Why We Sidestep Stupidity, and Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t
In the 2nd inning of his fourth start of the 2014 baseball season, New York Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected, and subsequently suspended, for using pine tar on his pitching hand.
Though technically an illegal substance, pine tar’s use is an open secret due to the offsetting advantages it affords adversaries. In raw, cold conditions such as those endured that April evening in Boston, pine tar provides pitchers with a more reliable grip on a baseball while having little, if any, effect on its flight. The pitcher gains a grasp more in line with warmer weather and, in return, the batter is less likely to be summarily plunked by a runaway 95-mph fastball. In exchange for no harm, no foul is called so long as the rule is bent with gentlemanly discretion.
Michael Pineda displayed no such guile. Instead, he smeared a generous glob of the shiny, sticky stuff on his naked upper neck. Equally as bewildering was the incident’s timing: Pineda had been suspected of having pine tar on his pitching hand following a previous start – against these same Boston Red Sox, no less – and, now, was showing a command not present during a rocky 1st inning. In his uber-obviousness, Pineda was seemingly begging to get ejected – a wish Red Sox manager John Farrell begrudgingly granted by having umpires inspect the hurler’s gleaming, glinting neck.
Fueled by the already heightened media attention afforded baseball’s greatest rivalry, Pineda’s dazzlingly dumb behavior headlined newspaper sports sections for days, and provided hours of fodder for TV commentators and radio sports talk show hosts. The details were damning: Pineda had been warned of the substance’s illegality when suspicion mounted following his first start against Boston, and was well aware that the rule can be sidestepped through even minimal discretion. His uniform includes a black belt, for God’s sake – an ideal, color-matching accessory conducive for concealment. Despite this, Pineda slathered pine tar on his uncovered skin, a spot vibrantly visible to all on the field and, of course, to high-definition television cameras.
The incident’s most extraordinary takeaway is this: Though it would have been supremely simple to create a situation in which he had almost no chance of being caught – chiefly because no one wanted to catch him in the first place – Michael Pineda had, incredibly, created a scenario in which he had a near-zero chance of not being detected.
It was a nearly unfathomable act – one which, for media, demanded discomforting decisions.
Would they dare draw the clear conclusion given the undeniable, almost unbelievable facts? Would journalistic integrity trump safe, self-serving political correctness? Would the elephant in the dugout be addressed?
Would Michael Pineda be called what he so obviously is: incredibly and unequivocally unintelligent?
The hemming and hawing that followed was eye-rollingly predictable. The majority of talking heads pulled a toe-the-line, “hate the sin, love the sinner” copout, calling the actions stupid without speculating on the actor himself. Those that did dare describe Pineda directly chose correctable diagnoses – words indicative of conditions that can be outgrown, such as “immature” and “naive.” These carefully crafted critiques all sought middle ground between the abject cowardice of saying nothing and the overt cruelty of saying everything… because the harshest aspect of unintelligence is its permanence. You can’t fix stupid, and none ventured so far as to pronounce Pineda unredeemable.
However, in stopping short of even entertaining the simplest of explanations – namely, that Michael Pineda just isn’t very bright – these same reporters allowed judgment to instead be passed on them. A journalist’s job is to draw conclusions from facts, and their collective failure to do so proved them not only disingenuous but, given their trade, unprofessional.
Sometimes the truth hurts. And here, the facts point to the awkward, inconvenient truth that Michael Pineda simply is not an intelligent person.
The coverage of Pinetar-gate is a particularly poignant example of a tiptoe-on-eggshells act played out in a plethora of more mundane, day-to-day scenarios throughout society. The media’s methods of ignoring – or at least marginalizing – the dimwitted elephant in the room mirrors our own public posturing.
We all do it. Who among us hasn’t been asked to explain the impetus behind someone’s puzzling action – a real boner committed by a colleague, a friend, a family member – and, rather than reveal a truth proven by dozens of previously-witnessed incidents of idiocy, publicly produced an alternate explanation? We aimlessly deflect. We artfully dodge. We outright lie. At worst – in the most damning of dilemmas – we curtail our criticism by naming a fixable flaw in the same mealy-mouthed fashion as the pseudo-journalists who so delicately dissected Michael Pineda’s oh-so-telling tarring.
