Dear 1585,

    When I first read your essays, I was glad that I finally found a website that agreed with the liberal and conservative viewpoints I have.  I used to refuse to call myself a liberal because I did not want to be associated with the UREGs.

    However, I wonder, who exactly do you define as stupid?  Even though I have the same test scores and grades as my stupid peers I still got called stuff like “retard” and “insane” because of my social inadequacies and speech impediments (I did not speak until I was five).  People literally thought I was retarded and this annoying girl I knew in middle school kept asking me these random math questions like what’s 3x3?  Like I seriously wouldn't know the answer!  They all thought my future was going to be in a mental hospital.

    I didn’t write about my sob story for pity, but I’m just wondering whether you consider people stupid due to their personality or because they have lower grades/test scores than an intellectual?  It’s confusing how I feel really intellectual yet very stupid at the same time.  My IQ is only 97 (no joke), yet I'm currently reading literature like Crime and Punishment and nonfiction like The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker.  Sometimes I feel too stupid for such intellectual pursuits, but I keep going because reading is my passion.  I hope I have writing skills good enough to get a book published someday.

    When I transferred schools, I was considered one of the smart kids because of my demeanor, being articulate (I outgrew the speech impediments), and how I would bring novels to school every day.  Whenever there was free time, I would just take the book out of my blazer pocket (I went to a lame-ass Catholic school that made me stop believing in religion) and read.  Therefore, my teachers were impressed and I unintentionally became one of their favorite students.  When I participated in class discussions, my intellect shone through and everyone either loved it or loathed it.  I baffled two of my stupid ultra-conservative theology teachers and both of them softly muttered, “I don't know.”  I seemed to be the girl who knew everything and was seriously told I should be on Jeopardy!.

    Yet, I still believed I was an idiot who only knew everything she knew because she actually picked up a book, unlike most people her age who are busy partying, having sex with their boyfriends, and doing other normal teen stuff.  Now I know that’s nonsense because of your “Just Be Yourself?” essay.  Thanks!  Therefore, I didn’t work to the best of my ability and ended up at a crappy state college.  Hopefully, I'll transfer to a better school where my serious need for intellectual stimulation is appreciated.

    Am I a nerd who never got over being a nerd?  I’m probably only a nerd in the most literal definition: A person who is focused on a particular interest to the point they sacrifice social interaction.  I've never seen Star Wars, I have no real interest in video games, and I know no more about computers than anyone else.  I’m probably a literature nerd; that’s why I’m so happy this website is sprinkled with literary references, even if I haven’t read some of the authors and poets you mentioned yet.  Someone even suggested I should be an English professor, since I’m so enthusiastic about it.  Calling myself a nerd seems like a paradox based on everything I said in the previous paragraphs, but in my personal observations, many nerds I’ve met had average intelligence and just happened to have really nerdy interests like computer programming and anime.

    I have learned that I have to participate in the game of life; and as you said in The Other N-Word, not participating is worse than failing.  I wish I read this article in high school so I could learn to study being as beautiful and social as the popular girls who thought I was a joke.  When I went to my prom, I had no date, but people were shocked that I was prettier than they expected and I got more compliments than I ever had in my entire life.  Everyone who I thought laughed at me, suddenly became friendly.  Before this, I felt like an asexual freak that no guy was seriously interested in.

    I’m sorry for writing this very long e-mail and I may have even veered off from the point I was trying to make, but I just felt like I had to express all of this to someone.  It is as if objectively speaking I’m stupid, and subjectively I’m highly intelligent.  I am probably only mature, as many adults have told me over the years.  Maturity has nothing to do with intelligence; I am probably only like this because of going through different experiences than my peers.

    I don’t know how to conclude this.  I’m not trying to tell you to become more P.C. or to change your mind about the essays you wrote, because I do agree with you.  I just feel that the type of stupid people you’re describing have called me stupid countless times, and I find it messed up.  I don't even consider “nerd” or “geek” an insult.  I wish I was called that instead of the retard and insane insults.  At least nerds have the positive of contributing to society by being intelligent.  If you do find me stupid for whatever reason, it’s okay, it won't hurt my feelings.  I don’t have much else to say.  Thank you for reading this.


    Dear A.B.:

    Thanks for writing, and a thousand times thanks for asking this specific question.  I realize that the essays are frequently, either for the sake of comedy or expedience, a bit too general about what we mean here by “smart” and “stupid,” and your letter gives me the opportunity to expand on this. 

