Back in school there was this guy who, at the end of the day, would go around sitting on the chairs of all the “best” students in class (and no I wasn’t one of them – always a late bloomer it seems), because he hoped that their talents would, in a very literal sense, “rub off” on him. At the time I found it hilarious (and in a disturbingly mean way); now it just makes me sad. And a lot of that is because, without realizing it, he had come a lot closer to the truth than I’d realized (and I wouldn’t for a long, long time).
There a few things you learn if you teach for a living that can fundamentally change your entire narrative of how the world works. Correction – not “learn”. It isn’t that you necessarily learn anything new, but that you feel some truths for the first time. That is, of course, if you’re paying attention. And one thing that bothers me, perhaps above all else, is the assumption of stupidity; the judgment of intellect.
We are all in our own small ways guilty of it. Those who teach faced with those who either refuse to learn, or seem incapable of it. Those who succeed effortlessly faced with those who either couldn’t give a shit, or who seem to fail no matter how much of a shit they give. And worst of all, those who fail themselves, eventually resigning themselves to intuitively appealing explanations based on talent and effort – it seems (to most) that neither capacity is distributed in a very egalitarian manner. A large part of it is the structure of the education machine itself, but the problems with such industrial age factory-based systems are well known. What I’m trying to talk about is a lot more insidious. It is the problem of judgment – or more accurately, judgment that obfuscates and perpetuates deep structural social inequalities.
A twenty something who shrugs and confesses that she “just can’t do math” has already committed a serious crime against her own self which, if not corrected, will continue to hurt her all her life. There are reasons, of course, professed or internalized (or both), and they range quite widely. But almost all of them will fall under one of three labels: “I don’t like math” is one. Now I myself don’t care much for math, but nor do I like the sound of Cantonese very much; we learn the languages we need for our purposes, whether it’s economic modeling or two years abroad in Hong Kong. This is by far the easiest of the cases to deal with; the other two are much, much harder – “I’m not working hard enough”, and the worst one, “I just don’t have the mind for it”. But since working “hard” is useless if you’re not working the right way, the former can largely be subsumed under the latter.
A tragedy of our time, here and now, is that one of the few distinctions we are still allowed to make even in seemingly educated circles, after having discarded gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity and so many other false divisions, is the distinction between “intelligent” and “stupid” (usually expressed more euphemistically). Not only is this distinction a profound lie, it is a fundamentally dangerous one, capable of slowly but surely crippling life after life without ever arousing suspicion.
To be sure, mental retardation is real, and so are prodigies. Outliers aside, however, most of us are so (surprisingly) close to the average that it’s almost a little sad. And yet, understanding this is crucial, because the biggest mistake that someone who is “failing” at something can make is deifying the successful. Recognizing failure is the first step in the right direction; normalizing it is a giant leap backwards. It is easy to take that wrong step after seeing people who appear to be succeeding with almost half the effort, but do you truly believe that they are twice as smart as you? If you do, you are almost certainly wrong. Most human beings do not differ that much in terms of “inherent” intelligence or ability, and chances are that you and everyone you know are not among the outliers, no matter what many would have you believe. Society loves to deify and separate the masses from the “elite” – saying “oh of course she can, she’s a genius” is the easiest way to forget about her altogether, and stifle all the normal jealousy and envy and competitiveness that we feel with our contemporaries. But how can one be successful while only having failures as benchmarks? What we have is a lie that is as dangerous as it is comforting. Anyone who thinks that they are inherently very smart, is almost certainly not as smart as they think. And anyone who thinks that they are inherently very stupid is almost certainly a lot less so.
We appear to be disturbingly comfortable with what I like to call assumptions of difference. To take an example from a class I teach – with a simple additive social welfare function (meaning that social welfare is just everyone’s welfare added together), assuming that everyone has identical utility functions that depend only on income (people only care about money and derive exactly the same satisfaction from it), that these utility functions exhibit diminishing marginal returns to income (every dollar makes you happy, but the 100th dollar makes you a lot happier vs the 99th than the 1000th vs the 999th – money’s good but gets a little boring after a while), and that the total income available in the economy is fixed, then the optimal (most socially desirable) income distribution is perfect equality. This is because in this model, taking a rich guy’s 1000th dollar and giving it to a poor guy does make the rich guy a little worse off, but it makes the poor guy a lot “more” better off than the rich guy is worse off (perhaps that dollar is the 100th one for the poor guy) – this means that social welfare (in the net) has improved. In fact, we can keep doing this until we reach a point where we can no longer take money away from someone and give it to someone else without hurting social welfare, because at that point the former is exactly as worse off as the latter is better off – this is the point of perfect equality.
