I have been hearing the word genius a lot lately. There seem to be many of them. Maybe too many. But if so, would that be a problem? Perhaps not, maybe I am just being petty. However, I also often see how “but x is a genius” is used as a valid excuse for awful behaviour, as if condoning such behaviour was the price societies had to pay for having geniuses (genii, whatever you want to call them) walking among us. But what if they are not genius, just shameless enough to pretend? What are we paying for, then?
So, what is a genius?
The definition of genius seems pretty straightforward. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the innate intellectual or creative power of an exceptional or exalted type, such as is attributed to those people considered greatest in any area of art, science, etc. So, it is an intellectual and creative power that one is born with and exceeds the norm. The second part of the definition drops the innate part altogether: instinctive and extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation, original thought, invention, or discovery. Similarly, the American Psychological Association defines it as an extreme degree of intellectual or creative ability, or any person who possesses such ability. You get the gist. People that excel the standards of their own discipline, people like Einstein, Ada Lovelace, etc.
On the other hand, I am sure you have heard the phrase criminal genius. It refers to highly intelligent people that engage in criminal activity. Here, the individual has to be really smart, whether or not they committed their crimes in innovative ways. It is almost like criminal behaviour was so outside of the nature of the genius that we need a new category for them. Genuises (criminal or not) are rare but certainly not as rare as we perceive them to be because, understandably, we only know about those who a) become public figures by doing genius things and b) those who say they are, whether they had done genius things or not.
Of course, one thing is a historical, institutional definition and a different one is how people use it. In my experience, nowadays we seem to apply the concept of a genius to things that we assume haven’t been done before and those who do those things or people we assume are really good at what they do, whether they are smart or not. Not too far from dictionary definitions, you might think. I have heard the use of the word genius when referring to Kanye West and Elon Musk, for example. Although, notably, both have played a huge role in communicating it. But I have also heard this applied to Donald Trump and other public figures and at this point, I have to wonder: Are we suddenly applying genius to people doing things that (allegedly) haven’t been done before, no matter what the thing is? You won’t be surprised to learn that yes, we are. And because we do, I think we should either revisit or clarify the definition of genius or really question its relevance.
To function as a society, we need to implicitly agree to give up certain individual liberties in favour of a collective experience. This is roughly how Rousseau defined the social contract in 1762. The social contract is not fixed, of course, it evolves with societies, it is contextual and culture-specific. This social contract is what prevents us from lying, cheating or picking our nose in public even when there are no explicit rules against it, and this contract is held in place by shame, or rather, a fear of social shaming. Is this ok though? I don’t know. I am certainly not trying to moralize the phenomenon, however, there seems to be a correlation between the normalization of otherwise shameful attitudes (such as racism or bigotry) and an increment of such kind of behaviour.
In his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson explains in very clear terms the role that public shaming plays in punishing non-criminal offences. The book also suggests how social media is a modern version of the pillory, a vehicle for enacting the kind of mob justice that keeps the social contract in effect. You are probably familiar with the Central Park Karen saga, in which a woman tried to weaponize the police against a black birdwatcher and was later fired from her job when her victim released a recording of the event. After these events, it was pointed out that the events could have led to a very different (even fatal) outcome hadn’t the birdwatcher recorded the event.
Shame is a tricky subject. While it might be effective to regulate societal behaviour (whether we like it or not), it is often seen as an impediment to individual creativity and progress, particularly in entrepreneurial contexts. Personally, I think dealing with shame is a matter of nuance. Shame, like anything else, is only a problem when there is no control over it or when the experience of shame is too extreme to function normally. There is also the other extreme. A total lack of shame.
If you have ever experienced shame in your life, I am sure you’ll agree it is not a pleasant feeling. That’s exactly why it was (and still is) used as a punishment and this is also why the prospect of not experiencing shame can be so appealing. Unfortunately for each and fortunately for all, the great majority of people do feel shame. But not all. I am not an expert, but there seem to be people who are actually immune to shame. We call these people narcissists. Now, narcissists are an interesting bunch. Besides their shamelessness, they are notoriously delusional about how much they know and these delusions tend to inform their often poor decision-making. They have been proven to believe to be way more intelligent than they really are and seem to be prone to entertain conspiracy theories. But they are also charming, great at spinning the rationales behind their ill-informed decisions and redirecting blame.
Some of these characteristics are considered relatively positive in a corporate environment. They happen to fit the mould of the old-school leader: shameless, overconfident, charismatic, and willing to do things that no one else would do to be praised. Considering how often confidence gets confused with competence, it is easy to see why so many people think of them as capable natural leaders, despite their otherwise obvious shortcomings. Now, unfortunately, many people would be willing to overlook the non-written rules of the social contract for the benefit of these individuals. Some of those willing to overlook their transgressions would hold positions of power. Some of those in positions of power, in extreme cases, will be comfortable enough to overlook their propensity to engage in fraud.
The fact that people might be willing to cut slack to shameless people and shameless actions is not necessarily fueled by malice. The social contract is strong enough for most people to assume no one is shameless enough to break it, and the risk of being incorrect and facing shame is too high of risk (just think about all the very powerful people that Elizabeth Holmes convinced to invest in Theranos, for example). This is not genius, it is privilege derived from people’s incredulity in the face of shamelessness. It happens all the time, all around.
Means and ends
But why? you might ask. Why do we keep confusing them? Again, I am not an expert but I can think of two mechanisms:
- The myth of meritocracy. People like to believe that achievement is always a consequence of personal worth. Intelligence, as opposed to other qualities that societies tend to value (such as physical strength and beauty), is not apparent. Geniuses are recognized for the fruits of their intelligence and creativity, not for their intellectual qualities. But you do not need to be a genius to achieve things, you can also cheat, lie, steal, make use of your privilege, etc. In the end, people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between these two paths because both led to similar outcomes. In fact, even in cases in which it is fair to question the logic behind relatively simple decisions, people tend to favour the romantic idea of personal merit. If the simple explanation does not suffice (the person is obviously not as smart as they say they are), there must be an underlying reason our simple minds are not able to comprehend.
- Agency vs lack of control. People confuse volition with a lack of control because the outcomes are the same. Let me explain: No one thinks that snakes are genius because they slither, that’s what snakes do. It is innate to them. If shameless self-promotion is inherent to your personality, why would anyone think that it is genius when you do it? The feat would be for you to control yourself and abide by the social contract but then, you would not stand out, you’ll be just like everyone else. When a narcissist says and does things that violate the social contract and puts them in an advantageous position it is not due to extreme courage, it is because they cannot help themselves. You, me, wouldn’t know the difference based on the outcomes alone.
Ultimately, at least in my opinion, the problem revolves around the idea that people somehow “deserve” special treatment from society because they rank higher on a highly conventional scale, without showing any interest in the value that those people bring to the common good. If you are a jerk, it shouldn’t matter how smart you are, you do not deserve a special social contract (a criminal genius is still a criminal, you know?) and if you bring value to society, it shouldn’t matter how smart you are. Just sayin’.