The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.

Separatism and Intersectionality

One of the broadest areas of disagreement within the social justice community is the extent to which we should distance ourselves from individuals in the groups oppressing us. The argument often devolves into a fight between simpering pacifism of the “Let’s all just get along and be happy together!” flavour, and violent militarism of the “I spit in the face of group Z” flavour.

Now, on a personal level, both of these positions are completely valid. If that’s how you feel is appropriate for you personally to proceed, then that’s fine. But we have a problem when either of these positions is evangelised, and presented as though it is the only acceptable way to live with yourself as the member of an oppressed group. In particular, pushing separatism as the ideal mode of resistance from oppression is a tactic that erases intersectionality.

In the past, I’ve been a card-carrying member of the “Let’s try to all live together because peace and love are better than fighting!” group. But I now realise there are some very deep problems with that position.

The first is that trying to always and everywhere get along and live together with individuals who are actively a threat to your mental and emotional well-being is not a sustainable position. There is often very real tension involved when individuals in oppressed groups befriend, become involved with, or interact with individuals from the groups oppressing them. Regardless of the intentions of the privileged individual, the social power dynamic between the groups creates additional risks for the person who is a member of the marginalised group. It’s important for us to recognise this, on two levels. As members of marginalised groups, we owe it to ourselves to preserve our emotional health, and manage these risks to the best of our abilities. That may mean limiting our interactions or choosing them carefully or many other options. As members of privileged groups, we owe it to everyone to make sure we never abuse the awful, misbegotten social power we have. (And if we fuck up on this point, we have to own it and say sorry.)

For example, in a society infused with sexism, androcentrism and rape culture, there are things that many women feel they must take into consideration when interacting with men, that they do not often feel they must consider when interacting with other women. Melissa McEwan’s excellent essay “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck” explain this very well (McEwan and I often disagree, but that essay is phenomenal). I imagine that the situation is comparable – though with its own complexities, of course – for POC when they interact with white people. I know from experience as a queer woman with various mental health issues, the tensions can also arise when someone with a disability interacts with an able-bodied-and-minded person, and when queers interact with straight people.

The second issue is that marginalised people do not owe it to their oppressors to make nice with them. Sure, there may well be benefits to cultivating empathy and forgiveness towards those who hurt us (I find anger exhausting, so I try to do this). But people are not obligated to do this! There should never be any expectation that oppressed people should have a big Nelson Mandela moment and forgive everyone. The reason why Nelson Mandela is so famous is because what he did is fucking incredible. It is simply not right to ask all oppressed people to morph into a cross between Buddha and Jesus in order to live in this world. Often this request presents itself insidiously, in the form of fake concern, “I just think you’d feel better if you forgave Whitey…”. No. If people want to be angry, let them be angry. If they never want to forgive the people responsible for the harm done to CeCe McDonald or Jamie Hubley, that is their goddamn right. The fact that individuals in privileged groups feel entitled to preach the benefits of forgiveness and then brand all who do not forgive and forget as “part of the problem” is…well, part of the problem.

However, there are equally serious problems with the rallying cry for separatism as the only form of true activism. Well actually, I’m only going to talk about the one massive problem I see with separatism. Its name is intersectionality.

Aiming for separatism completely ignores intersectionality, and in so doing, recreates kyriarchical power structures within the social justice movement itself. I am going to demonstrate the issues using feminism and women, but the principles apply the same to other movements like fat acceptance, anti-racism, the queer movement, etc. I do not mean to imply that feminism is the only guilty party here. I do not mean to imply that, for example, asking queer women to choose womanhood over all other facets of their identity is any worse than asking them to choose queerness.

Also, when I talk about separatism I’m not only talking about the idea that we should be literally separated and not interact with individuals from privileged groups. I’m also talking broadly about the philosophy that declares that Group X and Group Not-X can never get along, that they are fundamentally too different to ever understand each other. The problem of course is that Group Y Separatists also feel that way about Group Y and Not-Y. So now what happens when you’re in group X and group Y? You probably have friends and allies who are X and Not-Y, or Y and Not-X. It’s not a fun time. Ask any woman who is not straight and/or white.

