Conversation Enders # 15: How To Appear Smart While Convincing Others How Stupid You Really Are Or, A Short Treatise On Pretentiousness and Choplogic

When I was in elementary school (5th grade to be precise), my 5th grade teacher, who shall remain nameless (not so much to protect his identity, but to avoid being sued), initiated a lesson that proved that “gifted and talented” kids may not be so. Some teachers did and still operate under the impression that so-called topnotch children should develop their critical thinking skills. This idea is obviously a big mistake. Try to see where this idea goes wrong. My 5th grade teacher attempted to introduce a classroom full of eleven year-olds to the philosophic enterprise of logical thinking. Yeah, right. Dude, we were eleven year olds! It’s difficult enough to get a classroom full of well over twenty one year-olds to sit down and shut up during an actual college level philosophy class, let alone attempting to reason with a group of hyperactive and disinterested kids (and we really were disinterested in learning any of that crap) that reading philosophy was going to make us into better people. The only thing that I remember about the whole ordeal is that the focus of all that crap he had us reading about was some dude named Harry Stottlemeyer. Needless to say, the attempt did not go over — at all. It was a lead zeppelin in the truest sense of the phrase. Unfortunately, my teacher’s failed attempt was just the first of many attempts by subsequent teachers to nurture one of education’s worst side effects — thinking too much. This overthinking is a problem to say the least. It affects both the educated and the uneducated alike. Unfortunately, it’s found among the educated in greater frequency than any other segment of society. This overthinking silll leads to another affliction among the over-educated set: the need to convince others how smart we are. If you’ve spent too much time around these over-educated types, you mave have noticed that they tend to manifest their need to impress with their brainpower in one of two ways: 1) impressing others with their extensive book knowledge. This is usually examplified by the incessant need to add more detail or backstory to information that other people already know. For example, a group of people are discussing the evils of slavery in the Americas. There is no real need to add detail to the horrors of slavery more than the fact that human beings were bought and sold as property. But the individual who needs to impress others with his smarts will inevitably add such factoids as the fact that the first recorded slaves came to the Americas in 1620, and that, throughout the slave-holding states, it was illegal for a slave to own a comb, or that, because of the prevalence of rape of female slaves, as high as 70% of the U.S. black population has European ancestry. It’s not that these facts aren’t entertaining or interesting. But the plain truth is, is that no one asked to hear what the guy had to say. His point was that he had to prove that he knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room. The second type of overthinker is the worst of the two: he is the person who finds the hidden significance and deep meaning in damn-near everything he sees — no matter how trivial or insignificant the thing is. We’ve all seen this jerk. Let’s say that there is a group of people reminiscing about the incredibly stupid TV shows that aired during their collective adolescence. The show that they are discussing is the incredibly, mind-numbingly awful saturday morning classic, Saved By the Bell. Without ever being invited into the discussion, Mr. Smarter-than-you decides that he is going to learn everyone about how Screetch reflects Hegelian alienation, or what Slater’s physique can teach us about Platonic forms. He decides to wow us all by explaining in painstaking detail, how Zach is really Nietzsche’s ubermensche. Whichever one we encounter, conversations tend to drift into the realm of the academic — where words like “pedantic”, “didactic”, and “soporific” come to mind ( I did a little wowing myself just there. I pulled out three 50 cent words!) All this overthinking (bombastic overthnking at that) tends to result in the exact opposite effect that it is intended to have. Amazingly, overthinking deralis thought. It creates a type of disposition in those who are prone to overthinking that we should only think about those things that are “important”. Inevitably, this line of thinking itself tends to cast the net of subject mater very narrowly. Conversations tend to be small and for the most part, uninteresting. I say, if you want to try this out, try talking to an academic about any subject other than their subject of choice or expertise. Good luck. The unfortunate result of this mindset is that those who think too much are often accused of snobbery. This, I think, has to do with why so many Americans are so dismissive of education. It’s esay to see that we have a real disdain for bookworms, smarty-pants, know-it-all’s. We hated Al Gore in part because he came off like he was smarter than everyone else (and worse yet, knew that he was). The allegation, however, isn’t entirely untrue. People who overthink are sometimes arrogant jerks who do feel that they are the smartest people in the room. The