Over at the Rosewater Chronicles, my friend Joshua Gunn authored an interesting essay that has haunted my thinking over the last week. While the issue he raises is specific in his account to the academy and areas of academic expertise, it’s a question worthy of all groups of “specialists,” whether they be journalists, health care professionals, waiters, football players . . . hell, it’s worthy of your attention regardless of what you do.
In his post, Gunn questions the ways in which groups of academics often offer what he calls “the brilliant pass” to those who are most successful at their area of expertise. Without naming names, Gunn points to a number of people in rhetorical and communication studies who are viewed as “brilliant” by others but who also have some decidedly reprehensible moral and ethical characteristics; they can be rude, liars, sexual predators, mean drunks, and so forth. (Mind you, Gunn is not saying that all brilliant types are also unethical, only that we give a “pass” to the brilliant ones who are). The problem, then, is that the larger group of admirers are all too willing to forgive misbehavior if we think the person committing it is “brilliant.” To the degree that we as individuals help provide the brilliant pass, we are also complicit in their behavior.
Gunn’s post haunts me to the degree that he forces me to understand the ways in which I have also been guilty of enabling ugly behavior through the allowances, the passes, I have given a number of people that I respected on the intellectual level even while privately questioning their moral behavior. It has also haunted me to the degree that it seems clear that the brilliant pass is allowed in almost every area I can imagine. We can think of numerous ways in which great athletes are given passes, in which brilliant authors’ misbehaviors are overlooked. Name an area of work or expertise, and I can almost guarantee there is a pass given for those who excel in that area. If we simply exchange the word “brilliant” with “very good at what we value in this line of work,” brilliant passes are a dime a dozen.
I suppose I’m mostly haunted by the question because I see no solution. Or, rather, no easy solution. If we think of this in mathematical terms, we all too often make the value of being “brilliant” within a given field (and/or receiving the shared brilliance by being friends with such a person) of a higher value than particular moral standards. Hence, when I encounter “iffy” behavior, the math often tells me to ignore it in this case, that sometimes that’s just the price of brilliance.
While I realize there are certain lines that we would not let our “brilliant” friends to cross (i.e., most of us would not let one commit murder or endanger a friend), in the practice of everyday life, we allow the brilliant one to be a little more rude, to lie a bit more outrageously, to act a bit more boorish, to be more emotionally harmful of others, than we do those who are simply good. Until we all learn to value basic practices of human decency over the most brilliant practitioners of our chosen fields, I don’t see a way out.