It’s Hard Being Smart in a Stupid World
No sooner had I put down the issue of I3 (It Is Innovation) I recently snagged from the Consumer Electronics Show, which featured Alexis Ohanian (one of Reddit’s co-founders), than I heard that Aaron Swartz (former co-owner of Reddit) had committed suicide.
And after months of being inundated with CES-related press releases detailing the legendary advances made in 2012 alone in the technology arena, this sad news recalled a truth I’ve held dear for some time:
It is hard being smart in a stupid world.
And it’s painfully obvious how really, really, supremely, insanely stupid that world is when you think about how few people actually have the smarts to be able to develop technology. Some people can’t even figure out how to turn on their TVs.
Granted, plenty of stupid people kill themselves too, so it’s not like the phenomenon is exclusive to the brilliant. And certainly, a history of mental illness and fear of criminal conviction played their roles in this aforementioned case.
Nor is genius limited strictly to one area of study. For some reason, Swartz’s suicide made me think of the suicide of David Foster Wallace, whom most of my fellow creative writing colleagues know for his literary virtuosity (although here are some more unusual facts about him).
This subsequently reminded me of the time I saw him and Peter Rock read their work at the University of Arizona. This was back in 2002. I made the trek from L.A. back to Tucson to my alma mater specifically for it, and I was not disappointed, although Wallace actually did not finish the essay he was reading (which I thought was unusual at the time, but might’ve actually been a really great sales tactic).
Anyway, the thing I remember most distinctly about this event was a completely moronic question that came from the audience after the authors were finished. Actually, I don’t remember the question; I just remember it being that stupid — and yes, there are stupid questions, no matter what your politically correct teacher told you. If you’ve ever been to even one reading of literary fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you will know the question type of which I speak. It’s usually along the lines of the following:
- Where did you get the idea for this story/essay/poem? This question is dumb because who the heck really knows where ideas come from? Seriously. Similarly, who the heck really knows how the idea turned into the finished piece, or how far departed the finished piece might be from the original idea? But even if you did know, would you really divulge this part of your creative process? Come on, now!
- What are your writing habits? I write only in the nude because I don’t want my clothes to smell like the feces I’m flinging around with the chimps I just had an orgy with. Aren’t you sorry you asked? Or do you foolishly expect that if you do the same, you’ll be equally successful?
- How did you become such a great writer? Um, probably by writing a lot. But aren’t you really asking how you can become a great — and by “great,” you probably mean “successful/accomplished/paid/worshiped/doable” — writer? In which case, how should the person you’re asking know?
Whatever that question was, I remember how Wallace reacted, though his actual verbal response escapes me. He glanced over at Rock as if to ocularly communicate, “Fellow writer of significance, is this pathetic mortal serious?” then gave a response that was completely snarky but equally over the asker’s head, so that by the end, the dolt was actually thanking Wallace for his response.
I’m not sure if that gratitude was edifying or horrifying for Wallace; my guess is it was a little of both. As one of the people who picked up on the undertones, I found myself internally applauding him (because it seemed like some shiz I would want to pull, as I hate stupid), but I also know if I’d done something like that, I’d feel like a jerk — mostly because that behavior actually defines people as jerks — so I found myself slightly repulsed by him as well.
Torn by conflicting sentiments about this act, I had to contemplate what was at the heart of my emotional dilemma, and at the end of the day, it is this: Stupidity should be something we hold others (and ourselves) accountable for, but there may simply be no good way to do so.
Which, again, is why it’s hard being smart in a stupid world. And when you’re that smart — like, Wallace smart, Swartz smart, Turing smart, Plath smart, Van Gogh smart, Gilman smart, Tchaikovsky smart, Sexton smart, Woolf smart — stupidity multiplies exponentially in the face of your aptitude.
Now, I am certainly not under the delusion that I’m on this level, but even within the level at which I reside, I find a majority of people really hard to deal with. And I look around at my intelligent friends — most of whom are still single — and I feel like I understand why, especially if they’re women. You simply can’t hold a relationship down if you’re talking quantum physics and your partner’s talking basic arithmetic.
Well, unless you’re John McAfee, but that dude’s just clinical with a capital C.
Actually, many people in the list above struggled with mental illness, addiction, or something of that sort. Perhaps a function of the thing that makes you that bloody brilliant is that it will also make you psychotic — just the other side of the same coin you hold, I guess.
Or maybe it’s just plain hard to be human. But that’s a far less amusing blog title.