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IQ and the Public Intellectual?
What happens when you tell someone their IQ? It might not mean very much to them. If you are a public intellectual, the sales pitch for IQ could be appealing. Imagine I have written a few books, accumulated a large following and am asked to talk about divisive issues publicly. Somehow, I have garnered an elevated social status and would like to explain why, especially to those people claiming the system that has given me so much might have done so for somewhat trivial reasons. IQ is a measure of my intelligence but what I have come to like about it is its standardisation. People with a high IQ are rarer. This explains why so few are at the top and so many are at the bottom. It puts intelligence in a competition, I so happen to be the best. But this is not my story, it is the story of Jordan Peterson, a man who does not believe social inequality can be fixed. Coincidentally, he claims to have an IQ over 156. This makes him quite cognitively able and one of less than 4000 people in his country with that ability. And as capitalism tells us, rare is good.
I am not Jordan Peterson. He is a successful author and publica intellectual. He would like to think this is due to his higher IQ. My IQ was measured by a behavioural psychologist to diagnose my dyslexia and dyspraxia. These two conditions limit certain cognitive abilities required to score a high IQ. By having these disabilities, I fit awkwardly into the IQ hierarchy. The fact of one’s IQ brings a large amount of baggage with it – part of me wishes I did not know mine and I could speculate reasons for Peterson sharing his. The high IQ identity runs wild outside the laboratory and is used by Peterson to justify natural hierarchies. My position, or lack thereof, in said hierarchy makes me question whether this is all a bit narcissistic. Although, I don’t mean narcissism in an individual sense, I’m talking about Collective Narcissism (CN henceforth), an often-overlooked social phenomenon.
We are the Main Characters
Recent studies have broken new ground viewing nationalism as CN, bolstered by the rising discourse on narcissism surrounding Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. In a sense, it is blindingly obvious that ‘America First’ is clearly an appeal to American narcissism. What else could it be? However, the collective narcissism I wish to explore is more than typical jingoism but need to group recognition of an identity detached from reality. There is a scene in the awful Sorkin drama Newsroom where the protagonist points out Americans flaws empirically (listing plausibly sounding facts quickly with no references, typical Sorkin). Everyone is aghast, their narcissistic image of America makes them crave positive affirmations and react bitterly to negative depictions of their America. We see play out in a study in Poland, the CN love the idea of an environmental campaign which presents Poland a pro-environment country but responds less positively to similar campaign without the nationalism. What I like about the Newsroom example is that it begins with shock to Right-Wing American exceptionalism and then shifts to a vindication of Liberal CN. Released in 2012, the character reflects on how America politicians are no longer great men (notice the gendering) and how they used to “declare war on poverty not poor people[.]” We can see familiar strains in left and right iterations of CN and historians are not going to like them.
Any ‘us’ identity can become narcissistic. Generally, we can see that low self-esteem attracts people to a group identity to empower them. Our brains love the attention but fail to realise that this nets us more anxiety as we compete against out-groups. Not coming first is losing. Everyone should be constantly praising out group. Anyone in an out-group cannot celebrate their success and might not want to point to the differences between the self-group image and the reality. Sorkin’s West Wing seems to reflect the time when politicians were great man. There is a scene where a black youth meets the president and is happy to tell the child of his plan to criminalise a certain calibre of bullets dubbed ‘cop-killers’ to show how much our president cares about the problems facing the black community. The character’s positive reaction to this scene fuels the CN, it allows Sorkin to brush off the growing conscious raised African American activists. As with most things Western, the collective image is going to be straight white and male.
Back to the ‘Order of Things’
Where does that put me? Narcissistically, I would like some spoils, but my genetics hinder me from being in the cognitive stratosphere. My IQ is quite influenced by genetics because I have had a privileged upbringing. Those without such luxuries will have their IQ determined far more by environment than genetics. The IQ enthusiasts would love to blame IQ purely on genetics. Their imagine of greatness cannot be reducible to luck, cashed out in a plurality of ways. It might be why the debunked discourse of Race and IQ hits such a nerve. Peterson loves a natural hierarchy (oh the beauty of the passive voice!). This is the way the world is, straight white men get the spoils and because they get them, they deserve them. Solving inequality is impossible, do not examine how Sweden eliminated the gender pay gap. This is the beauty of CN for political pundits, no cross-cultural comparisons are allowed. Any comparison with another group must be take for granted our group is better. By virtue of his narcissism, he can only discuss his image of America and so his naturalism falls flat. This is the way things are in a group that is imaginary. CN motivates reasoning; for me to feel good, I need to be part of a good group.
Peterson, you will never live up to that IQ of 156. The image of a high IQ public intellectual is misanthropic. We would both be better off not knowing.
Thomas Compton is trade union representative, community practitioner and undertaking ESRC funded PhD titled 'Levelling-Up For the People: Community Development Responses to Austerity'.