In these instances, it is ingrained in our senses of established social graces and, correspondingly, of self-preservation to choose politeness over purity. And more so than any other defining personal attribute – kindness, generosity, loyalty, even physical attractiveness – discussion surrounding intelligence seems to get the most of the former and the least of the latter.
We speak openly of another’s level of intellect only when we sincerely find it above average. Conversely, the opinions we voice about our own smarts overwhelmingly trend toward the self-deprecating or, at best, the uncertain. These mock-modest statements fly in the face of what we really think of our own intellect; in fact, a recent YouGov poll found that only 4 percent of Americans think they are less intelligent than the average person, a figure that throws modesty – as well as factuality – to the wind.
At least publicly, then, the only persons we are comfortable calling unintelligent are ourselves. In the polite-yet-painful process, we do an awful lot of wishy-washy withholding or, at times, total tongue-biting in our assessments of our fellows. Too much honesty, we surmise, isn’t always the best policy.
But neither, I would argue, is too much caution.
As the ridiculously restrained reactions to Michael Pineda’s stupidity-fueled suspension show, sometimes the unwillingness to speak openly about another’s intellect makes, ironically, the speakers themselves look stupid. Sometimes stupid is as stupid doesn’t.
This is not, let me state, a call for complete candor. In the vast majority of cases, we are wise to keep our fool mouths shut rather than out an idiot. There are, however, situations where being truthful is more important than sparing someone else’s feelings or, for that matter, protecting our own reputations for kindness or modesty. A prime example of this can be seen in the American education system.
Rightly so, we begin our five-year-olds on as close to an even playing field as possible. Though sizable discrepancies in facility quality, teacher competence and class size certainly exist between the affluent and the underprivileged, kindergarten is, generally, standardized instruction for our youngest learners. Similarly, elementary and middle schools equip students with basic prerequisites for real-world relevance; noone is succeeding in adulthood without knowing how to read, write or multiply. Some kids are quick learners, others develop more slowly but, regardless of perceived differences in intellect, all are presented with necessary fundamentals.
In high school, however, this continued standardization becomes a primrose path of political correctness. By the teenage years, as individual patterns become more established and school subject matter more advanced, it is easier to reliably distinguish reasonably intelligent students from ones who simply aren’t that booksmart. By that time, an ever-widening chasm has formed between those excelling with A’s and B’s and those struggling to earn C’s and D’s.
Regardless, we continue to bang the deceptive drum of “you can be whatever you want to be,” despite knowing full well that this blanket statement simply doesn’t cover everyone. We then send these well-below-average students off to colleges with skyrocketing tuitions, from which they emerge, four years later, with a solid 2.0 GPA and a quarter-million-dollars of debt.
For fear of being derided as insensitive, we do the dim a disservice in our safe, selfish status quo-isms. Tabling this taboo could lead to more tenable outcomes, such as steering those for whom college may not be practical toward more pragmatic and altogether useful environments like trade schools or apprenticeships.
Our friendly-to-a-fault fashion of education is merely the most prominent of situations where an honest discussion about intelligence would be…well… intelligent
For example, though the unexceptional are always going to win their fair share of elections, perhaps we could have been spared the candidacy – and subsequent punditry – of those clearly nowhere near smart enough to hold high-level national office, such as the near-Gumpian Sarah Palin.
Closer to home, perhaps clueing in a terminated employee on the real reason he’s being let go – that he’s not bright enough to handle the position’s responsibilities – would save him, and his family, future firings from similar jobs. Often enough, a firing isn’t a result of laziness or insubordination, but rather flat-out incompetence. Foregoing sterile, cold corporate parlance for brutal honesty is, of course, turbulent for both sides in the short term but, over the long run, may serve as a responsible reality check in a situation where peoples’ livelihoods are at stake.
In almost all cases, I think, our refusal to publicly factor in intelligence is less about sensitivity to others’ feelings and more about our own fear of getting our hands dirty – of sticking our necks out in situations where honesty intended to help can be construed as meanness intended to hurt. We hide this phobia behind a veil of politeness, which provides the simplest escape route from the bumpy road of candor. We are wise wimps.
To that I say, to myself as much as anyone else: Get over yourself, stupid.