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.

Further Posting:


  • Chris said:

    I respect your faith in your fellow man, but I don’t share your high opinion of the intellect of Joe six-pack.

    An “average” IQ is 100. Do you spend much time socializing with people who have an IQ of 100? The average American reads less than 1 book a year. Albert Einstein liked to say, “Not everything that counts can be measured, and not everything that can be measured counts.” IQ may not be the be-all-end-all, but taken in aggregate, it’s a good indication that “average” intelligence is a pretty dim bulb.

    My late Uncle use to say, “The average Joe is a pretty sorry slob.” He was the son of a sharecropper, who became a self-made multi-millionaire entirely from working the stock market in his spare time, while working as a librarian. He was a smart man, and a really nice fellow, too.

    But I try not practice contempt. Or, more charitably, I give people the benefit of the doubt. After all, there are worse things than being ignorant, or even being stupid. Some people are mean. Other people are smart and evil. I would prefer to avoid both.

    Take the lady who came in looking for Neil Diamond, for example. I don’t know whether she’s smart or not (I suspect not), but she does sound mean.

    P.S. Have you read “Everything Bad is Good for You” by Steven Berlin Johnson? If not, I think you might like it.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    As much I understand your argument, Chris, I guess I’ve just grown tired of the “no one thinks”/”everyone is stupid” attitude that I’ve seen so much of. No, everyone isn’t smart, but must we chronically assume the opposite? That’s all I wanted to bring to light.

    P.S. I have read Everything Bad is Good for You (I wrote a bit about it and Hip-hop a while back), and in fact referenced it above (“evidence to the contrary”). I appreciate its premise and Steven’s arguments very much.

  • Matt said:

    I dig what you’re saying. Sometimes I have to shake myself out of those sorts of thoughts by thinking about how young I was (and must have looked) when I was doing/thinking any given Smart Type Thing.

    Of course you realize the inapplicability of “In spite of what you tell yourself, you are not smarter than everyone else” to me – but since you write these things for the genpop I’ll overlook the obvious error…

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Well, Matt, everyone knows you’re above average in every aspect — except compassion, of course.

    By the way, next time I see you, you’re getting popped for using the portmanteau abbreviation “genpop.”


  • Matt said:

    Yeah, I don’t have that compassion gene. What can I say. My memory sucks too. But other than that I’d say you’ve pretty much got it.

    Later, baby(gen)pop.

  • Gabi Wan Kenobi said:

    Actually, I’m feeling as though you’re all condescending to me, because I have no fucking clue how to interpret any of this. In fact, I am SO much fuckin dumber than this Average Joe you speak of (I have never seen him in the news!!?!) that you would ALL hold me in high contempt if you met me in person. Further, I don’t think, I operate solely on base sexual urge instincts and the need for food. I ravage my fellow man for what I can plunder from him due to the fact that I am too fucking stoopid to get a job that doesn’t pay a lower-than-standard-of-living wage, which at this point of economic/environmental/social crisis in our world is probably anything under $150,000 a year.
    Lastly, you may ask, “If you’re so gotdamn dumb, then how did you have the neural function to compose such a rant?” The answer is simple, but not as simple as my protozoal self. I employed my mother to write this. She has a Ph.D. in Literature and is generally pretty successful, whilst also being completely disappointed in me, because I am less functional than an atom whose electrons have spun off axis.

  • E said:

    My knee jerk reaction was to agree with the darker view – George Carlin’s “picture the average American and then realize fifty percent of the people are even dumber.” But you’re right: lashing out won’t help, or at least it hasn’t often helped me. Or most of the environments in which this kind of contempt for someone’s intellect has been leveled. I have learned this the hard way.

    And where the trust isn’t given back, well, instead of giving the gas face give them the “Rubin.” Let your own Mrs. Underestimator know with grace that the mental box they have assigned you is too damned small.

    To Rubin. That’s my new verb. Thanks.