The responsibility of talent

Posted on November 18, 2010


In the attention-deficit age of the internet, I’m going to get to the core of the message straight away:

If you are in any way gifted, talented, or more intelligent than average, you bear a special responsibility towards others and to work for their benefit.

This may sound odd to many. Even re-reading it myself it has an patronizing and elitist ring. But just because an idea ventures outside of one’s comfort zone doesn’t mean the idea has no merit. So lets explore.

Talking about special gifts or better than average intelligence frequently draws people into the mire of the nature/nurture debate. This is unhelpful, and largely irrelevant. While the extent to which genetics or environment or upbringing affect ability may be of interest to psychologists and biologists, in real terms, specifically in political terms, this kind of talk is almost exclusively used as an a posteriori defense of discrimination. By which I mean that people are already racist/sexist/you name it, and seek to find some “scientific” basis for their prejudice.

On the other hand, while explaining the exact whys and hows of certain people’s special talents is a bit of a dead-end, it is equally ridiculous to claim that all people are equal in abilities. Abilities vary over a wide range of areas of course – I am not talking about the primitive measures of IQ or purely academic ability. But the fact is that some people are just better at certain things – be it academic subjects like maths or programming or history, artistic talent, or many of the less well defined things: the ability to convince, to be a social hub, to solve problems…

And I believe that if you are lucky enough to posses some of these gifts, you gain a special responsibility. I would even extend this to people who have enjoyed a particularly successful education – who’s minds are trained, if you will.

Why then?

Because I believe we have grown too selfish. Society often pushes us to be self-serving, and punishes altrusim. On the other hand ignorance, fear, and foolishness are everywhere. Enlightenment does not happen by itself – values such as tolerance and respect for people’s freedoms of religion and expression are not as self evident as we might like them to be. So if you have a better understanding, it is your duty to spread it – whatever it may be. If you have a deep understanding of the rational behind the scientific method, help other people appreciate it too. If you happen to know why, for instance, the Tea Party’s adoption of Thomas Paine as a mascot is so ridiculous, it is you duty to tell them.

Do not rest as long as ignorance and misinformation exist. By this I do not mean to indoctrinate – exactly the opposite. Its not a matter of “those who know better tell everyone what to do”. My point is that a developed and educated mind can decide for itself, and the gifted one can help others do the same.

As an environmentalist, it is not my goal to dictate to people “Do This. For The Planet”. No. It is my goal that they behave in environmentally sound ways because they appreciate, on a personal level, why it is important. That they understand the interconnectedness of the natural world, that they acquire an appreciation of the inherent value of nature.

In more general political terms, I think nothing is more important than teaching the value of rational critical thinking. I am deeply worried by movements like the Tea Party, because they represent the polar opposite of intellectual development. Their rhetoric and arguments are an insult to logic, and even worse aim to propagate this lack of rationality, lack of understanding of the critical process, ignorance of basic logic, ignorance of everything – the triumph of the uninformed opinion.

So I repeat again: if your education has treated you well, share. Educate others, for every wise being is a teacher.