Exposing one’s inner self on a blog can be an illuminating experience. It has been for me. I write with abandon of family conflicts, traumas, arguments and self-doubt, mistakes I have made in the past that hurt people, and I shrug off any feeling that I may be making myself vulnerable by so doing. I run the risk of pissing off those close to me, or of representing things unfairly, and yet I forge ahead.
Talking about my early academic life, however, strikes me as fraught with peril. I could limit myself to relating objective facts, things that cannot be disputed, and still I find the prospect risky enough that this is the fifth version of this paragraph, the others discarded in fits of second-guessing.
Objective facts: My parents tell a story of when I was two or three years old. (One of them will likely step in here to tell me.) They and I were driving on the New York State Thruway with my grandfather. We passed a sign that said ‘Syracuse.” I pointed at it and said “Syracuse.” My grandfather refused to believe what he had just witnessed. I was reading at that age. By the time I was four, I was reading middle-school-level physics.
Is that boasting? It feels like boasting. I am proud of it. Why should I be? I didn’t make my mind. The way my mind works was given to me, an accident of genetics and who knows what else?
Here is what it is like: I have no idea what it is like to work to understand something I find interesting. The understanding just flows in. Not all at once, mind you. I have learning curves just like anyone else. But it’s the steep parts of those curves that I find easiest. Once the pace slackens off, I find it tougher to maintain my interest.
Objective facts: At age eight, I enrolled in a private school designed to teach kids like me. The class was a new one, the youngest kids the school had ever admitted. I was younger than all but one of my classmates. We spent the school year studying high school, AP-and college level material. At the end of that school year, I stood in front of an audience and accepted an award for having the highest grades in my class. I had not lifted a finger all year.
I am grateful for my intelligence. It allows me to support myself doing things I find interesting, itself a rare gift these days. More importantly, it allows me to find a huge number of things not only interesting but infinitely complex as well. But it makes as much sense to me to be proud of my mind as it does to be proud of a birthmark, or my shoe size. People who focus on their studies, who turn in homework on time or at all, who diligently push their test scores up to the high Bs or mid-As, in school, who spend mental sweat in the workplace trying desperately to keep their skills marketable: they have something to be proud of. I have the luxury of waiting around for inspiration to strike, and then getting a prodigious amount of work done in something very like a fugue state.
It feels — it has always felt — like cheating. I stood in front of that room at age nine, accepting my award, and feeling as if I had duped an entire room full of people. I have assiduously avoided the possibility of winning awards since that day. After years in that school with the supposed top two percent as gauged by the odious Stanford-Binet — most of them good kids, of whom I have fond memories — I would sooner gouge my eyes out with a garden trowel than attend a MENSA meeting.
Though I loathe reductionist IQ tests — I have no idea what mine was that day they tested me at age six, and no interest in knowing to boot — I have no particular favorite alternative model to describe what intelligence is. No one else really has a workable definition either, not even the people who are paid to come up with definitions of intelligence, some of whom are themselves very intelligent. All I know is, whatever intellect really is, American society has a love-hate relationship with it. We claim to revere it, but we mistrust the implicit bell-curve hierarchy even as we rabidly hew to it. It would be ridiculous to imply that the very intelligent are in any way oppressed. The benefits of the condition, for the most part, far outweigh the costs, although this is somewhat less true for smart women, who face their own types of social stigmas. We are mocked on occasion. We are often mistrusted. We are more prone to depression, and a few specific kinds of disabilities are strongly associated with high intellect. Still, it’s better on the whole to be on this end of that obnoxious bell curve than at the other. I’ll take the mistrust and resentment, and occasional sheer uninformed hatred, and be glad of it.
Because my brothers and sisters at the other end of that damnable bell curve, who did not earn their irrevocable place in line any more than I did mine, have it far worse than I do.
For all that we self-proclaimed smart folks in the US decry the burgeoning anti-intellectualism of the populace, public disdain for the intellectual elite has never, and likely will never, approach the long-term, embedded, often seething hatred we have for the mentally disabled.
My terminology here is imprecise. “Mentally disabled” is not the opposite of “very intelligent.” My brother suffers from a confusing suite of trauma-related mental disabilities and is nonetheless the single most intelligent person I have ever met. Dyslexia is a disability affecting mentation, and some brilliant people suffer from it. Geniuses get Alzheimers.
I’m talking about what was once uniformly called mental retardation. The American Association on Mental Retardation still calls it that. Others have shied away from the term, due to its increasingly derogatory nature. In its day, the adjectival form “mentally retarded” was a more humane alternative to the previous terminology, an ascending scale of scope of disability: “moron,” “imbecile,” “idiot.” People now suggest terms such as the misleading “developmentally delayed” as potential replacements. None of the terms are perfect, perhaps inevitably when describing a wide and unrelated range of conditions, from direct physical or infectious brain injury to fetal alcohol syndrome to phenylketonuria and Down Syndrome.
Our attitudes toward this disability suite are so deep-rooted that such etymological conversion is likely inevitable regardless of the terminology used. Were special-ed professionals to settle on “golden” or “excellent” as a descriptive term for the range of disabilities known as mental retardation, “golden” or “excellent” would become terms of revolted opprobrium within one child’s grammar school career.