unfortunate side effect for those who overthink is that many of them become so wrapped up in being dismissive of anything that does not warrant intellectual merit, that they often miss the point of thinking entirely. The key is that we must remind ourselves that it’s not that nothing trivial has significance to it. Eric Draven (aka, “The Crow”) said that nothing is trivial. Unfortunately for Mr. Draven, he realized that fact after he was stabbed a few times and chucked out of a 4th story window. For the majority of us, our lesson need not be so extreme. Now, it may be true that there are really trivial things that lack any significance whatsoever (for instance, it is a waste of time to contemplate the philosophic significance of my big toe), but it is easy to understand Draven’s sentiment. When it comes to overthinking, we have a problem. But, our solution is not dismissing all as insignificant, either. During the last KPFK fund drive (wait, that might still be going on now), a host lamented the fact that there are a bunch of movies at the cineplexes that don’t teach anything. That statement, and I think that she might take offense to my supposition, is exactly what is wrong with overthinking. It is possible to find, if one looks hard enough, significance or a lesson in nearly anything. I’d say that her problem is, is that she was being intellectually lazy and dismissing anything that set out to entertain as its first priority as non-instructive. There is as much to learn from Madea as we can learn from a documentary about detainees at Gitmo. (Really, this is true). That’s the trap. There is a possibility that, with all of our looking, that we run the possibility of looking too deep. The key is finding what the Buddha called the “middle way”. That is, when we look for significance, we must be careful not to overthink, but we must also watch that we do not underthink, either. Take what you watch or read or hear with caution. I was listening to “Fresh Air” a couple of nights ago while I was washing dishes. Terry Gross was talking to Woody Allen. I’ve been around philosophy types long enough to know that this guy is the total package so far as filmmakers go. Ask any philosopher which Woody Allen film he digs and you’ll be sure to hear Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors sure as I can crack my knuckles. Personally, I’m a fan of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?. But that’s just me. I was amazed to hear Woody Allen say (alright, I already kind of knew this) that he isn’t a deep thinker. He says that people look all over his movies, looking for clues for life’s hidden meanings. But to him it seems, his movies are merely the product of his or his partner’s imagination. There is nothing more than what makes for a good story. He says that he’s more likely to be the guy wearing a T-shirt drinking a beer than he’d be the guy knee-deep in some philosophic roundtable discussing the merits of some deep and complex philsophical theory. I know that many philosophers hail Woody Allen as some sort of movie god, and often rank him among those who are “philosophers” in the academic sense. I learned some time ago that Woody Allen, unlike say, Lakers (Go Lakers!) coach Phil Jackson, Harrison Ford or Steve Martin, wasn’t a philosophy major in college. He studied film… and flunked out. But you see, that’s where overthinking gets the best of people. Not only do they see deep thinking where it isn’t, but they also created a persona for a filmmaker to match their own tendency to overthink. I think that the king of (cinematic) pop, George Lucas, said it best when he said that there are people who dismiss films like Star Wars as fluff, but on the flipside, there are people who look way too deep. They’re so busy looking that they miss the point. I’d like to end on this note. I think that it applies: Back in the mid-90s, there was this Tom Petty video for the song “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. The viedo had all sorts of flashy images in it, and plenty of people started asking,”what does all of this mean?” (I guess it’s worth noting that this is the era when video directors like Mark Romanek and Mark Pellingham were churning out videos that had “meaning”). I remember watching VH-1 one afternoon when the subject of Tom Petty’s video came up. The second most frequently asked question about the video (right behind “Is that a man?”) was what did the video mean? Tom Petty’s answer was that the video meant nothing. There was no point other than to throw alot of cool stuff together in a video (although I suspect that there was some deconstructivist that said that there was meaning, and of course, Tom Petty didn’t see it). That’s so cool! And it’s especially cool for this point: you can dig too deep and shoot right past the answer. You can dig enough and find meaning that was lurking in a Romero zombie flick, or finding the Jungian archetypes in Lucas’ Star Wars. But you can also not look at all and still get it. The point in all of this is that, despite my early trauma with the likes of that Stottlemeyer bastard, and my excursion into the academic world of overthinking (something I have not completely shed from my soul yet), I am aware of, and seeking that happy balance between the two extremes.

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