Gonna use ableist language in this post, obviously, but not as an endorsement, also obviously – I hope. A common belief of misanthropes in all walks of life is that they are the lone sane or intelligent person in a world gone mad or gone stupid. You get that a lot in comments on FtB. Observe my comment policy in the sidebar before you bring that here, please. I just wanted to get out an idea that’s been occurring to me a lot lately. I’ve been running into the cognitive deficits of others pretty often, and the big plagiarism video focused a lot on the question of “why plagiarize?” I feel these things are related.
When I say I’ve been running into the cognitive deficits of others, you might reasonably infer that I think of myself as superior to those people in intellect and worth – that I am being ableist. But I believe you can acknowledge that somebody has a deficit in a non-ableist way, for example, when developing policies to allow the cognitively impaired full access to a good life. It’s what you do with the observation of that fact that matters. Do I think people are less valuable than I am because they would do worse on standardized tests? Worse at math, reading comprehension, elementary logic? No.
Do I think I am the end-all be-all of genius? Fuck no, I feel the limits of my own ability to think every fucking day at my job. It sucks. It sucks worse for the people I deal with, and I feel bad for them. My job is, in part, trying to explain information that makes me feel feeble-minded to people who find that information fully paralyzing.
The picture I’m starting to get, the half-baked thesis I’m dropping here, is that huge swathes of humanity are much less intelligent than society expects them to be. We expect certain basic abilities in modern life – attention span, reading comprehension, math, awareness of cultural concepts and trivia, wit, spelling and grammar, whatever. You might see people being slack about some of these and scoff, say there is no standard, but that’s a facile way of looking at shit. Witness the way people get dogpiled for embarrassing themselves on social media. These expectations are unevenly enforced, but they do exist.
(Quick aside on race and class: I’ve talked to an upper middle class white person who was hatefully resistant to understanding the most basic aspects of the laws and policies they were dealing with, and a user of thick AAVE with multiple children dependent on social benefits -your “welfare mom”- who effortlessly intuited subtleties of the even worse laws and policies they were being subjected to. You can’t judge cognitive ability from how educated a person sounds.)
This situation has not resulted in people rising to those standards, because they fucking can’t. The actual result of those standards is a lot of fakery. People learn how to pretend they’re more capable than they are. Some buy their own act and get overconfident, but most live in terror of being discovered. It’s not always imposter syndrome, because – if I’m right – the average person is genuinely not as cognitively capable as we expect them to be. This is not unlike the way we expect everybody to be more slim and physically adroit than most people are capable of being. We’re all doing our best to not get attacked for our deficits, and if I’m right, huge numbers of people passing as able right now are actually mentally deficient by mainstream standards. They’re suffering for it.
The shittier skeptics will just mock the gullible. The more idealistic skeptics might see this issue and think, well, we’ll just help enlighten them. They’re right that nobody deserves to be gulled, but they’re wrong to think it’s possible for most people to reach a point of skeptical competence that will prevent it. We’d do better to push for laws and social mores that protect people from deception.
If you see somebody struggling with some cognitive task, cut them some slack. You’ve surely struggled with thinking at some point in your own life, or will in the future, should you experience senescence. Don’t call attention to it, just help them get past the situation discreetly and move on. That’s all I have for now. I don’t believe education and outreach is useless, but it could be useful to get a more realistic view of its limitations.