The Perils of Calling Smart People Stupid

by rsbakker

I still haven’t had a chance to look at the comments… But I will, once my master, the Great God Procrastidemus, gives me permission.

Otherwise, having completely alienated another one of the fine patrons of the coffee shop where I spend my mornings writing, I thought I would talk about the perils of calling smart people stupid.

The conversations almost always start with some variant of the question: “So you think you’re a critical thinker?” The most recent one ended with me saying, “I’ll shut up now,” to the response, “Yes. Please do.”

Now I’ve had dozens of these conversations, almost always with people in the humanities. Quite a few professors frequent the shop, so I end hearing quite a few sweeping statements about how benighted the poor world is – a claim I whole-heartedly agree with, the exception being I’m inclined to lump the speaker (in this case, myself) in with the rest of the world.

Now I’ve resigned myself to the fact that in some respects, all that distinguishes the educated from the evangelical is the sophistication of their tactics. They both think the other is the sign of the End. The both think themselves morally superior to the other. And they both despise genuine criticism.

I know I do. It’s like this involuntary muscle begins twitching, and I literally purse my lips to prevent myself from speaking. It seems like I have to let the thing tire itself out before I can honestly consider the hard words I’ve heard. When I do speak, I have this strange sense of convincing myself as I speak – and moreover, using my knowledge and vocabulary as a kind of weapon. I find it takes real effort to take a step back, shake my head, and realize I’m simply playing the confirmation game.

Now I like to think I’ve managed to gain some good cognitive habits over the years. I think I’m pretty good at reminding myself that things are always more complicated than they seem. I think I do a fair job at qualifying my claims, and hedging my commitment to newly acquired ‘facts.’

If I still feel as if I have a leg up on the people I’m debating, I think I’ve become good at reminding myself that they feel almost precisely the same way.

I used to feel as though I had become quite good at debating others in a nonthreatening way, but now I realize that this isn’t true at all, at least not in the way I had assumed. I actually think that I have become good at debating points -religious, political – with people lacking graduate degrees in the humanities. The evangelicals I question and debate, for instance, almost always seem to like me afterward – even when I manage to freak them out.

So why isn’t this the case with academics in the humanities? It could be my own insecurities – perhaps I come across as needing to score points against them. Or perhaps, there’s a tacit hierarchy that I’m violating – the hierarchy of the Judge and the Judged.

You see, critical thinking, among many humanities academics, is the cornerstone of their mythic self-identity. They are, you might say, Ordained Critical Thinkers – this is the very sphere of their expertise. So when someone like me comes along claiming that the biggest barrier to critical thinking is the assumption that you are a critical thinker, I’m guessing that it constitutes a kind of existential threat.

I have a friend who once roomed with an expert in ancient languages. Whenever the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses came canvassing, he would invite them in to peruse his library of biblical texts – Aramaic, Coptic, New Testament Greek, etc. – and totally, utterly, freak them out.

I’m starting to wonder whether something parallel is going on here. To pin your self-identity to critical cognition in the absence of any real knowledge of human cognition has got to be an uncomfortable situation, akin to being a Goethe scholar without being able to speak German, I suppose.

Or maybe I’m just an asshole.