The Oxford dictionary or any other competent one worth its salt will surely spit out a generic, politically correct definition of genius, as a quality or an individual whose traits we see as exalted forms of some standard, as a radical improvement over something that exists around us, as the proverbial bolt from the blue that makes us question our sensibilities. In fact, here’s what the Oxford dictionary actually says that genius is:
Definition of genius
noun (plural geniuses)
Where’s there possibility of extreme depravity, prejudice, degeneracy, there’s probably an indication of some great churning, some competing ways nature finds to determine how to make things better. And this seems to be how real world systems work. This seems to be how the complex, interconnected webs of experience we call life yield some new indulgence, some new pleasure, new forms and norms from all the chaos that seems to prevail when things come together. But what is “better”? This word takes on new meanings today, the closest being “as good as we collectively deserve”. And who are “we”? Well, the group of people who care about what we’re making decisions about.
We see stories of malice, moral decrepitude, violence, insensitivity, abuse of one’s own and other’s minds and bodies, every day. The choices people make with the noblest of intentions contradict the results of these choices, often enough. They may turn to ideas and rationalizations and methods from science or philosophy to ascertain how they can help someone whose yearnings have turned bitter, whose lives are marked by despondence and hopelessness, whose turpitude is bolstered by emotional emaciation, whose insensitivity is bolstered by poverty or lack of opportunity, and who, as victims, are paradoxically, perpetrators of victim-hood. We get what we collectively deserve, because that is seems to be how the systems we have built reinforce or balance themselves to make things better.
What does this have to do with genius? Genius seems, more than anything, the ability to owe a responsibility towards it. Genius is also some form of advanced specialized skill or a combination of skills that makes it possible to burden oneself with this responsibility. It is bolstered by the need for such responsibility in society – either an explicit need or an implicit, at-first-unrealized, need. Genius rides on intent, opportunity, skill and a need to value the ability to influence, and not necessarily value the results. If the results are valued by society at large, we enter a reinforcing loop that increases opportunities to the purveyor of these ideas and actions.
Could the depravity we see in human society in a certain era, in any form or context, be a byproduct of some larger forces at work? Is there a reason for nature to create these abominations that we find disgusting for one reason or other? Why does genius defy probability? What do the likes of popular geniuses like Jimi Hendrix, Albert Einstein, Oppenheimer or Steve Jobs have in common with the notorious ones like Jack The Ripper, Ted Kaczinsky, Marquis De Sade or Bernie Madoff? Their popularity or success had some social context, surely, so was this social context bolstered by the forces that shaped society? What did they inoculate society against? Were they the nodes of some vast social network that needed balancing or reinforcing? What were the incentives that geniuses faced when doing something they valued or liked doing? We see depravity or criminal intent in numerous criminals who were often well-educated, but we don’t in equally resourceful people who did more good than harm.
Human society was and is organized into networks, social networks and superstructures that enable us to perform tasks together. Being an inherently social species that evolved from other social species, we’ve evolved networks as our way of doing things together. How does genius fit into the context of such networks? How does the popularity of individuals spread in this innately social species that also requires large scale collaboration in order for one person to survive? Are ideas formulated for such collective intent best done inside a single person’s mind, because as a collective mind, we lack the ability to reach such visions and decisions?
Inequality is reconcilable with genius, and in a paradox, the ability of societies to respond to inequality seems reliant on genius. It is the genius of individuals, and not large collections of individuals, that has brought order and equality – examples may be the Civil Rights movement leader Martin Luther King Jr or Mohandas Gandhi. Which brings me an interesting thing to ponder: can genius be attributed to collections or networks of individuals? How are the structures of such groups able to allow a collective idea of genius to prevail?
Are criminals the answers to some of society’s questions, rather than examples of society gone wrong? Weren’t revolutionaries and blasphemers in another age seen as harbingers of some new order later? Are they the warning signs that punctuate larger trends in society, which indicate changes in the order and nature of interactions between individuals? What defines what society tolerates, and how does such tolerance affect the opportunities, freedom and the focus that individuals bring to society? There are examples galore of people working in adversity, and focus, rather than freedom, and adversity, rather than opportunity has given them the clarity of action needed to do remarkable things. Are we going wrong with the freedoms that individuals in a society have? If a free society isn’t where it is at, what is a better way? Are constraints and focus a better way of distributing freedom, power and responsibility?