The disabled exhibit more or less the same range of moral qualities as the rest of us. The overwhelming majority of retarded, or delayed, or whatever you want to call it, people are, like the majority of everyone else, good, caring, trustworthy people. Vanishingly few of them, aside from those in the process of being disabled by whooping cough or meningitis, are contagious. They have no greater tendency to violence or theft than anyone else, and in fact perhaps less. Why, then, are they anathema?
I can only conclude that the venom with which the mentally disabled people are derided stems from fear of disability, a phenomenon with which my physically disabled readers will be familiar. It is a fear of the other, compounded by the gut-level recognition that “the disabled” is a disempowered minority to which any one of us might wake up one morning and find we have been admitted.
That fear can propel vindictive reactions that seem to defy logic, especially, it would seem, among conservatives. In 2003, Michael Bérubé published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that detailed his disintegrating relationship with a student who increasingly disrupted a class as the semester wore on. Bérubé tried without much success to find ways to incorporate the student into the class:
“John spoke up often, sometimes loudly, sometimes out of turn. He had begun to conceive of himself as the only countervailing conservative voice in a classroom full of liberal-left think-alikes, and he occasionally spoke as if he were entitled to reply to every other student’s comment — in a class of 17… It would have been a relatively simple matter to put the brakes on — to speak to him, in class or afterward, in such a way as to let him know that he was not, in fact, entitled to comment on every other student’s comment. But I did not want to contribute to his growing sense of lonely opposition.”
At the end of the piece, Bérubé ruminated on the larger issues involved in teaching disruptive students:
“Over my 20 years in teaching, I’ve had many conservatives in my classes. I think I’ve even had a few Stalinists, too. I’ve had many intelligent, articulate students who behaved as if they had a right to speak more often and at greater length than anyone else in the room; I’ve had versions of Reese Witherspoon in Election and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series, who knew the answers to every question ever asked; I’ve had my share of blurters with very little sense of social boundaries, a few of whom may genuinely have had some degree of Asperger’s syndrome, with various autistic or antisocial symptoms. To all such students — indeed, to all students, those with disabilities and those without — I try to apply the standard of disability law: I make reasonable accommodation for them. The challenge, though, lies in making reasonable accommodations for students whose standards of ‘reasonableness’ are significantly different from yours.”
Conservative academics howled, claiming that Bérubé had “compared conservatives to autistics” — an interpretation that even a cursory reading of the article demolishes. The above-quoted, final paragraph contains the only reference to disability, in an obvious attempt to broaden the discussion to different types of classroom disruptions, some deliberate, some incidental. Despite the utter groundlessness of the claims and Bérubé‘s repeated efforts to address his critics, you will still hear the conservative claim being made today, often by people who have been roundly debunked on previous occasions.
It’s a trivial exercise to find conservative people reacting negatively to even being mentioned in the same sentence as disabled people, a salient example being a response to a recent comment I made at Feministe. Shankar Gupta’s response to my comment was tart, but civil. Most such responses are not. One could speculate as to reason for the vociferousness. Is it a wounded outrage at the suggestion that any individual disabled person might possess a positive quality that an individual conservative might lack? Is it a subconscious fear that the very existence of disabled people — who after all are to some degree exempt from the presumed universal ability of the non-lazy to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps, a population that needs extra societal assistance through no fault of their own — negates conservative ideology, and that to compare is to recognize not only their existence but their commonality with the conservative being offended?
But let’s not single out conservatives unfairly. Liberals, it turns out, are rather likely to insult their political opponents by alleging that they’re cognitively disabled. People raised in PC culture (myself included) will preferentially use outmoded, abandoned terminology (morons, imbeciles, idiots) rather than calling their debate opponents “retards,” but the effect — and, I would maintain, the intent — is the same. And this is done by people who would spit nails if an opponent insulted them with reference to gender, race, or female body part. This is an odd attitude for liberals to take toward those who are, nearly without exception, the most persistently vulnerable subgroup in any population.
At the root of this particular use of “retard” as insult is a misunderstanding of the nature of intelligence. Fashionable anti-intellectualism notwithstanding, Americans consistently equate intelligence with equally intangible but nonetheless distinct mental or emotional faculties: compassion, judgment, common sense, intellectual flexibility, wisdom. Logically, then, the further one progresses to the right hand tail of the old intelligence bell curve, the more compassionate, wise, understanding, and nuanced the people mapped there will be.
Of course I am here to tell you, my friends, that it just ain’t so. Even among the brilliant kids in that school I went to one could find avaricious thugs, dullards, ideologues, and sociopaths. The right tail has its altruistic Schweitzers, its intuitive and holistic Einsteins, to be sure. But it also has its insane Kaczynskis, its murderous Kissingers, its hidebound and mediocre Victor Davis Hansons. All of them brilliant, to be sure.
But there are more important things than brilliance.
Staggeringly intelligent people voted for Bush, and both times. People with robust intellects believed the obvious propaganda being spewed in the run-up to the Iraq War. Magna Cum Laudes from prestigious schools think WMDs were found within weeks of our invasion. And millions of intelligent people across the political spectrum think the war is wrong, find Bush anathema, fear for the future of the United States, and yet do nothing to change the situation.
They are wrong, but it is not because they lack intelligence.
When we score rhetorical points by calling our opponents disabled, we ascribe venal, short-sighted, misguided intent to millions of innocent people who may very well share our political beliefs — people whose ranks each of us is but an auto accident or three-day fever from joining.
We also miss opportunities to determine why it is that our opponents think the way they do.
We can do better than this.