Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Explaining Absent-Minded Professors (and the re-defining of "arrogance")

If you're a plumber, or teacher, or graphic designer, you may be terrific at what you do, but that doesn't carry much weight with family or friends, or with people you meet at parties. And so you must pretend to be flawless. If you reveal a flaw, you risk looking like a shmuck. And to look like a shmuck is to be a shmuck. So people learn to mask, pose and bluff.

Not academics, though. If you're professor of astrophysics at Dartmouth, that may not make you better than anyone else, but you have a free pass out of shmuckdom. You don't need to be awesome at anything else, because people know, beyond doubt, that you're awesome at at least one thing - because academia is one of the few realms where accreditation holds sway with general society.

If a stock analyst stutters or limps...if he spills stuff or forgets your name, it might seem natural to feel a certain condescension. That's why stock analysts try hard not to stutter, limp, spill, or forget. But if a molecular biologist does those things, well...you know how those scientists are! It's wonderfully freeing, and allows specialized people to concentrate on their specialties, rather than waste effort creating the illusion of seamless well-roundedness. And, conversely, it gives them the self-confidence to publicly and unabashedly pursue activities in which they're inept.

I came out of the closet years ago as a flawed human being. I'll happily admit that I read painfully slowly, and that I have trouble filling out forms or following instructions. I can't always follow plots in novels or films, and have trouble remembering both names and faces. I'm graceful when relaxed, but clumsy when anxious, and painfully slow at learning physical moves. My memory's awful unless my attention's engaged, and I'm constantly pausing to think of words (as a writer, I can stare at my screen all day until the right one dislodges). I was a "B" student, and once spent several days trying to saw through the thick plastic bolts securing my toilet seat before a friend kindly showed me they simply unscrew. Lots of people take one look at me and assume I'm a driveling lunatic.

But that's ok, because at some point I decided that the things I'm good at make me worthwhile. So I don't sweat the rest. It's freeing. By contrast, my dad, like much of his generation, lived in a constant state of desperately needing to appear right. It was obviously exhausting, and I'll politely defer comment on his success rate.

Academics are seen as quirky and absent-minded, but the other adjective is "arrogant". If you - as I do - draw confidence from your competence, it will strike less secure people as arrogance. But it's not necessarily so. The characteristic which distinguishes confidence from arrogance is condescension. "I know something you don't, and that makes me better than you!" is a very different stance from "I know something you don't, so let me fill you in!"

The distinction has been lost, however, as egocentric modern people have come to reflexively conflate superiority with superciliousness. As a result, it's become fashionable to feign uncertainty. Knowing has become a faux-pas, but knowing you know is downright inexcusable. This is a reaction to pressures from both the right (with its visceral distrust of "elitism") and from the left (with its fervid relativism).

But the problem with modesty is that it requires a deep and condescending conviction that the quality being veiled is intimidatingly awesome. Whenever modesty's on display, you're always in the presence of great arrogance (in the original sense of the word!).

Me? I take the Richard Scarry approach. It takes all kinds, and by contributing our respective expertise, we create a utopian whole (and juice the free market). We're each holding up one end or another of it all, experienced at some things, and pathetically helpless in most others. By pretending not to know the few things I know, or not to be good at the few things I'm good at, I'd be depriving the hive. I sure don't want you to pretend not to know stuff that might help me! I, like you, need all the help I can get!

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