    I’ll answer your last question first by saying, no, of course I don’t think you’re stupid.  Now, many readers might be thinking that I’m going easy on you because you’re a fan of the site, but indeed, the fact that you are a fan of the site is—along with your eloquent and thoughtful letter—one of the main pieces of evidence I have that you are in fact smarter than average.  1585 essays are not easy reading, in terms either of diction/structure or of the complexity and harshness of their content, and to be sure, most people in our society (certainly the vast majority of people your age) would tend to react to them by saying either “I don’t get it” (poor reading comprehension) or “Duh!  These people are mean and obviously want to kill everybody!” (inability to read for content instead of tone)—if they even bothered to read them at all, which they almost certainly wouldn’t.  So, if my answer is influenced by the fact that you’re a fan, this is not because I am susceptible to flattery, but rather because the fact that you not only read but also appear to comprehend the site (as we do get the occasional letter from someone who reads the site but misunderstands what we say on it) is in fact legitimate evidence that you are smarter than average.

    Now, your concern about your intelligence seems to stem from two things—learning disabilities and your score on I.Q. tests—and neither of these things is to be confused with overall “smartness” in the grand sense, just as neither the simple wearing of revealing clothes or the genetic accident of a pretty face is to be confused with overall “sexiness.”  There are people with learning disabilities or below-genius scores on I.Q. tests who are clearly “smarter” than people who score more highly, just as there are people with bodies too curvy or faces too inexact to be professional models who are clearly “sexier” (i.e., who have “it”) than some people who do find work as models (I personally have noticed that the contestants on America’s Next Top Model whom I find most attractive always seem to get kicked off pretty early).

    Admitting this is not “P.C.,” but merely an acknowledgement of the plain fact that complex areas of human existence cannot always be measured with unfailing exactitude by some test.  We realize that I.Q. is a flawed concept, and when we mention it in essays as an indicator of intelligence it is usually in humorous contexts or for the sake of brevity.  The reason we mention it at all is to demonstrate that we do believe there is such a thing as being smart or stupid (which we do), and invoking a term like “I.Q.” as convenient shorthand is the most efficacious way of doing this.  The reason it is necessary to do this, of course, is because, although I.Q. tests are legitimately flawed, the “I.Q. is a flawed concept” bandwagon was hijacked in the ’90s by the P.C. crowd, who, rather than attempting to come up with a more accurate determinant of “smart” and “stupid,” attempted to do away with the concept of intelligence altogether and replace it with laughable whitewashings like “E.Q.”  Someday there will be a better test of how smart someone really is, but it doesn’t exist yet, and until it does, people who believe that there is such a thing as intelligence at all will be stuck of necessity with throwing around the term “I.Q.”

    So, what’s the problem with I.Q.?  For starters, I.Q. tests are heavily slanted towards measuring skill at math (and math-like concepts), and as people who clearly live more on the verbal side of things, we realize that this is a problem.  I myself am no slouch at I.Q. tests, but I have also met people who score better than I do, but than whom I am… well, clearly a lot smarter.  This is because I.Q. measures abstract reasoning—you know, all those “what shape comes next?” questions—where thought is put into symbolic form.  The problem with this is that there are lots of people who are great at thinking when the thoughts are symbolized by remote values where nothing is at stake, but who suck when the thinking has to be applied to real life.  And by “real life” I don’t mean some sour-grapes concept like “street smarts,” but rather reasoning about big ideas that have effects on human existence one way or another.  In other words, having a high I.Q. means you are good at puzzles, and someone can be good at puzzles but still kind of a dumbass—or, at least, not as “smart” as someone who might have a lower I.Q.—if you talk to them for five minutes.  This probably has a great deal to do with compartmentalization—it is, admittedly, a mystery how Descartes or Thomas Aquinas could have philosophized about religion as brilliantly as they did and not at any point have figured out that there is, in fact, no God.  I suppose the answer lies in some extinct zeitgeist inaccessible to us today, just as we cannot fathom how Thomas Jefferson could have written so brilliantly about liberty and still kept slaves (though there were certainly atheists in Aquinas’s and Descartes’s times, just as Jefferson had contemporaries of far lesser ability who still managed to realize that slavery was utterly inexcusable).

    Imagine if we were to go back in time and administer I.Q. tests to both Newton and Shakespeare.  Almost certainly, Newton’s I.Q. would be off the chart, even though in some areas he was a downright baby (he reputedly died a virgin), whereas Shakespeare’s, while it would probably not be low, might well not register above the official “genius” line of 140, and would certainly, whatever the score, not come anywhere close to reflecting his inarguable immeasurable genius, which both engaged and enriched the entirety of human experience.

