This is part of a series of chronicles on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.
Beth, the protagonist of the TV show The Queen’s Gambit, is not someone you would want as a friend. She takes money from her childhood mentor – the old janitor who taught her chess – and never pays him back, visits him or thanks him for launching his career. She treats the young men who help her improve – a group that ends up blending into a supportive environment – in an equally instrumental way. She’s so focused on winning tournaments that she can barely spare a word of caution when her foster mother falls into a fatal alcoholic spiral. When she loses, she is petulant and childish, unlike her opponents, who are graceful and kind. She is cruel and manipulative when, as an adult, she plays against a talented Russian child, only softening to him after beating him.
Beth doesn’t seem to like anyone, but viewers love her anyway, admiring the strength of her genius. Never mind that most of the viewers don’t play chess. The chess scenes focus our attention on her striking wide eyes, perfect figure and manicured nails, as if looking at her body is a symbolic way of appreciating a mysterious power in her brain. We are informed of her genius by other people saying that she is “amazing” and by their willingness to put themselves at her service.
In my field, there are also geniuses. A genius once asked me a question in the Q&A after my speech and then walked out before hearing my answer. During a conference, a genius didn’t bother to leave his seat – next to the speaker – when he answered his phone. At a dinner after another conference, a genius was arguing with me and felt frustrated by my refusal to accept his point of view. He started to touch me – not in a sexual way, and not in a violent way, but something halfway in between – putting his hand on my hand, my arm, possibly my neck to emphasize his points. He did it for everyone to see. No one stopped him, including me. I once invited a genie to my house for dinner. He arrived an hour late, with an entourage, and handed me a half-empty bag of popcorn that he had eaten as a hostess gift. As the conversation turned philosophical, he calmed those around him, signaling that this part of the evening did not involve them. Like so many in Beth’s life, they congratulated themselves on being of service to the genie in whatever way he saw fit. These are not four stories about the same person; they were four different geniuses.
You are probably ready to denounce the behavior of these Geniuses and the communities that welcome them, but keep in mind that I have done nothing to make their genius shine for you; I did not sex their talents, the way The Queen’s Gambit Beth says.
Throughout my childhood, I was convinced that I was a secret prodigy. The only challenge was finding the arena my talents were in. I have experimented with several instruments as well as musical composition; I tried ballet, gymnastics and ice skating; I lost in math contests, debating contests, UN model contests; I wrote bad poetry; I have tried theater, painting, and crafts of all kinds. Sometimes my extreme self-confidence and drive produced comedic results, like when my fantasies of water skiing excellence sustained me for two months in which I never stood up. (Basically, I spent a summer being dragged behind a boat.) I believe my last attempt was a summer architecture program: I was obsessed with Legos even until my late teens. , and that, plus a timely reading of Ayn Rand’s book. Fountain, led me to suspect the presence of hidden architectural gifts. My teachers haven’t discovered any. No matter how many times I failed, I was sure the next thing could be this; only the exit of childhood put an end to my quest for lavishness.
I was a difficult child: bossy, obsessive, selfish and difficult to live with. My sister, although she was younger than me, was much better at making friends, and throughout our childhood my parents forced her to take me to games. I still remember the horrified look on a mother’s face when she discovered my tooth marks in the plastic white hat of one of her daughter’s Smurf dolls. (I knew it wasn’t a marshmallow, but it looked so many like a.) My genius might have been wrong, but my weirdness was real.
I had read enough books to understand that Genius is a personality whitening ploy, and I suspect this idea underlies my belief in owning it: If I were a prodigy, other people would line up for it. cooperate with me on my terms. , and my “bad” behavior would suddenly be reclassified as charming idiosyncrasy.
Not so long ago someone dismissed me, contemptuously, as “rude and ignorant”. I know from experience that in other contexts people like her embrace and applaud my “idiosyncrasies”. What I understand now, but not when I was a child, is how tiny the difference is between these two reactions.
We applaud those who insist on being courageous and independent themselves, except when we blame them as selfish and narcissistic. Likewise, we have a positive word for people who follow the rules – “cooperative” – and a negative word for the same, when we don’t like it: “conformist”. The border between cooperation and conformism is often fine, and yet the distance between the valence of words is enormous. This creates a verbal illusion: because we have to choose a word, we risk exaggerating, especially in ourselves, our confidence in which side of the line we place the person. The ethical gap between the “support” of Beth’s chess entourage and the “complicity” of Genius’ philosophical entourage is smaller than we are inclined to think.
If my idiosyncrasies bother you in one way or another, if they bother you in some way or disrupt your life, do you now have a grievance against me, for being so selfish, or have any? I one against you, for being so narrow-minded? The best thing about being weird is that it teaches you that there might not be an answer to this question: you learn not to assume that it is always possible to locate a “Real victim”.
The worst part about being weird is loneliness. Loneliness does not come only or even mainly from rejection. That’s what I assumed as a child, and that’s why I thought that if genius bought me tolerance, he would make me happy. When the switch flips to “brave and independent” and the rules loosen, you don’t magically find yourself surrounded by people with whom you have a real connection. Real connection requires ethical community, and ethical community requires shared rules, not exemption from them.
Here’s the thing about tolerance: it was never meant to be an end point. Tolerance and flexibility are improvements over rejection as a way of dealing with the first encounter with difference. If some people feel the customs and habits that come easily or naturally to others as arbitrary, coercive, alien, or just plain confusing – and yes, some of us are like that – the answer is not to let ourselves be taken care of. own way. It’s not kindness, it’s ostracism by another name. We don’t want to go alone. We don’t want to be left alone. Nobody wants to be alone.
The problem is that any action taken beyond tolerance will be frustrating and unpleasant, because we are, in fact, difficult to coordinate. These attempts will expose the underlying problem, which is not that of bad intentions or bad guys in need of reform. The difficulty that led to the retreat to tolerance in the first place is not the product of the narrow-mindedness one person might extinguish, or the cooperation that another might awaken. There is something out there, something in the way, something that really matters to the human attempt to get along. There are differences that are barriers to integrating someone into an ethical community that are nobody’s fault and cannot be removed, and there is no recipe for overcoming them. It is easier to tolerate people than to recognize it; and it is easier to accept to be tolerated and supported, rather than to fight for a true connection. Tolerance is a balance born from exhaustion and low expectations.
Genius requires more than being very good at something. It is characteristic of genius to justify hyper-tolerance – and total isolation – to be put on a pedestal and surrounded by a favorable entourage of yes men. It is characteristic of the genius to miss true friends, as Beth does. Viewers don’t even notice that their attraction to Beth negates the question of what kind of friend she would be. What they admire is precisely her ability to stand on her own, at the top, as if the absence of friendship is some kind of superpower. But is there really a person whose mind is so foreign that they thrive on being “free” from the normative expectations that constitute community membership for the rest of us?
It is revealing that “genius” is practically synonymous with “tortured genius”. It’s hard to imagine a story like Beth’s without alcoholism, drug addiction, intense loneliness, and self-destruction. The myth is that of the genius “tortured” by an internal struggle that the rest of us aren’t smart enough to understand, so the best we can do is get out of their way. Real torture is the one we apply by classifying people as geniuses, to serve our own fantasies of independence. Geniuses are the monsters we make.