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Why Society's Concept of 'Intelligence' Causes Harm

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So there is this really cool club that my friends and I created. We built the club. We designed the ambiance. We decide who comes into the club and who leaves. We made a test to determine if you are cool enough to stay in our club. We might modify the club as we see fit. Oh, and our club is the best. Only the coolest people are allowed into it. All other clubs are inferior to ours, and since we have an inside guy in the media, our club sort of sets the bar (pun intended) when it comes to clubs. Even if you have a really sweet club, it’ll never match our club.

This club is called intelligence, and it’s making billions of people feel terrible about themselves. We have been throwing this term around like an invincible badge that signifies superiority, without even thinking about what the consequences are to those who don’t have the badge. The people who define intelligence, the standardized test makers, the people who designed the IQ test — they decide what intelligence is. They apply this label to some traits and not others. This isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it needs to change.

I believe the real problem is the overwhelmingly positive way in which intelligence is widely regarded. Very few people associate intelligence with anything negative. In fact, it’s quite possibly the best compliment you can hear as a student. If you’re intelligent, then you can do nearly anything, right? You’ll figure it out. You’ll get the job. You’re intelligent. It’s like a superpower.

But intelligence is neither good nor bad. Intelligence is just one attribute, or characteristic, out of many. It is sort of like a tool. Its value depends entirely on the motives and morality of the person. A mean person who is intelligent is a dangerous person. Hitler was intelligent. So is Vladimir Putin. Yet we rarely blame Hitler’s intelligence for harming so many people. But we need to acknowledge that although there are many mean people in the world, they usually need a lot of intelligence (as it is typically defined) to accomplish such catastrophically harmful deeds as Hitler did.

Once we realize that intelligence is a tool, and can be used for bad just as easily as it can for good, then we can start to see that it isn’t just a flawless badge to be slapped on people. Intelligence alone isn’t enough for success. Sometimes being intelligent can lead you to believe that life is futile, like Nietzsche, and you might wind up living a horrible life as a result of your mental abilities. Other times, intelligence can lead you to obsess about logic problems that don’t have any concrete usefulness; it really depends on what you do with it.

These aforementioned flaws don’t even consider the reality that intelligence is generally associated with a narrow set of traits such as math and calculation, reading and writing ability, analytic ability, and a strong memory. Other traits such as musical ability, empathy, sympathy, insight and patience are extraordinarily valuable, yet these traits rarely receive as much positive attention as intelligence does.

Anyone who doesn’t excel at these “intelligent” traits is left with what label? “Stupid?” Not intelligent? They could be an expert musician, but they’re “dumb?” They could be the best listener, very patient, and a lovely person to be around, but they’re not intelligent? The lack of an intelligent badge can be extraordinarily hurtful and harmful, especially to developing youths, adolescents, and even adults. The biggest problem with this harm is that it’s unnecessary. In many cases, intelligence can change over time with focused learning. Math abilities, reading, analysis, calculation, and memory can all be improved. Telling someone who struggled at math as a youth that they’ll never get this badge is destructive. The stigma and pain of feeling “dumb” can diminish their efforts in other activities to the point where they stop trying at anything that’s difficult. It’s like telling someone that they’re weak. In fact, I think it would be easier for many people to accept the label of “weak” over the label of “dumb” these days.

In my opinion, the bottom line is that the term “intelligence” is defined by those people who had specific qualities that they valued over others. It largely leaves out the softer, less quantifiable traits that make people fun to be around and generally give life meaning. Intelligence is also a false sense of security for others, making them think their other flaws are minimal, so long as they have “intelligence.”

I believe we need to become more specific with our descriptors, and describe the exact traits that we see: mathematical ability, analytical ability, calculation, memory etc. We also need to remind people, especially youth, that these traits can change over time, and that the sum total of their personality traits is not reducible down to a single label.

Lastly, we need to help these individuals who aren’t labeled as intelligent to realize that there are many other clubs out there, just as cool, where they will feel loved and accepted. Sure, they’re not hanging out in the intelligent club, but they’re hanging out in a jazz club, or a club for people who are good listeners and live in the moment. Those clubs are just as valuable and essential in this world as intelligence, only they don’t get the “cool” label of the intelligent club. Who cares. It’s time to ignore what’s cool, and move towards what makes us feel accepted, loved and appreciated. If we wish to improve our math skills, great, but if we also wish to let those skills wither, and instead focus on improving our musical skills, that’s also great. The choice is not between good and less, or cool and not cool, it’s about what club works best for you.

Getty image by Jolygon.

Originally published: May 1, 2021
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