Turn the Other Cheek

Originally posted July 17, 2011

I hate being called pretentious. If there's one insult that is most effective at cutting through my mental barriers, it's that one.

The most effective insult is always to take what the person considers the core of their identity, and then to devalue or reject it in some way. For example: take a rebellious teenager who believes that he knows better than his parents, and call him an "angsty teenager who'll eventually grow out of it". Almost all women think of themselves as pure and chaste. Call a woman a slut or whore and you're sure to get a slap to the face. The investment banker will suffer a mild heart attack, then rebuff you if you imply in any way that he won't find happiness in money. Tell the popularity-obsessed middle schooler that he has no friends. Tell a devoted Christian that he's wasting his time each Sunday and that he can be moral without Jesus. And... tell the person obsessed with his intelligence that he's pretentious.[1]

Of course, if you use these insults, people won't just keel over in a fit of self-hatred and existential angst. (Except for me, perhaps) They've heard these insults enough times that they've developed mental reasoning to counter it. The master thinks of himself as noble, powerful, and aristocratic, while he sees his slaves as weak, genetically inferior, and lower-class. The slave thinks of himself as humble, moral, and working for the greater good, while he views his enslavers as corrupt, immoral, power-hungry. The two groups have developed stereotypes about each other that allow them to hold their head up high in each others' presence. Each group sees themselves as winner and the other group as losers, according to their own definitions.

So one way that I could frame the "pretentious" label is to say that it's just a label that the "losers" give to the "winners" of the intelligence game to make themselves feel better. By doing that, I could form stereotypes of the "stupid" people and feel better about myself. I won't do that, though - I think that this only leads to a negative cycle of hatred.

When you provoke somebody's self-identity, their response is to villify you, find some way to discredit your insult, and to strengthen their investment in their self-identity. In short, this is how conflicts, misunderstandings, and hatred occur. Two groups, by virtue of constant friction, develop their own distinct group identity while simultaneously forming negative stereotypes about the other group. This is how two players playing Iterated Prisoners Dilemna will suddenly go from cooperating to selling each other out. Far from being just a personal dispute, insults have the power to shape social dynamics and cooperation between groups.

Tit for tat. You stereotype and downplay my identity, I return the favor.

What this suggests is that when people accuse me of being pretentious, it's quite likely that I rubbed them the wrong way first. I generally don't go out of my way to insult people, so there's probably something I'm doing that I'm not aware of. For those of you laughing right now, I'm aware that this essay has the potential to sound pretty damn pretentious. In fact, I'm sure my whole existence is pretentious to some people. But I would argue that the people for which this essay reads as pretentious are the same people who have very strongly developed identities as "not one of those pretentious smart people". For these people, the slightest brush with intelligence provokes a strong immune response that defends their identity by accusing everyone of being "pretentious"[2]. This very analysis might be interpreted by these people as "rubbing my intelligence in their faces".

I don't think there's anything I can do on my end for these people. I'm not going to stop searching for the truth. The only thing I can do is to refuse to play the tit-for-tat game and hopefully prevent the conflict from escalating. Turn the other cheek, indeed.

1 - Yes, I'm obsessed with my own intelligence. But I've said that up front, haven't I? I seek, therefore I am. My existence is defined by my search for the truth.

2 - I guess I did it again - stereotyping my aggressors to defend my own ego. Still, I think it's a valid analysis and I'm not going to be so politically correct as to handicap my thought.