Leff said...

Hey, Seth, thanks for posting!

I'll defer to your greater experience. I didn't know him well, and may well have encountered him at a low point.

But, surprisingly, I must argue a misimpression on YOUR side!

Asimov actually DID have prowess with women. I was a science fiction fan at the time (this was back in college), and several cute coed sci-fi fans (who I, should add, I unsuccessfully tried to get with), would, bizarrely, be reduced to near-panting about the guy. At first I thought they were joking - i.e. exaggerating to emphasize how much they liked his work. But no. They weren't joking. When he came to our school, they were all over him.

Anyway, in retrospect, you're right: it was a cheap shot, and added nothing. But I'll leave it in, because otherwise this exchange would make no sense!

Seth Godin said...

So here's the thing re women:

His wife was a lovely person, really kind to me and to everyone else. And the thing is, she wasn't attractive. (I'll leave it at that).

He doted on her and was certainly faithful.

At a speech he gave, someone asked, "Dr. Asimov, you're one of the great minds of the century. How do you rationalize your fear of flying?" (okay, that was me, in college).

His answer?

"I believe in the conservation of fear. If I got over my fear of flying, I might become afraid of women."

Jim Leff said...

Ha! Complicated fellow, for sure!

Any comment on the rest of the article? I try hard to clarify and empathize with both sides of our various divides (hey, somebody's got to make the effort!).

And the larger point is important to me. I'm working on an article now about how it takes me a long time to learn dance moves. This gives me perspective on people who are slow learners in other ways. Slow can be good (e.g. when I finally "get it", I dance my ass off!). Confronted with this evidence, I no longer think of mentally "slow" people as necessarily deficient (I know some such people who are absolutely brilliant once they finally "get it". Slow learning has its pluses!).

Being reasonably intelligent, I always carried around some of the usual condescension. But as I live and observe (and also notice the limits of cognition via meditation), I see that mental agility is really just a useful faculty, not an end-all, be-all. And I see how smart people have anointed that faculty as being exactly that!

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