A radical conclusion, but the holes in the model are obvious (it would seem). It is enough for our purposes here to focus on the first assumption. Utility functions can’t be observed (your preferences are a black box – all we can see is behaviour), so it is simply impossible to determine whether everyone’s utility functions are indeed the same. This is the point where I ask – if, hypothetically, we were able to actually observe utility functions, would you still expect them to be (roughly) the same for everyone? Every single time, the overwhelmingly popular answer is NO.
Isn’t that curious? Instead of the logically sound “we can’t tell either way”, we seem to naturally gravitate towards assuming difference. Reasons given range from “well, people are just different” (why though?) to “we’ve all grown up in different circumstances and environments” (if that is the case, why assume difference and not pursue equality instead of assuming sameness, pursuing equality, and then seeing if the differences actually persist?). There is not a shred of actual evidence to justify such an overwhelming response, while there is quite a good deal of evidence to go the other way.
Part of it may simply be a lack of perspective – the differences stand out to us even if they are really meaningless in the greater scheme of things. We tend to mistake a taste for coffee as different from a taste for tea, whereas they are both a taste for hot caffeine-based stimulants. We see the difference between the top of the class and the barely passed and we forget that they are both in the same course, studying in the same university – they are both part of a still privileged few. We see that some people spend their money on tehari and some on sashimi (damn I could use some of both right now), and we conclude that it would be wrong to assume that they have the same preferences. But that is simply a question of levels of abstraction – they are both prone to spending their money on feeding themselves.
All of that may account for some of it, but I think the greater problem is our inability to identify the channels through which circumstance and environment shapes us, our inability to connect the dots and draw a mental map of the series of key turning points in our lives that led to where we are (largely beyond our control), and our inherently narcissistic memory that naturally subscribes achievement to the self and over-inflates the scope of our agency. Imagine, if you will, that a girl is not doing particularly well in college. And now think about the 20 something years that this girl has lived until this moment. Isn’t it possible that at least a few events (which may or may not have been thought important as they happened) may have occurred in all that time which ended up playing an important part in nudging her life to precisely this moment and situation? Parents’ income, level of education, social and cultural capital, time of birth, place of birth, gender, childhood nutrition, parents’ income and lifestyle over the course of the daughter’s life, upbringing, exposure to books at home, family’s religious inclinations, domestic stability, affection given and on display at home, choice of school, peer group, friend circles, teachers and mentors, exposure to different socio-economic strata, geographical exposure, role models, choice (or lack thereof) of entertainment at home, choice of entertainment by friends – all of this is just scratching the surface. Imagine that each of these is a continuous variable that can take an immense multitude of values, and that each of these has an impact (from the minute to the permanent) on the ability of the girl to perform in college right now, and realize then just how different it could have been. Faced with this realization, can it ever be intellectually honest to not assume that we are indeed more inherently similar than different? Only if we can conclusively show that, under any permutation of the above list of factors, she would have grown up to be in the exact same situation, with the same abilities, skills, personality and character traits as she has now. That is clearly impossible, and the odds against such a result are enormous.
This reasoning can be extended to attack any argument from inherent difference – women are naturally suited to the private sphere, the poor are poor because they are lazy and have too much sex, certain races are inferior, certain cultures are more prone to corruption, certain religions more prone to violence – the list is endless. In every single one these cases, the only intellectually and morally defensible position is to assume similarity, not difference, until proven otherwise under identical circumstances over a sufficiently long period of time. To deny yourself this realization in the face of apparent failure, to deny others the psychic sanctuary of this truth when they are faced with your own relative success – that is the violence of judgment.
To be continued