Discover more from Other Feminisms
Some People are Taller. (Some People are Smarter)
Talking to Freddie deBoer about differences and dependencies we're too ashamed to acknowledge
When Susannah Black Roberts, Freddie deBoer, and I all log on to a call, we talk about human dignity and things get rowdy.
The fall issue of Plough is out now on the theme of THE ENEMY. I contributed a piece on my experience hosting an intense, fruitful debate on abortion at UNC-Chapel Hill. And I had the pleasure of joining Susannah Black Roberts to interviewfor the Plough podcast.
Our starting point was his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, but we wandered widely from there. He was a mensch throughout, giving good faith answers to increasingly metaphysical-flavored questions and willing to say, "I'm not totally satisfied with my answer, but it's the best I have so far."
Freddie has an intense interest in how we shortchange the vulnerable by trying to pretend their vulnerabilities are solely the result of structural injustices, not written in the body. I’ve highlighted part of our conversation on this subject below. You can listen to the whole conversation (and read a full transcript) at Plough.
Leah Sargeant: I want to pivot a little to some of your meritocracy work because I think it points to a little bit of the question of what social justice consists of and what’s a hard sell because one thing you talked about in your Cult of Smart book that really stuck with me was I think there was an anecdote about a mom who is an immigrant to America who just kind of casually said when talking about her children, “And that one, not so smart.” And it really spoke to what you’re arguing about, which is that there’s a kind of, I don’t know if you framed it exactly this way, but an inherent dignity to people, and we want to respond to that dignity without making intelligence the bar for value in others because not everyone will clear that bar. And then we’re kind of stuck in the mindset of either having to lie about whether they’ll clear it because we don’t know how to justify treating them well otherwise or getting trapped a different way.
But I think there’s a huge mindset shift, not just for the elites though particularly there to be able to say, “My kid is not so smart,” and not feel like you’ve said, “My kid is worthless.” So I’m kind of curious for that push on what justice entails, what the human person is. Do you see fronts where that fight is happening, and how do you approach that revaluing of people in your own life?
Fredrik deBoer: I would say one thing that I would add for the listeners who haven’t read the book is that that mother I’m talking about was Chinese. And obviously in China there’s a big achievement culture, there’s a value of intelligence and of education. But this was a person who was not marinated in American expectations about the kind of things that you did and did not say about her kid, their kids. And I just admired, I was taking aback by, but I admired things like, “Yeah, he’s not very smart.” And as I say in the book, I was there, there was a bunch of people there, and I saw people sort of blanch and sort of like, “What? What did she just say?” But if she had said, “Oh, he doesn’t have an ear for music,” then no one would’ve cared, right? If she had said, “Oh, he’ll never be a great athlete …”
Leah: It’s very normal in my culture to say you’re not good at sports, and for that even to be a point of pride rather than just neutral, right?
Freddie: Exactly. Not good at art, not good at music, not good at sports, there are all manner of things in which, or even we can say, “Oh, he’s not going to be very tall.” There are all sorts of human attributes that we are readily able to sort of say, “This person is not going to excel in that dimension,” but it’s OK because it’s not assumed to be existential about them. But smart and the whole title Cult of Smart, the whole point is that intelligence is seen as a totalizing statement of human worth. Some of the stuff that didn’t get into the book for various reasons from the editing process was some of the historical stuff where I show that this was not always true, that there are historical examples of people talking about intelligence is just one of many.
I blame Thomas Dewey among other people. But anyway, the thing that I always just would just point out to people is that first of all, the notion, of course, intelligence is an extremely useful element, useful attribute to have, and it will always be valuable in many domains, and it’s a good thing to have. But, again, so is being tall. And intelligence is a human attribute like any other in that it’s influenced by gene and environmental interactions and that we can’t fully control it. And the point that I was trying to make in the book is that by insisting on a blank slate mindset that says that anyone can be a genius, anyone can be an academic superstar, is actually an extremely cruel thing to do because when people inevitably fail to meet those standards, the only one that they have to blame is themselves. What I’m trying to do in that book is to say, “Look, there’s lots of different ways to be a useful human being, and we all have something to contribute.”
A lot of the discussions we have about dependence here at Other Feminisms are centered on physical frailty. When I think about cognitive weakness, my first images are of older people declining from a previous peak.
I’d like to do better at treating differences in smarts the way I do differences in other capacities, but it’s something where I know I’m working against my habits, which is why that story from Freddie’s first book was so arresting to me.