Sunday, September 05, 2021

The Discourse Is A Drug Dealer With a Stolen Script

 One of the things that sort of sneaks up on you over the course of aging is how many things of consequence could reasonably be a part of your past. The longer a life gets, the fuller it could have been. While in my early twenties I could make jokes premised on the presumed absurdity that I would have an ex-wife, or had formerly been addicted to heroin, nowadays enough time has elapsed in the course of my life to allow for any number of entanglements with consequences, and subsequent second acts. Anyone in their mid-thirties could be divorced a few times, have been a former child actor, lived abroad for several years, abandoned a successful career, had a serious medical scare, paid for an ex’s abortion, spent a stint in prison. It is actually rather odd to have not done any of these things, to exist in a state of ongoing youth, to have a simple biography whose narrative stretches cleanly and without digressions back to one’s childhood. This may not be that uncommon for others born around the same time I was.

It’s well-documented that, due to economic factors, the rituals of adulthood like home ownership and marriage are not being pursued with the same vigor by my cohort as they were by previous generations. Many things are avoided while pursuing the goal of making something of oneself.  It’s not unreasonable that many would find themselves in a protracted adolescence, hoping themselves to be at the beginning of a career in the arts or another competitive field. Still, the psychic energy intended to get one through a rough initial period at the outset of adulthood, becomes misshapen as people approach middle age. There is a willingness I see in people to take pointers on what’s cool and fashionable from those younger than them, not just in terms of styles of clothing or taste in music, but also taking pointers on philosophy or political outlook from those who’ve plainly had very little life experience. It strikes me as strange, though I know it stems from trying to navigate a world that favors the young and is attracted to their potential. Somewhere in the private mind must be an awkward reconciliation between a youthful posture and nostalgic melancholy for all that didn’t work out. You can see this emerge in the fixation some people have with their idyllic, well-supported youth as the moment when everything began to go wrong.

At some point, presumably in the early days of social media, people with a shared complaint started to sort themselves out and reached a tentative conclusion about their predicament. Their lives were a mess, and one of the things they had in common with each other was that at one point they thought they were headed for better things, due to being designated “gifted” as children. From this came the idea that being marked “gifted” as a child left one ill-prepared for adulthood, because being taught that things should come easy to you ended up sending the subconscious message that anything difficult to learn wasn’t worth the hassle. To be designated in such a way became a curse, as after becoming used to giving up on things one didn’t take to immediately, one became ruined for the difficult work that constitutes adulthood and the frequent rejections that define it.

Enough people felt affirmed by this anecdotally familiar arc there must be some truth to it, though there is much it conveniently elides. I, for one, still believe in the possibility that geniuses exist, even if I can’t count myself among them. I learned to read at a young age, and could write well. This no longer strikes me as miraculous as I remained fixated on this skill until adulthood and it subsequently brought me nothing, so it seems meaningless to me. Other kids could draw, or play music; some people’s brains are particularly adept at learning multiple languages, all these things continue to strike me as impressive. I’m still not sure there’s much evidence such gifts are rewarded by widespread acknowledgment in our era, which we should never forget is run by psychopaths who insist on the rightness of their rule but launder their monopolistic power through the fortunes of mid-level bureaucrats and their collective whims. I want to see the control group, to know how the people designated decidedly average are doing, but they don’t seem to be attracting large followings online by talking about their childhoods. I’m not sure anyone enjoys the struggle to attain mastery, nor are there many fields that afford a beginner the grace to fail repeatedly. While it’s sometimes easier to quit a job than to get fired from it, most places will never give you a chance in the first place if you’re not already overqualified. Plenty of people are smart and talented, and nonetheless struggling to find success, and plenty of people fall below what I would assume to be the average, and many of them are struggling as well, though it’s possible some have found success in a field that discourages critical thinking.