    Indeed, it is the relationship of I.Q. tests to the term genius itself that exposes their biggest flaw.  The word is rooted in the concept of creation, as in genesis or generation, and someone can be good at puzzles and not necessarily able to change the world in any kind of creative way—Newton himself obviously did, but not everyone with a high I.Q. does.  And I.Q. doesn’t even necessarily indicate that someone would be good at Jeopardy!, which you also mentioned, since Jeopardy! is about recall, not abstract reasoning (obviously, someone with a high I.Q. is not born possessing a ton of information about, say, opera).  Both of these are ways of being smart, but not the only two ways.  It is something of an “all lions are cats, but not all cats are lions” situation—all people with high I.Q.s may be said to be smart, but not all smart people have high I.Q.s.

    But your concern was not about nitpicking I.Q. at the highest levels, but rather what a score in the lower levels does or does not mean.  First of all, technically, an I.Q. of 97 is not stupid but nearly exactly average (how many times have you taken the test, by the way?), and in any case, a score in that range is not inimical to genius.  J.D. Salinger was reputed to have a low I.Q., but he is a genius because the fact that he wrote The Catcher in the Rye proves that he was a genius.  It is not as complex a book as, say, Ulysses or Moby-Dick, but it is arguably the most culturally influential novel, in a broad and positive direction, of the 20th Century, so the person who wrote it is by definition a genius.  Yes, we believe that there are such things as smart and stupid, but those terms for us have more to do with Nietzsche’s ideas of the übermensch vs. the herd than they do with scores on I.Q. tests.  We do not align them solely with influence on the world (for example, Hitler was “influential,” but also obviously a complete dumbass—he was wrong about everything, and what’s more, Mein Kampf is horribly written), but rather we use that concept to temper the imperfect results of short-answer tests.

    As for the learning or developmental disabilities, that stuff is all over the place.  Einstein had what is called “language delay” as a child, and apparently there are links between mathematical ability and autistic tendiencies that we don't fully understand.  And of course we all know the stories about legitimately retarded people who can do crazy math in their heads, etc.  I myself came to school on the infamous “short bus” for a time in first grade, but this is because I was a giant spaz, which has nothing to do with intelligence one way or the other.

    Most nearly, what we mean when we lionize smartness is a tendency towards intellectual and philosophical bravery.  Show a dumb person a “weird” movie like Fargo or Being John Malkovich, and they will actually get mad—personally offended by the fact that such movies exist.  But show them to a smart person and, while they may prefer one movie to the other, the one they like less will not make them angry.  Only a stupid movie would make them angry.  And though I.Q. strongly correlates with these groups (the average I.Q. of the people who like the smart movies will be higher), it does not exactly correlate (it is not the case that the I.Q. of every person in the smart-movie-liking group will be higher than that of every person in the other one).

    This dynamic is the artistic distaff of the trend that has been observed regarding religious people and moral dilemmas.  Even though they are supposedly more concerned with moral fine points than others are, studies have demonstrated that religious types react with offense to being presented with ethical paradoxes (e.g., the one about the ten kids on the train track and the one kid on the other track).  This is because they have become accustomed to philosophical lethargy, to a point where they demand its continuance from the external world as a right.  This is what stupid means, and it clearly does not describe you.

    In conclusion, my estimation is that you are a smart person who does poorly on I.Q. tests for some reason.  There are many indicators that you are smart, and only one (the I.Q. test score) that you are not, so the most logical explanation is that I.Q. tests do not accurately measure the way in which you are smart, whatever that may be.  Consider an analogy with physical activity: many people are labeled “bad at sports” as children, based upon a sampling of only a few sports, but some of these grow up to become excellent at some other, less ubiquitous sport, or at some activity that clearly requires a great deal of physical coordination and “athletic” prowess, e.g., dance.  There are obviously such things as being physically uncoordinated overall (bad at all sports), or being exceptionally physically prolific in general (will probably be pretty good at all sports and sport-like things with enough practice), but there is also clearly such a thing as being good at some athletic activities but not others (e.g., an amazing dancer who could not hit a baseball to save his/her life).

    Other people have probably said things from time to time to try and assuage your concerns about this matter, but I guess you weren’t sure whether you should believe them.  But since The 1585 has a spotless reputation for always endeavoring to say the truest thing possible and never bending it to spare anyone’s feelings, maybe you will be able to trust us.  I’m very glad to have been able to write this for you, and for anyone else who may be struggling with the same issues.

    Your Fellow Smart Person,
            —Sexo Grammaticus

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