Aug 30, 2022 • 6 minute read

It’s What You Have, Not What You Are

Reframing labels and fixing society

... I tend to use a slightly modified version which replaces "privelege" with "privileges". it's not a question of wether you are or aren't privileged, but instead what privileges you do and don't have.

David R. MacIver

Intelligence

I’ve never been quite fond of the word “smart”. It feels as ill-defined and misattributed as “evil” or “web3”.

Why is it that those who appear to be above average in intelligence more often come from affluent backgrounds? Is it just that all the smart people have hoarded all the money? I can think of quite a few wealthy people of below average intelligence, so I don’t think the relationship holds true both ways. Instead, it’s more likely that those with higher perceived intelligence were also given more access to resources at a younger age.

There also seems to be some more general attributes seen among the perspicacious. Passion and appreciation for knowledge, perhaps. A curiosity about the world. Habitually getting sucked into a learning frenzy. Maybe all of them.

In fact, I’d wager the majority of people who demonstrate above average intelligence are not genetic freaks. Rather, their environment is more conducive to produce the kind of person who would seek out knowledge in the first place. You might have heard of this debate as nurture vs nature. I tend to place my worldview on the nurture side of things.

As I’ve defined it, the word “smart” doesn’t seem very harmful. It just needs to be slightly redefined as a component of your environment instead of your genetics. Smart people, in whatever way they managed to get these attributes, have better tools for tackling what appear to be novel problems. You may want a “smart” worker so that the work to be done is done better, in whatever way “better” means. One would think the word smart still has value.

My issue is mainly with its colloquial use. This struck a chord with me rather recently. Although I believe software engineering is a more approachable field than it’s generally thought to be, I’ve found out recently that my perceived skill with my own work has driven some people away from pursuing the field. I’ve been perceived not as skilled, but as talented - naturally gifted. That I am smart by nature and would be unapproachable in aptitude by someone less naturally intelligent. As I’m not “the best”, my field as a whole would likely be unapproachable for anyone not already up to par.

In reality, my current skill is built upon a foundation of experience. Thinking of learning as velocity and knowledge as position, the graph of knowledge accruement is not linear. It is more cubed than anything. There’s a slow start, then a sharp climb, followed by years of PhD research before vowing to never learn another thing again.

If your rate of knowledge gain remains constant from the start of your journey, you’re unlikely to learn very much. Knowledge in general just doesn’t work like that. What seems to be increasing complexity is often just minor increments of difficulty atop a previously learned complex foundation. From an outsider’s point of view, the mountain of knowledge looks unclimbable, but no one dares look close enough to notice the escalator a quarter way up the berg.

Astrology & Personality Tests

I’m not going to cloud my predispositions with fancy wordplay. I think astrology is nonsense. None of its output is a reflection on the input. Your birth month does not determine personality traits. As much of a determinist I appear to be, this is not a game I will have any involvement in. The astronomical bodies care very little about what are effectively micro-organisms hundreds of millions of miles away.

The same disdain I have for astrology falls partly on personality tests. I am not only including the Buzzfeed quizzes and Facebook posts involving your pet's name and half your credit card. I mean to include Myers Briggs and the 16 personalities. Supposed scientific tests with rigorous backing.

I've taken such tests multiple times within the past 6 years and only rarely (if ever) gotten the same result twice. As these tests haven't changed significantly in that time, these results are due to differing inputs to the questionnaire. My opinions have changed over time.

Unlike astrology, these tests provide a direct output for a given input. What does this say about reality however? That truly I am an ENFJITP? That inherent to my very being I am caring and also enjoy being alone, but I’m not afraid to rise up to the challenge! I don't think so. At best the most scientific personality test can give you a somewhat accurate assessment of your current mood, not your ethos.

The popular perception of both astrology and personality tests is that these are static labels. Once diagnosed you are given a permanent clarification on a life long attribute.

Aha! It all makes sense now! My abrasive attitude is caused by an aggressive Patronus! I am a blameless victim. Any attempt at progression to a more amicable attitude is wasted effort. I can continue to be a societal detriment without any moral repercussions.

Privilege

The title of this article is from a tweet I saw in passing in relation to privilege. Privilege is a label passed onto those seen with more fortune than others, but it's rather difficult to define more specifically than that.

Are you not privileged? Have you not limbs? Water? Consciousness? Life? Each one potentially puts you in a more privileged bucket than someone else at this moment. As it's used, it tends to center on select groups of westerners with even more specific qualities. It's vague. I don’t think I can define privilege as it’s used colloquially better than that.

A much better phrasing, as stolen from this twitter comment I saw, is to frame privilege as things you have rather than what you are. It is not that you are privileged as a blanket label, but instead that you possess the privilege of having limbs. You possess the privilege of consciousness and clean-ish drinking water. Given this new labeling, we would be forced to specify when referring to privileged groups. It would be akin to referring to a group that is “motivated by a cause” when you mean to refer to the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s rather unhelpful to be vague in that scenario.

Labels

What connects these topics is the common understanding of labeling. Calling someone by their nationality is known to be a static label. “Happy” is a dynamic label - it’s unlikely to stick around forever. With everyone in a marathon race for identity, I can understand wanting a static label. There’s a feeling of completeness that might come with fully understanding who you are. I don’t think knowing that you’re a Capricorn will bring you any closer to this truth, but I can somewhat sympathize with the emotional pull.

Framing labels as objects - things you can have - I think puts a better semantic spin on things. Yes, it might not help you with your spiritual journey, but I do think it helps with clarifying conversations in a pretty important way. If we can frame intelligence as achievable and personality as actively mutable, we can perhaps motivate society at large to reach for such change.

As someone with a somewhat academic background in linguistics, I’m more aware than most that language is effectively arbitrary. Words we use only have the meaning we give them. Grammatical shifts and meaning movements are to be expected with enough time. Still, the framework we use to communicate ideas can have an enormous impact on what we communicate. Our language won’t last forever and neither should our labels.