Road Trips
Little Beasties

Unnatural Taboos

A while ago, in the comments following this, I wrote:

It occurs to me that the implications of social construction can appeal to rather unsavoury motives. If a person’s tastes and disposition are primarily socially constructed, that person can also, presumably, be remade to suit society and its representatives. Such high-minded Agents of Society might even become “engineers of the human soul,” to borrow Stalin’s phrase. The idea of innate disposition and talent is in some circles quite contentious, not least with regard to intelligence and its unequal distribution. This seems to cause unease in ways that, say, the unequal distribution of musical or athletic talent does not. It also undermines many conceptions of egalitarianism, which is probably why it causes such a fuss.

And it does cause a fuss. It’s possible, for instance, to find people who are (or will be) employed precisely because of their well above average intelligence performing extraordinary contortions to deny the existence of the intelligence they possess. Some, like Joseph Kugelmass, an English graduate student at the University of California, say things like this:

The abstract personal definition of “intelligence,” reified in our minds thanks to IQ tests and their derivatives, is a source of social ills and should be abandoned. It impedes and confuses pedagogy, underwrites racism and sexism, inhibits culture, and trivializes political debate… To claim that intelligence exists as a phenomenon, but not as an inherent personal quality, is the same as arguing that race or gender exist as social phenomena but not as simple, natural facts. […] Intelligence, like all essentialism, is a technology of power. It reinforces privilege and hierarchizes speech. It cuts art and language off from its inspirations, aping capital by circulating language through a series of useless oppositions… and non-signifying refinements of craft.

Setting aside the tendentious postmodern framing, dutifully regurgitated, note how the objection to intelligence as a personal attribute is asserted rather than argued and is essentially political in origin.

With the above in mind, here’s a short TED lecture from 2003, in which Steven Pinker addresses the political appeal of the “blank slate” theory, its prevalence, and its shortcomings. Topics touched on include ideological taboos, experience versus theory, and the self-inflicted disrepute of literary criticism.

Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, is well worth reading.

Related: On Stalin’s dislike of genetics and the idea of human nature.