?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

The Self-Serving Appeal of the Smug Genius

We (by which I mean Americans generally, but it’s true of all English-speaking countries to an extant, I suspect) live in a culture which, for the most part, doesn’t like smart people. Smart people are variously considered freakshows, emotional cripples with no social skills, or scheming bastards doing all sorts of devious who-knows-what while simple, honest, hard-working folk just try to get by. Even a movie like 2013 had “weirdo Dr. Chandra creeping out a spaceship full of working-joe astronauts.”

This anti-intellectual, anti-rational streak varies from dismissive comments to outright mania, depending on the context and the mood of the day. The scientist-hero had a brief shining moment in the ’50s and ’60s during the space age, but that eventually faded, relegating the “brainiac” to a support character as “the punching guy” ascended.

(Heck, look at the Star Trek reboot. A show that was once about scientists, engineers, and explorers, using technology and concepts mostly-extrapolated from real science [1], has been reduced to a hyperkinetic lightshow punctuated by fistfights. Way to go, culture.)

If you are a smart person disinclined to punch people, this tends to leave you short of reader-identification characters, and the characters that do exist have to give you something to latch on to.

This is where the Smug Genius comes in. The Smug Genius has been around for ages; the earliest one who comes immediately to my mind is Daedalus, the guy who created the minotaur’s labyrinth and built wings for himself and his son to escape Crete.

The archetypal Smug Genius of modern times is of course Sherlock Holmes, who set the pattern for Tony Stark, The Doctor, Dirk Gently, Batman, Chris Knight from Real Genius, and so many others. (I note that Smug Geniuses all seem to be guys… Velma or Twilight Sparkle are certainly geniuses, for instance, but they’re not smug about it.) The Smug Genius is not only the smartest guy in the room, he wants to make sure you know it, and he’s always, always way ahead of everyone else.

What is the appeal of the Smug Genius? Honestly, I think, it boils down to confidence.

Smart people, as a group, are often not very self-confident. Why would they be? Besides the already-mentioned “nobody likes smart people” strain of our culture, they’re constantly being praised by teachers and parents for doing so very well on tests, which come easy to them, setting them up with Impostor Syndrome.

Unlike the real smart person, who is still quite fallible and able to make mistakes (leading to comments like “And you think you’re so smart!”), the Smug Genius is never wrong, is never an impostor, and if not liked for their smartness, is at least respected and gains social capital from it. That’s naturally a very compelling thing for somebody who’s got nothing going for them except the ability to take tests well.

-The Gneech

PS: Note that the Bill Gateses and Steve Jobses of the world, while financially very successful, are still generally not liked very much. Basically someone said to them, “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you RICH?” And they took that to heart.

[1] Except the transporter. That was always bunk. But it was required because flying around in shuttlecraft all the time would break the budget.

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
jordan179
Oct. 7th, 2013 03:00 pm (UTC)
(Heck, look at the Star Trek reboot. A show that was once about scientists, engineers, and explorers, using technology and concepts mostly-extrapolated from real science [1], has been reduced to a hyperkinetic lightshow punctuated by fistfights. Way to go, culture.)

I so deeply hate what they've done with Star Trek. It's not just the degradation of the plots into pure action-adventure that bothers me, it's the way in which they took Roddenberry's fairly reasonable concept of Starfleet (based on the best aspects of US naval culture combined with the best aspects of scientific culture) and turned it into an organization that subordinates its own system to that of the reboot's insanely-irresponsible version of James T. Kirk.

What's more, the writers don't seem to even have a clue that an organization which worked the way they described -- rolling over and putting out for the first charismatic young man who happened along -- would be a walking invitation to abuse by its own officers, ranging from abuse of its own personnel all the way up to naval coups. Their assumption is that if one is charismatic and good-looking, one must be trustworthy -- which is pretty much the direct opposite of the lessons of History.

If you are a smart person disinclined to punch people, this tends to leave you short of reader-identification characters, and the characters that do exist have to give you something to latch on to.

Heck, I'm a smart person inclined to punch people, and I nevertheless find the typical action-hero far too shallow and stupid for any sort of imaginative identification. I grew up on action-heroes, yes, but smart action-heroes, who generally appreciated the importance of intelligence and knowledge and used their wits to defeat far-stronger foes. Idiots who just happen to have the writer on their side annoy me.

[1] Except the transporter. That was always bunk. But it was required because flying around in shuttlecraft all the time would break the budget.

The weird thing is that transporters are starting to look eventually-possible, though the writers of Star Trek did not realize the military, economic and social implications of such devices becoming at all widespread.
(Deleted comment)
emsworth
Oct. 8th, 2013 11:51 pm (UTC)
What ho. Haven't commented here in years, but I found this intriguing, especially since I know you're a fellow devotee of Nero Wolfe, unquestionably a smug genius. (In his own way, so is Jeeves, but in fact many Wodehouse scholars and critics find it uncomfortable when Jeeves is overheard, or writing in his own voice, dismissing Bertie as "mentally negligible"; Bertie knows it and hears it all the time, from relatives, friends, even those who are arguably softer in the head than him, but Bertie, who always praises Jeeves' intellect, is understandably hurt to have Jeeves telling this to a temporary replacement valet. That's a bit too smug, but then Jeeves also burns the offending garments beforehand and so on, very highhanded, but that's another discussion. Just whenever people think of Jeeves as the perfect manservant, they tend to overlook these downsides. I often thought of Jeeves as a more intellectual, smoother and perhaps only slightly less larcenous descendant of Moliere's Scapin, down to the use of impersonation, manipulation of the master and those around him, furthering his own agenda just as often as what Bertie wants [breaking off an engagement, winning money in the Great Sermon Handicap without passing the needed info to Bertie, etc.])

But, compared to Holmes and many of the other examples listed, where the supporting cast is mostly in awe, and even flaws (the drug addiction) aren't dealt with too heavily in the canon, Stout counters Wolfe in two significant ways. One is the assorted phobias (of women, of cars, of leaving the house) and other eccentricities. The other is Archie, who instead of going around saying "Remarkable, Mr. Wolfe!" or whatever, is there precisely to prod, to puncture the ego, to recognize the line between being a genius and just being insufferable, that he'll put up with a lot *because* Wolfe is a genius (and so for that matter does Inspector Cramer, easily my favorite fictional police foil, because he's not an idiot or a fawning fan or just a bullhead who hates the sleuth irrationally). Or as Archie once said regarding Fritz' cooking, "Two geniuses in one household, and one of them is easy to live with."

He's been on my mind in part because of the recent flap over an insanely smug *real* person, Canadian writer turned professor (despite no doctorate or teaching background, he compares it to speaking on TV) David Gilmour of the University of Toronto. In an interview, he explained that he didn't have any interest in teaching women (except Virginia Woolf) because "I only teach the best." Even Wolfe, insanely smug and woman-fearing as he is, was said in "The Mother Hunt" to resent Jane Austen for proving to him that a woman could indeed write as well as a man (and according to Rex Stout himself, better).
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

August 2019
S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25262728293031

Tags

Page Summary

Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow