Confusing Intelligence with Goodness

Content Note: This post discusses ableism, thus there are a few ableist slurs used as examples

The post I published couple weeks ago, “Gender, Intelligence, and Physical Beauty in the World of Jin Yong” was originally going to part of a much bigger post, but since it felt too ambitious to me at the time, I decided to break it down and focus on just a couple of ideas. However, by coincidence, I read this essay which is about one of the other points I had originally planned to discuss – namely, mistaking intelligence for goodness.

That article, like my blog post, used American political discourse as examples of how Americans tend to associate intelligence with (moral) good, even though there is no reason whatsoever to expect a ‘smart’ person to be have more moral/ethical behavior than a ‘stupid’ person. For example, there is the term ‘libtard’, and I hear/read a lot about how anyone who is Republican must be ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ (the main reason I hear a lot more about Republicans being ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’ than Democrats being such is that I live in a city where the Republican party is so unpopular that they do not even bother to have candidates running in most local elections – I am sure that if I lived somewhere else I would hear a lot more about how ‘stupid’ and ‘dumb’ Democrats are).

I have also had experiences which are a bit like Rick Perlstein’s childhood experiences. In high school I had a reputation for being ‘smart’ – in fact, in the yearbook polls, I was voted ‘smartest girl’ for four years in a row. Mind you, at the time, I was not convinced that I really was the ‘smartest’ person in my year, but I was very good at making myself seem smart. I was so confident in my ability to impress my peers with my ‘intelligence’ that I did not mind at all telling them that I had been in special education in elementary school, because I knew even that fact would not dislodge their impressions that I was ‘smart’. And no, they did not believe me, even though it’s true.

Even today, I am still very good at persuading others that I am smart. However, once in a while, for whatever reason, I impress myself on people as being ‘stupid’ rather than ‘smart’, and I notice that it leads to me being treated in a significantly worse manner. When people who think I am ‘smart’ and people who think I am ‘stupid’ watch me do the exact same thing, the people who label me as ‘smart’ judge it much more favourably than the people who label me as ‘stupid’, even though, in theory, they ought to judge my action based on what actually happened rather than what kind of person I am.

And one of the reasons why life is more difficult for those who are perceived as being ‘dumb’ is that, in current American culture, ‘smart’ is associated with moral goodness, and ‘dumb’ is associated with moral badness. And this is so much easier to notice when compared to a milieu where intelligence is NOT associated with good morals.

In Jin Yong’s fiction, intelligent characters, though not necessarily evil, have a strong tendency to be amoral (Huang Rong and her father Huang Yaoshi are excellent examples, but there are plenty of others), whereas the people with good moral sense tend to be not so smart. In my earlier post on this topic, I tried to make the point that, since Jin Yong’s female protagonists tend to be more intelligent than his male protagonists, and intelligence is associated with amorality, this means that femininity is *also* associated with amorality and this has a misogynist scent. However, setting aside gender, immersing oneself in the stories of Jin Yong is a really good way to experience a mindset where the actions of intelligent characters are suspect, whereas the not-so-smart characters are more inclined to do what’s right for the world and not just themselves/closest loved ones.

Many cultures (including American culture) associate bad health and disability with immorality. This is ableist. And I think this extends to cognitive ability (or lack thereof). ‘Stupid’ people lack the level of cognitive abilities of ‘smart’ people, therefore they tend to be perceived as less moral. On the flipside, people with greater cognitive abilities are more likely to being perceived as morally good.

I strongly disagree with this view. I do not think there is much connection between one’s cognitive abilities and whether one acts in a moral/ethical manner. They are, it seems to be, independent variables. Thus, I actually also disagree with the way Jin Yong presents intelligent characters as being more likely to be amoral or immoral (unless they’ve submitted themselves to someone more moral than themselves), and not-so-intelligent characters as more likely to be moral. However, his fiction does offer the service of running counter to the prejudices of my culture, and thus makes it easier for fish to see water.

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9 thoughts on “Confusing Intelligence with Goodness

  1. > When people who think I am ‘smart’ and people who think I am ‘stupid’ watch me do
    > the exact same thing, the people who label me as ‘smart’ judge it much more favourably
    > than the people who label me as ‘stupid’, even though, in theory, they ought to
    > judge my action based on what actually happened rather than what kind of person I am.

