I’m reading Tim Chevalier’s post on “alternatives to intelligent” and am thinking about my own experiences in geek communities, in the dating world, and working in special education.
With my geeky friends, it’s not uncommon to refer to non-geeks as being stupid, particularly when they are obsessed with things such as fashion, sports, or other sufficiently non-geeky things. I know for me I was ostracized as a kid for not being into sports and then as a gay adult for not being into fashion, and so the primary way to win approval was to head in an academic direction and work on developing my mind.
I built my own identity around thinking of the average person in my high school as “stupid” and thought things would be different in college. Imagine my shock to find out that all those people in high school were still there in college — they just had a higher GPA and more controlling parents pushing them to attend college. So then i turned to computer science, but was surprised to find out how many people were just in it for the money rather than being intrinsically interested in the subject. (It was somewhat satisfying to see that they got lower grades than the people interested in the subject, though).
The question, though, that I have for geeks is … can you give up your need to have been right, the self-righteousness that comes with putting down those who were putting you down all those years for being geeky? And what are the consequences that come with attempting to judge others’ intelligence. Many people process information differently or have different perceptions than you do. And there’s a long history in our society of those people being marginalized and oppressed for being that way.
In my special education classes, we were talking about person-first language and how to talk about the students that we work with. So, for example, you might have someone who’s pejoratively called a retard. So then you might say, well, let’s call him or her an intellectually disabled person or a learning-disabled person. But then that’s assuming that that’s a defining characteristic of them as a person. So we might say, a person with an intellectual disability or a person with a learning disability, the so-called person first language. But we still are comparing them to a standard and finding them wanting. I worked with a group of classmates once to design a conceptual model for disability, and my classmates came up with the idea of a tiramisu, with each layer describing an aspect of normal functioning (visual, intellectual, hearing, executive functioning) and that some people have the whole tiramisu and some only have part of each layer. But that means that we’ve defined the normal person, and then judged and found almost everyone as wanting.
So I suggested in class a radically different approach. What if we were to instead describe their positive qualities and call them a thoughtful and creative person, instead of a person with a disability. What would it mean to really honestly look at someone’s strengths and not always focus on comparing them to a standard? And what would it mean to not insist that a person’s worth is defined by their relationship to capitalist productivity? Might someone still deserve a decent standard of living even if they aren’t able to work in a traditional environment? Can we take the principles of UDL (Universal Design for Learning) and instead create Universal Design for Living and Working, so that all our spaces are accessible for everyone, regardless of physical or mental differences from the “norm”?
By the same token, though, we need to heed Tim’s call to give up calling people intelligent as well as stupid. Looking at things from the point of view of deconstruction, we’ve got a binary: smart people / stupid people – where the smart are defined by the existence of the stupid. We need a list of positive characteristics we can use to describe everyone that aren’t structurally connected to terms that put people down. As we say in education, this list is left as an exercise to the reader What are some terms that exist outside of these binary dichotomies? Do such terms even exist? Do we have to give up characterizing people all together?
I know I’m going to be rethinking my online dating profiles too. Instead of looking for smart and intelligent people, I’m going to have to take a serious look at what I’m actually attracted to. What kind of characteristics define someone that I’m interested in? And how do those relate to ableism? I mean, listing well-read puts someone who has difficulty reading in the average person’s way at a disadvantage. My friends who identify as Aspies might not fit the traditional mold that one thinks of collaborative. So I’m going to have to seriously rethink what I construct as attractive. (See the Dating from the Margins series for more on taking a critical look at our attractions.) Looking at ourselves in an honest fashion. The introduction to my site talks about how we choose to be ignorant because we can’t bear the implications of knowledge on our own selves.
So, when replying to this post, please keep in mind the two questions that I pose in the Welcome page: What does this information do to one’s own sense of self? What does the knowledge ask me to reconsider about myself and the subject studied?