I don’t remember the subject of our disagreement, but I remember the sneer on his face.
“You just think you’re smarter than me!” he bellowed with disdain.
I’ve had this conversation with others through the years and it always follows the same script. An idiot says something stupid to me and I point out the flaw in what he says. He responds — with a non sequitur or some made up “fact,” usually — and I point out his error.
That’s when he pulls out his trump card. Instead of making a rational argument for whatever he believes, he accuses me of thinking I’m better than he is — because I’ve committed the grave mistake of being smarter than he is.
I’ve never actually said this to someone under such circumstances, but I always want to reply, “Well, yes, I am smarter than you are, you ignorant moron.”
For as long as I can remember, I’ve gotten the message from others that it’s arrogant and egotistical to let other people know that I’m smarter than they are. In school, it was acceptable to do better than others, but there was a conspiracy of silence about why.
It was embarrassing to admit some of us were simply smarter.
This makes no sense. Imagine if athletes had the same attitude. A sprinter defeats another sprinter and the loser would angrily say, “You just think you’re faster than me!”
The late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote an essay for Newsweek in 1980 which addressed this public intellectual issue bluntly.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been,” Asimov wrote. “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.'”
Why is this the case? And why are brighter people supposed to pretend not to be bright?
Nobody likes someone who brags about being better than others — whether the person is smarter, faster or richer — but there’s a bizarre unconscious attitude in this country that intelligence is something to be ashamed of. It’s OK to achieve something with your intelligence, but you’re supposed to pretend your achievement has nothing to do with being bright.
Smart people aren’t necessarily right about everything. In fact, some of the brightest people I know are what I call “brilliant idiots.” (I’m probably one of them at times.) Smart people aren’t better than everybody else, but it’s insane to pretend they’re not the brightest people in almost every room.
When I was a kid, I was happy to be intelligent and I thought it would make me successful. It turned out that raw intelligence is highly overrated as a determinant of success. In fact, my own experience is that being smarter than most other people makes it harder to succeed in most fields — because it’s harder to relate to others and, frankly, a lot of people simply resent you.
At this point, I don’t think intelligence is a golden ticket to success. I also understand that being highly intelligent is a random accident of genes and environment. Nobody creates his own intelligence and a high IQ doesn’t make someone better than others.
In the same way, being taller than everybody in the room is a random accident of genes and environment, too, but nobody acts as though tall people are supposed to pretend to be shorter — or to feel ashamed when they can reach something on a top shelf that shorter folks can’t reach.
Do you know what it’s like to be brighter than almost everybody around you? It’s no fun, because you see things that seem obvious and other people simply don’t see them. It’s as though we’re all standing together and there’s a tiger approaching and one person says, “Hey, watch out! There’s a tiger!” But everybody else says, “I don’t see a tiger,” and acts as though you should keep your mouth shut. Eventually — maybe when it’s too late to avoid it — others notice the tiger and have no recollection that you told them this and they ignored you.
I’m not proud of being smarter than most people. I certainly didn’t do anything to earn it. By an accident of birth, it’s just who I am. On various IQ tests, I score between 155 and 165. (Oh, horrors! I’m not supposed to tell you that, am I? That makes me egotistical!) It doesn’t make me right about everything. It doesn’t mean I’m an automatic success. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. But I do tend to put certain things together more quickly than the vast majority, especially in the areas in which mind mind excels.
I’m annoyed at the idiots who want to “bring us down to size” and I’m annoyed with the societal attitude that smart people owe it to everybody else to avoid letting folks know we’re bright (unless they want something from us, of course).
I’m not going to go around in the world telling people I’m smarter than they are, but I’m also not going to be ashamed that it’s usually true. I know society is going to push me to be polite and I’ll generally stick to the same script we all do.
But just once, I’d really love to respond to the idiot who says, “You just think you’re smarter than me!”
Yes, you idiot. I really am smarter than you are. So what?