Life Lessons, or Why I'm an Intellectual Elitist Despite my Best Efforts

Friday, June 12, 2009
I was having an IM discussion with a friend today (Hi, Jeri!), and the subject of intellectual elitism came up.

Now, I'm the first one to admit that I think I'm smart. I like being smart, and I like having smart people in my life. I voted for President Obama (in part) because he's very, very smart. In short, intelligence is something I value, both in myself and in others.*

However, I also value other attributes. I like people who are caring, and kind, and generous, and curious. I value honesty, and integrity, and the moral courage that allows people to make the hard choice.

As a purely intellectual exercise, I know I should place higher value on the second group of characteristics - after all, being smart is nothing to brag about. You simply had the good luck to win the genetic lottery, and it's not due to anything you did. However, the second group of virtues are things you can actually take credit for. You can choose to be a kind person, or a generous person, just as you can choose to be a complete douche-bag, as evidenced by so many people who do just that.

I know this is true intellectually. I know I shouldn't place a higher value on an attribute that is inherently not a virtue. And yet I do. If I have no emotional investment in an individual, and they demonstrate to my satisfaction that they're dumber than a damned stump, then l tend to be dismissive.

I'm not proud of this behavior, and I've been working for years to correct it, as I realize how utterly unbecoming it is. Like accepting the truth when people show me who they are, this is a life lesson that continues to elude me, and it's really starting to piss me off.

I try to be the kind of person who actively works at her faults, and doesn't believe I have nothing left to learn (really, how boring would that be?), but I'm really sucking salt water at this one. The fact that most of my friends are both smart and have many other virtues means I'm not forced to address this on a daily basis. Since I'm all about being a lazy-butt when given the opportunity, this ends up on the back burner more often than it should.

This whole "continuous self improvement" gig is a lot of damned work. Stupid self improvement.


*This does not mean, however, that I think Mensa, or I.Q. tests, or any other form of dick measurement is a worthwhile endeavor. Like the size of your penis, the capacity of your brain is irrelevant if you don't use it to good effect.

12 comments:

MWT said...

At least you're not the variety of elitist that says things like "I wonder how many people know XYZ without googling. I bet not many. *snerk*"

Random Michelle K said...

Now see, I'm the opposite in some ways.

I was in the "gifted" program at school (whatever the hell that means) and found the other kids in the gifted programs were kinda jerks.

In high school, I didn't like anyone who was competing with me for class rank. I actively disliked the two guys who ended up ahead of me, and was unimpressed by the girl behind me.

I took classes because I thought they were interesting, but then found that the two guys would sign up for the same classes because they didn't want me getting "ahead" of them.

Essentially, throughout school for being smart meant either dealing with jerks, or that I was ostracized because I was a geek.

I learned in high school that the adults I could count on--the ones who looked out for me--were the athletic trainer and the custodian.

The same lessons tend to be repeated for me over time. At work I usually dislike dealing with the doctors, who are often jerks, but the secretaries and maintenance people are always nice and have a friendly world.

Not that the opposite isn't true. There are some awesome doctors who are polite and wonderful. But for the most part, I hate having to deal with doctors and other "intellectuals" because they tend to be assholes.

Doesn't stop me from learning for the sake of learning and doesn't squelch my love of education, but I do tend to avoid people who value their own intelligence, mostly because I'd much rather deal with people who are kind.

Geek Goddess said...

I hear you on this. I have friends of all backgrounds, but I am attracted to really smart people as long as they are nice as well I don't know that I'm a snob, but we are all attracted to certain types. A good-looking guy whose too dumb to find the neck of his sweaters is a turn off.

And a few of the biggest dweebs I know proudly sport MENSA bumper stickers, BTW. A friend gave me his MENSA newsletter. The editorial was full of grammatical mistakes and many of the the ads in the back for the SIG (special interest groups) were geared towards crystal gazing and other New Age dreck.

Jim Wright said...

Keep talking like that and the republicans won't let you in their club, just saying, you elitist you.

Random Michelle K said...

Keep talking like that and the republicans won't let you in their club


You say that like it's a bad thing.

Janiece Murphy said...

Michelle, I value kindness, as well, and I think Geek Godess hit the nail on the head.

The people to whom I am closest and respect and admire the most are the ones who are bright and decent human beings.

As I get older, I realize that I can have BOTH in the people I choose to share my life with.

And Naomi, this groups' experiences with Mensa's so-called SIGs has only proven that those people need to spend more time in the real world and less time being impressed with themselves. I mean, seriously - get off your ass and do something with your gifts.

Janiece Murphy said...

No shit, huh, Michelle?

I'm SO DISAPPOINTED I won't be a member of THAT club.

NOT.

Jeri said...

Amen, Janiece, this continuous quality management process sucks, doesn't it?

Guilty of the same thing... and I need to work on valuing people for what they are.

Random Michelle K said...

I get what you're saying. I'm just pointing out that I feel like I come from the opposite direction. If someone is an intellectual, I'm far more hesitant towards them.

I'm not saying my friends are stupid--they aren't. I'm just saying that people who come off as smart intellectuals tend to put me off. I'm not saying people need to hide their smarts, I'm just saying people who come off as intellectual out me off.

Eric said...

There's a significant difference between being an intellectual and being an elitist, indeed they're separate things and it's only because of the profound anti-intellectual streak in American culture that the terms get shackled together so much.

There are elitists over money. Elitists over breeding. Elitists over geography. And yes, there are elitists over intelligence. But identifying yourself as an intellectual doesn't make you a snob any more than admitting you're rich does, or being proud of having grown up in New York or that you have a historically prominent ancestor.

It's when you think you're a better class of person because of x that you're talking elitism.

Thinking about that last sentence, it also strikes me that the American revulsion towards elitism is really a perversion of our otherwise-noble egalitarianism. I mean, do you want to go see an elite doctor or a mediocre doctor? Are you going to send in the elite military strike force for the sensitive mission or, "I dunno, just pick some guys." You get the idea: the knee-jerk reaction to "elitism" is revulsion, when the primary definition of the word is merely, "the choice or best of anything considered collectively"; in those terms, most of us prefer the best to the second-rate (except, evidently, when picking a President in 2000, when "he's someone I'd like to hang out with" apparently trumped "hey, he's kind of annoying but he's also pretty smart, isn't he?").

No, let's change what I started to say; I think I have it: the problem isn't elitism, it's arrogance. Intellectualism is good--intellectuals are smart and know things. Elitism can be good--people who are truly elite are best in their field, and not only deserve recognition, but (more importantly) have more to offer those they should serve (we should all serve others as much as we can, it's a human duty).

But arrogance? The "offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride"? Awful. Don't be arrogant, even if you're a member of the intellectual elite and mistakenly think you have reason to.

mom in northern said...

It is so nice to know that some of the lessons you were exposed to as a youngster took…
I would only add the notion that it is possible to be uneducated, in the formal sense, and still be smart.

The quality of your persona can be learned, educated or not…
“When people show you who they are…believe them” Maya Angelou wasn’t it?

Fathergoose said...

Well stated.