    I know the feeling, but perhaps an example would make this clearer? Surely giving someone the benefit of the doubt because you think they know what they’re doing is reasonable in many cases. Say you are hiking, and there is a rickety bridge. Other things being equal, if someone you think is smart says it’s fine to cross the bridge, you will judge this more favorably than if someone you think is stupid does.

    > in current American culture, ‘smart’ is associated with moral goodness

    I dunno… I wonder if that’s a more prevalent feeling in your Republican-phobic, coastal elite neck of the woods? I think it’s not a caricature to say that in Republican or fundamentalist or populist circles, being clever is as likely to be morally suspect. They might say for example, “too smart for your own good”, “blessed are the meek”, or “I love the poorly educated”. Unsurprisingly, many of my smart, highly educated liberal friends look favorably on other (in their estimation) smart, highly educated people, and look down on lesser souls. Idiots! 😉 It makes me think maybe meritocracy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    • The example I was thinking of from my own life is not something I want to share on the internet, but I think the article I linked has a decent example – the writer got better grades in math when his teachers thought he was ‘smart’ than when they did not, even though his math skills were consistently terrible and he deserved low grades in math all of the time.

      As far as your example with the bridge – it would not matter to me so much if the person was smart, since smart people can be inexperienced and/or overconfident. What would make me judge it more favorably is if it’s a person I know has a lot of experience with unreliable bridges, even if they are not especially smart.

      I think there is a distinction between academic ability (book smarts) and intelligence. One can be very intelligent and not do well in academic settings for various reasons. Doing well academically does require some cognitive abilities, but also requires some things which are not tied to cognitive abilities. In the United States, that means having access to properly funded schools, and with regards to higher education, having enough money to cover tuition AND living expenses. The latter is one of the main reasons rich people are more likely to have college degrees than poor people.

      I do think Republicans are more likely to be skeptical of formal education than Democrats … but they still associate ‘smart’ with ‘good’ (for example, ‘smart business owner’ = ‘good’). An argument I’ve seen from various conservatives (though not just Republicans) is that formal education is a form of brain-washing which teaches people to accept dictates from a textbook rather than think for themselves, which is an argument which – even if it’s not true – disparages education while still valuing intelligence. I think ‘I love stupid people’ would get a very different reception from ‘I love the poorly educated’.

      Interestingly, Jin Yong once again supplies an alternate viewpoint – in Jin Yong fiction, studying books and academic learning are considered virtuous activities which improves one’s morals, especially studying Confucian or Buddhist philosophy. It’s the kind of intelligence which allows people to think quickly and devise clever strategies which tends to breed amorality, at least in Jin Yong stories.

      • I don’t think that not believing in formal education necessarily disparages education as a whole (though, this does depend on how you broadly you define “formal education”). This would only be the case if said people believed that no education was better than “formal education”. (Note: I only put quotes around formal education because I am not so sure how broadly it is defined).

      • Good point. One of the more prominent conservative movements against ‘modern’ formal education is the ‘classical education movement’ which, as you say, is in favor of formal education, just not the type of formal education most common nowadays.

        It’s also worth noting that there are ‘liberals’ who also are opposed to modern education as it is currently practiced, though they are more likely to go for Montessori than classical education.

  2. Very interesting post!

    As someone who lives in an area with more Republicans than Democrats, I can attest to the fact that Republicans love to bash Democrats and insult their intelligence. The election brought out the worst in all kinds of people, and it was really shocking to me personally to see how ignorant and hateful some people could be. People I thought I knew.

  3. Yes. This isn’t uniformly a US phenomenon – hereabouts, it’s mostly the right wing that gets called “stupid”. (We’re not so far yet that our big parties have to resort to this kind of argument.) Which is not correct and does little to convince those neo-nazi folks to leave behind their sexist, racist and homophobic ways.

    • Your point about how calling people ‘stupid’ does not convince them to change their sexist/racist/homophobic ways reminds me of the essay ““Guided by the Beauty of Our Weapons”.

      It is unfortunate that Germany has a similar problem. Though Taiwanese politics has an abundance of problems (such as legislative violence – Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan is one of the most violent legislatures of the 21st century) Taiwanese generally do not brush off their political opponents as being ‘stupid’. Even when I visited the Sunflower protests, where the protesters were making very passionate and rude comments about the politicians they opposed (i.e. they were not trying to be nice or ‘reasonable’), they did not accuse those politicians of lacking intelligence.

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