Who’s Smart?

You have to be smart to have value.

This has been a year of excavation, bringing up old assumptions for careful examination. It’s been both frightening and a huge relief to think that I might not be some fundamentally flawed, unlovable mess. Some thoughts, when thoroughly challenged, can completely change the way you see yourself.

Some thoughts, when thoroughly challenged, can completely change the way you see the rest of the world. These are a little harder to look at. It’s like pulling a huge stone out of the Earth. It doesn’t want to move.

Like this thought: you have to be smart to have any value.

Smart people have the lives worth living. They produce the things worth producing. Stupid is the worst thing you can be, worse than being awkward or a liar or even a bad person. Being stupid means being publicly shamed, and even deserving it.

It’s deeply uncomfortable to question these ideas, because they are at the core of my worldview. I was raised to value education, literature, art and conversation. Letting go of the idea that your intelligence is equal to your value feels like letting go of the things I care about. I have always admired philosophers, artists, physicists, inventors. Questioning the idea of intelligence feels like it means letting go of that admiration, which I still believe is well deserved. It means questioning my very moral compass.

But here’s the counter-argument: I’ve read a lot of theory about hierarchies, how they’re carefully created and enforced in our culture. Hierarchies of race, class, gender and sexuality. There’s this inescapable idea that a few rare people are on top while everyone else is relegated to lower levels of access, admiration, rights – value.

What if – and this is only an idea I’ve been toying with, based on what I’ve been reading – what if intelligence is just another bullshit hierarchy?

People like Howard Gardner have been trying to expand our definition of intelligence for years. I love it. But what I’m thinking lately is that the whole idea of sorting people into more and less intelligent might be inherently flawed. Or, at the very least, that attaching this inherent intelligence to a person’s overall worth or basic goodness is wrong.

Where does that leave all the inventors and intellectuals, though? I still admire them, and I’m unwilling to let go of that. But what if my admiration were based on their accomplishments, rather than some inherent quality I believe they possess? Can you celebrate a book or a theory without the belief that the person who created it is worth more than all the people who didn’t?

I still don’t know. I’m still just tugging at that stone that doesn’t want to move.

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