This article is Ancient (archive 2011)

Damn it Donnie, Why You Gotta Get All Smart on Us

(As entertaining as we find the idea of someone, somewhere forced to explain why they are watching a clip seemingly about “beer and pussy” and smurf sex, the following clip is probably NSFW).

I sometimes feel like Donnie in that clip: rebuked for being “smart” but all he did was apply a logic to the discussion, making a point then trying to support it with evidence.  Now just because Donnie uses that pattern doesn’t change the fact that his evidence is silly at best, and this is still a conversation about smurfs having sex.  Donnie’s friends obviously don’t want this pattern applied to their smurf sex conversation (presumably because they don’t know how to respond) so they put him down with their tone, but at the same time they call him “smart.”

Nerd Apologists

We have a strange relationship with intellect in our society.  We view intelligence as something you either have or you don’t, so when we see someone act more intelligent than we feel, we see them as inherently “other”.  But “smart isn’t something you are, it is something you get” as one of my professor once said. We can gain more knowledge and we can gain the skills of logical discourse, which are both components of intelligence.

So how do people deal with this conflict? We apologize when we use a skill that seems intellectual, because we feel as though we are pretenders to the throne of intellectualism.  I hear it a lot at work.  When a coworker decides to showcase some of her knowledge about a topic she follows it up with “sorry, I am such a nerd.”  I have also heard coworkers who beg away from discussions of etymology by saying they are “not smart enough for this conversation.”

The people I work with are all intelligent.  We work in a law firm, so we deal with complex ideas and have to keep lots of incoming data organized. So I am puzzled when I hear a coworker say they aren’t “smart.”  They are smart, they just aren’t interested in the topic or playing a game perceived as intellectual. Donnie’s friends could have just pointed out that he was treating one type of conversation (about the hypothetical sex lives of Smurfs) as another type of conversation (about the hypothetical biology of Smurfs and the existential implications thereof), but they didn’t.

Inconvenient Intellect

At its heart, I feel this mainly has to do with humankind’s tendency towards herding: we like to be part of a crowd.  When you gain an atypical skill, you want to hide it or apologize for it.  This can be seen in some studies done by Roland G Fryer (*sigh*), in which he looked at African American students and the relationship between their grades and their amount of friends.  He hypothesized that African American students with higher grades would be seen as “acting white” and lose friends.  He found evidence to support that idea, but I think that idea isn’t restricted to that demographic.

Throughout my elementary school and middle school days I struggled finding the balance between working to do well in school and not appearing brainy.  In high school, slacker was chic.  My willpower wasn’t strong enough to allow me a break from the crowd, so I went along.  Had I broke the mold would I have been a better student?  Maybe, or maybe I am just using the culture as an excuse for my own shortcomings.

In either case, we don’t need think of intelligence as inherent and intellectuals as others.  The games perceived as intellectual are no more or less competitive (and no more or less difficult) than those of any other type of conversation, but rather than learning the rules or taking the time to teach the rules to others, we mark them as “intellectual”.  Which is a shame.  Some one needed to shut Donnie up, but not by calling him “too smart”.

Have you ever encountered something similar?  Am I being a pretentious intellectual?

Donny got a BA in English, which he thought meant badass, but then he got to the real world. Now he realizes it means bitter academic. Donny did a stint in grad school with a focus on education, which made him angry enough to start writing columns. While education is still his main focus, Donny now wants to apply his academic rigor to other mundane activities.