Recurring Themes, Part Seven: Categorical Contempt for Others

June 01st, 2008 | Category: Essays

During a stint at a record store a couple of years ago, I had a lady come in looking for the new Neil Diamond record. As I located the CD for her, she started talking down to me, as if I had no knowledge of Neil Diamond’s history. Sure, part of this was because she thought I was younger than I was (no one expects a mid-thirties sales clerk with a master’s degree in a South Alabama record store), but part of it was indicative of a widespread elitism, a largely misplaced but ubiquitous contempt for others.

How often do you say or hear someone say in general that “people are stupid”? In spite of what you tell yourself, you are not smarter than everyone else. You’re not the only person who thinks critically about the news. Thinking you’re the first one to get every reference, every punch-line, every subtext is dangerous business. As Darwin put it, “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

It’s called the Lake Wobegon effect. Named after the fictional town in A Prairie Home Companion by Garrison Keillor where, “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average,” it describes the tendency for everyone to think they are above average. This is of course an extreme mathematical improbability.

William Gibson’s novel Idoru (Putnam, 1996) took the idea of media contempt to a repulsive extreme. As Kodwo Eshun described it, “you’ve got Kathy Torrance of Slitscan who has this view of her audience as this hungry amorphous organism, eager for ritual bloodletting, which she sees as the alchemical blood of celebrity.” While it might be easy to look at what’s on television and think that the populous is a bit dim, it’s simply not true. Honestly, how many truly stupid people do you know?

This is why I say the contempt is misplaced. Instead of disparaging the audience, we should be holding the media to a higher standard for doing just that. In spite of evidence to the contrary, it often seems like they want us to be dumb. The ones that don’t condescend to their audiences are often attacked. After the release of Inland Empire (2006), actress Laura Dern had to defend director David Lynch against accusations that his films are deliberately obscurantist: “He’s not waiting for us to get the movie because he doesn’t think the cinema is about ‘getting it’. I think he believes — which I’ve found very rare in filmmakers — in the intelligence of the audience, that they’re intelligent enough to discover the film and what it means within themselves.”

I know, the dumb stuff would disappear if it didn’t have an audience, but don’t you wish there were more David Lynchs and less Kathy Torrances?

As in my record store example above, a blanket disdain for others often occurs across generational divides. The contemptuous cliché “these kids today” still lingers. Just because you’re older doesn’t mean the youth don’t know about something from “your time” (Of course I write this at the risk of sounding ageist myself). The youth of today have access to more information and more history than any other generation previous. They’ve also grown up with the information technology that now runs the world. I call this phenomenon in organizations the “generation pinch,” where upper management find themselves managing systems and people they don’t understand. As Nobel laureate James D. Watson put it, “These days, fast-learning, web-savvy twenty-five-year-olds may have more to give their communities than their experienced fifty-year-old equivalents. The latter’s accumulated wisdom may not be as applicable to our ever faster-moving future.”

With that in mind, I didn’t lash out at the Neil Diamond lady (I did mention that Rick Rubin produced the record, but resisted repeating her invective “you don’t know who that is, do you?“).

Using a positive application of labeling theory, Tim Ferris wrote, “It’s amazing how someone’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.” We could all use a bit more of that attitude.


Darwin, C. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, 1871.

Ferris, T. The 4-Hour Workweek. New York: Crown, 2007.

Watson, J. D. “Enduring Memories.” SEED Magazine. April/May, 2006.

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