So: Separatist feminism declares that no peace can ever be made between men and women, so women should at least limit or eliminate any emotional ties or interaction with men, and at most commit social or physical violence against them. But to demand this of all women is to ask women to deny other, equally important aspects of themselves besides their womanhood. It is asking them to deny the ways in which they may feel more comfortable and more at peace with some men than with some women. For example, some women of colour, who have been marginalised by white women in the feminist movement for centuries, may feel they actually have as much or more in common with men of colour than with white women. Of course, asking for racial separatism has the same problem: it asks women of colour to cast aside all commonalities white women in favour of men of colour. Asking women of colour to declare an unbridgeable gap either with white women or men of colour is ridiculous and harmful.

That is the essence of separatism. When you call for female separatism you are asking queer women to cut off their ties to non-women queers and declare undying allegiance to all women – including straight women, who may in the past have bullied them, who may today be passing laws that hurt them. You are asking fat women to declare they have more in common with thin women than with fat men – when thin women might well have been the primary enforcers of their marginalisation as fat people for years. What is more, you are erasing genderqueers and other nonbinary folk. And frankly given that some so-called feminists don’t consider transwomen women, you’re probably making all the transwomen very fucking nervous indeed.

Any form of separatism has these problems. Ask anyone with more than one area of marginalisation, and they have stories about how their “Group X” identity is marginalised within the much-vaunted “Group Y Safe Space”. This doesn’t just happen in big, populous movements like feminism. There are people who are marginalised in the trans community because of sizeism. There are people who are marginalised in the fat acceptance community, and in the movement against ableism, because of their race.

I don’t deny that cultivating an “us versus them” mentality is tempting, given the horrors of oppression. But it is actively bad for our communities. It erases the most vulnerable members of oppressed communities, that is, those who have more than one area in which they are marginalised. Even if you say “Well okay then, we’re going to have ‘queer women of colour’ separatism!” you’re still asking disabled and fat people to make allegiance choices… and you’re potentially ignoring the ways different ethnic groups are treated in the caucasian-centric racial heirarchy. It doesn’t end there either because virtually everyone is in a unique situation. We can’t escape the problem by implementing a finer granulation. It doesn’t work like that.

Thus, separatism inherently demands that some members of your group choose between their various “competing” and complex identities. That’s just not okay. This shit is hard enough to reconcile even without all the white feminists or male queers or thin or able-bodied people breathing down your neck and urging you to “pick a side”. There is no picking sides. Yes, we are different, and we have different experiences in this world because of the traits we have and the groups we belong to. But there is no unbridgeable gap between these groups – there are actual human beings where the gap is supposed to be.

On a societal level, we do all have to live together. Not out of some misplaced, wide-eyed, soppy utopianism, but because any attempt to balkanize humanity is an attempt to erase and deny intersectionality completely. Yes, any individual is free to arrange their life to preserve their mental and emotional well-being, and whatever level of interaction they choose for themselves is to be respected. Yes, it is abhorrent to expect members of marginalised groups to forgive and forget, and make nice all the time. But it is equally abhorrent to ask them to cut out a part of themselves and disavow it – to end their emotional investment in all communities except the one being championed right at that moment. That is not the way to end marginalisation. That is a recipe for re-creating it within our own communities.

Diet Culture Is Bad For Our Health

It’s that time again: a new season of The Biggest Loser is on the air in Australia. That means that even for those of us who would never willingly watch an episode of this heinous circus of self-loathing, the adverts are everywhere. I saw one at the train station yesterday. It is awful.

I don’t want to talk about the ways in which the show is dangerous for its participants, some of whom end up urinating blood. I don’t need to tell you it peddles damaging misinformation about health and weight, in a manner so disingenuous that even other anti-fat fitness professionals condemn it. I don’t even need to tell you how suspicious it is that the show doesn’t rigorously follow up with the participants afterwards, yet their trainers feel completely comfortable declaring “mission accomplished” – which they do so prematurely it would make George W. Bush do a double-take. You know all that. I want to talk about the social impact of a show like The Biggest Loser.