I may seem to be positing there is some sort of percentile system to talent, and suggesting those in the upper tiers of any particular field will be subject to the whims of a market governed by those less than them, which maybe seems to approach some sort of Randian Superman concept I do not mean to endorse. Really, I just mean success in the arts, or any other field, has very little to do with the quality of one’s work and far more to do with one’s ability to make connections, and generally get along in the world of powerful people whose relationship to oneself is primarily based on their ability to exploit you, and one is not necessarily untalented for being incapable of doing this.

But what I actually want to talk about is how the “gifted kid” discourse moved on to affirm the exact opposite of this idea. The belief became about the idea that, since “intelligence” is measured in culturally specific ways that are innately racist, the idea that anyone is smarter than another is false. The kids who got called gifted were all white kids, who were then put on track to think of themselves as better than other people. Their patterns of behavior that parents and teachers insisted were signs that the curriculum being presented was not enough for them, was in fact undiagnosed ADHD or being on the autism spectrum, and they were then placed in situations where they would be indulged, which was an opportunity their classmates of color were not afforded.

The rhetorical posture makes it clear this is meant to be a left-wing response to the right-leaning sentiment of “my genius is not appreciated because I’m besieged by mediocrity.” But I’m not sure what it is actually meant to accomplish in terms of achieving left-wing goals. Beyond the general principle of calling out institutional racism, which I have no problem with, the destination arrived at is a self-diagnosis, a finding fault within oneself that can only be corrected by prescriptions to adderall and weed, maybe microdosing.

Of course, many people around my age were prescribed ritalin as an ADHD medicine as children once it became available. In college, as schoolwork and socializing become intertwined, and both demanded a student “go hard,” many more turned to adderall, as its buoying effect has both recreational and pharmaceutical uses. As these drugs become widely used, what people expect to see in someone who is high-functioning and accomplishing great things shifts, as the people who use the medications set the standard. There’s a 19th century precedent for this: William Halsted, the Johns Hopkins chief of surgery who required residents in training to be on call 362 days out of the year and do overnight shifts, was addicted to cocaine, and holding medical students to a standard of rigor he achieved by artificial means.

Now medical marijuana is available in certain states, and so those seeking to self-medicate appeal to the prescribing psychiatrist with a set of symptoms they are not exactly lying about, anxiety and depression and back pain, but in turn come to define themselves by seeing themselves in the diagnostic light, seeking themselves to be made well by learning self-acceptance through the scrim of weed smoke. It is normal to want to get high, but if a situation is created where the easiest way to get high is to admit to a professional that you have a problem, that’s going to affect people’s self-perception. I also don’t think it’s coincidental the push for legalization is happening during times that are so dire, when it would be reasonable to expect far greater political upheaval than what we’re actually seeing. The great wedge issue both Libertarians and the Green party have used to shave a few votes off the barely politically educated has been adopted as a way to pacify the populace so they do not get any more involved in politics.

Perhaps this is analogous to how beauty standards set by magazine covers are distorted by photo retouching, only what people are measuring themselves against aren’t media images, but the entire world, but much as the family wealth behind most successful figures is hidden, so too are the alterations in brain chemistry needed to make it through the day. I am sure I could’ve organized the thoughts that constitute this essay faster had I been on adderall; it’s also possible the novels I’ve written would be longer and better-written, and perhaps published and successful, had I access to a steady supply. How many people only have ADHD by the standard set by people whose prescriptions allow them a monomaniacal focus?

Whose brains would not be distracted by the constant temptation of the internet? The people airing these complaints are steadfastly plugged into the internet, which is increasingly the means by which we drive ourselves insane. This is because of the despair that looking at the news constantly mires you in, of course, and the weird takes and misinformation that places people into their own various private pocket realities, but also because accomplishment on the internet is measured in clicks. One gets dopamine from a popular post, but there are increasingly less outlets for a person to place their work, and they’re always in competition with others more popular. The internet is global, and while one could at one point have an impact in their community, either the locale they live in or the subculture they participate in, that is no longer enough: If something does make an impact, it dissipates immediately, forgotten about completely in two weeks. So what one is forever chasing is the feeling of those rare days when you feel like you’re communicating to the broader globe. The standard we’re failing is an inhuman standard, set by stimulants and algorithms, scaled to the size of the globe, rather than a natural community. It’s not that people are not gifted for failing to succeed on those terms, but that we’re all subject to something larger than our ability to organize a response to it.

I know that “I used to think I was a genius! Now I believe I have a disability” is meant to be a statement of humility, but it feels like a concession of powerlessness before a collective mind one is reluctant to attempt to persuade. I don’t even have individuals to cite as authors of these ideas: They are just voices, whose thoughts are bits of flotsam bobbing above waterline of the internet’s vast sea, who seemingly engaged the Twitter mechanism the way its machinery wanted. But beyond that, as individuals, they made no impression, powerless before the thing they were seeking acknowledgment from. Perhaps they were not seeking to be elevated above the morass at all when they articulated this thought. Perhaps this identification as being somehow “wrong” is done as a way of seeking out approval within a larger body they’re a part of. There’s a leftist posture to the argument, despite the unmistakable whiff of a thought that exists after the forfeiture of the hope of ever organizing one’s workplace. I assume, similarly, that radicalizing one’s family is beyond the attainable. But perhaps the idea is that one can liberalize their families, by appealing to their sense of sympathy, the conservative loyalty to blood, and convince them to become an ally to a specific struggle. Perhaps a family can be entreated to care about “mental health struggles” the same way they might realize the urgency of universal health care if someone in their family receives a cancer diagnosis that’s too expensive to treat with what an employer provides.

But even though IQ might be a fake concept with a meaningless number attached, and possessing any intelligence at all will have one continually aware of what one does not know or will never know, much as to truly engage in a talent is to forever be pushing up against the limits of one’s ability, people that are smarter than other people still exist, and the world as structured doesn’t know what to do with gifted people. It doesn’t know what to do with anyone! The world as it stands is violently opposed to solving the problems that exist in society, and a world that actually honors people’s gifts would be far closer to direct democracy. It might actually be maneuverable, without the constant leveraging of affinity groups to find common cause. We would just need to recognize these talents for what they are, without the only measure of someone’s value being money. As it is, there’s a school-to-prison pipeline for some, a system of academia and debt for others, a few opportunities afforded the truly wealthy to do whatever they want because they’ve already been designated as elite, meanwhile the violent and fascistic element of white supremacy gets shunted into the police force. Those that use their bodies are prescribed opioids to cope with the pain of their bodies being strained beyond what’s reasonable to expect a body to do, and those who’ve gone the academic route and are doing intellectual labor seek prescriptions to stimulants to hold themselves to their own self-imposed impossible standard, with everyone conditioned to see themselves on the brink of precarity.  

The people that were once designated as gifted because their parents were looking on them with love, and saw in them boundless potential, are now viewing themselves as being in some way broken because the boundless potential that exists within every human being is compromised by a society of serfdom. Today’s adults are just told to learn to code, but not everyone is going to be adept at this. It’s just presented as a skill everyone can learn to do, if they’re motivated enough to learn, as if the primary focus of schooling was not always to break people’s will and condition them to the demeaning nature of wage labor. I feel comfortable saying “no” to this. I don’t want to, this sucks, it’s not interesting, it’s hard. It may be  a child’s tantrum to reject these things in such terms, but this is not the way my brain is wired. Maybe there is a belief that admitting brains are wired differently, and some people excel in some fields while others do not, sounds too much like eugenics because the way our world is currently ordered views certain abilities as disposable. The alternative insists everyone can do the same things, in order to devalue those with a natural facility, while making everyone else miserable.

People feel more comfortable changing themselves than they do with changing the world around them, which makes sense, because it seems easier. The issue is that one is continually changing the world, just by participating, constituting a piece of it, and the world can be made more inhuman by not holding ourselves or others in a way that respects our shared humanity. Accepting ourselves and those around us, honoring the aspects of the self we hold in high regard as talents or gifts, is an important early step in the rejection of the institutions that seek to devalue everyone in order to maintain the status quo as it’s currently formulated.