The Biggest Loser contributes to the primacy of diet culture. Diet culture is a system of thought in which food is an issue of public morality, where eating whatever you want is a grave sin and abstaining from “bad” food – which could be fatty food, sweet food, or carby food, depending on the month – is seen as virtuous. In this culture, bodies are rated as healthy or unhealthy based on their degree of “fatness”, and health becomes a saintly attribute while ill health becomes a serious personal failing. This is a culture in which thinner is better until the person is literally hospitalised (then of course we’re going to wring our hands about anorexia, but like, not too much in case the fat people get confused and think starvation is bad for them too!). This is a culture in which guilt is the primary emotion associated with food. A culture that has declared war on fat bodies.

The Biggest Loser is mired so deep in this ideology that it might as well be the official propaganda arm of the anti-fat movement. Indeed, since the show blatantly disregards the long-term health of its participants, it would seem that its true purpose is to spread an aggressive, rigid, guilt-centic mode of relating to ourselves and our bodies.

Diet culture is awful for everyone. It can take the average, mentally healthy adult human and totally fuck up how that human decides how to feed themself. I have seen otherwise-mentally-healthy adults exhibit genuine fear when confronted with potatoes or full-fat milk. And that’s just people who start off mentally healthy and who are considered mentally healthy. Diet culture is even more toxic for people who struggle with mental illnesses, in particular eating disorders, depression, anxiety and OCD, and/or are generally predisposed to disordered behaviour around food.

I’m not sure how to describe what it’s like to live in diet culture as a person in recovery for an eating disorder. Every day, we all see images and messages telling us that we should be thin, should not eat anything except magic food X and super food Y, and that frankly the only way for you to love yourself is to go hungry until you are thin. The Biggest Loser, in fact, endorses this last message explicitly. But in many cases a person with an eating disorder has a voice in their head that tells them that in much harsher terms, constantly, relentlessly, without pity and without mercy. That voice does not need any encouragement. But in our culture, encouragement is exactly what it finds in abundance.

A room in which The Biggest Loser is playing on the television is a room that is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A train station or a bus stop with advertisements for Diet Shakes, Diet Cereals, The Biggest Loser, Jenny Craig, and other weight loss paraphernalia on it is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A highway with a billboard for a weight loss show is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A menu with large, obtrusive calorie counts is not safe for many people with eating disorders. A magazine with a column by Michelle Bridges that laments the existence of fat people who don’t diet is not safe for many people with eating disorders.

If you feel safe in the presence of these images, that is your privilege. Virtually no public spaces, and a large proportion of private spaces, in the western world are even remotely safe for people with eating disorders.

The other thing that diet culture does is make eating disorders completely effortless to hide. I had an eating disorder for years and the first person who realised there was something wrong was me – because the excuses for not eating very much, or not eating certain things, are everywhere. “I just feel better when I am thinner”, “I’m losing weight for me”, “I want to feel good about myself”, “I’m happier at this weight”…these are things sick people say to hide their sickness. Other people swallow it because their default reaction to weight loss is “good” and it takes work for them to be convinced otherwise. Now, I’m sure these things have been said by mentally healthy people too and I’m not suggesting everyone who ever diets has an ED. But I’m also sure the average listener doesn’t know the difference. The hold of diet culture can be so strong that sometimes even the speaker doesn’t know the difference.

This all adds up to one simple message: our culture couldn’t give a fuck about your mental health. Clearly when people “just worry about your health” – even if they do genuinely mean health and not just thinness – they only mean the health of your body without any consideration for the brain. On a biological level this is completely ludicrous because you simply can’t separate the brain and the rest of the body. They’re one whole and can’t be considered in isolation. Here’s a rudimentary example: a chronically anxious brain will pump the body full of cortisol and adrenalin, which both contribute to all sorts of adverse physical outcomes including a weakened immune system and reduced mortality. Oh noes, did your mental health just affect your physical health – you know, the one we pretend we care about? Say it ain’t so! But in all seriousness, the truth is, they can’t really be separated. It’s all health. Mental health is health.

A culture that is willing to throw people with serious mental health problems under the bus in an endless quest for everyone on earth to be thin is not a culture that cares about health. It is a culture that is using a narrow, twisted definition of health – which coincidentally reinforces social norms around attractiveness – to beat up on everyone, including some of its most vulnerable members. That is the culture being explicitly promoted by the Biggest Loser and other shows like it. It’s making us sick. It’s making our media dangerous to consume. For a society supposedly obsessed with health, we’ve got a damn funny way of showing it.