Curmudgeon Phase

Just a placeholder but I do want to write something longer about attitudes toward “people with attitude.”

I get the impression that, at least in intellectual circles in the United States or other Anglo contexts, there’s a common (to my mind mis-)conception that curmudgeony people are somehow “smarter” than anyone else. Not only do I think this would be an inaccurate characterization, but I think it’s embedded in broader issues about anti-intellectualism, social change, and philosophy.

Sure, some of the best-known curmudgeons have had some interesting ideas to share. But I see no connection between a miserly attitude and any form of insight. I even think that some people are adopting the attitude to position themselves as “intelligent people,” regardless of how intelligent they are (in quality as well as in “perceived measure”). To go even further, I think that the negative attitude in question is often but a phase in a longer process of intellectual discovery and that “enlightened” people often have a much more serene attitude.

In other words, I sometimes get the feeling that some people use an opinionated tone to fake being smart.

There. I’ve said it.

Now, I don’t mean to say that curmudgeons aren’t intelligent. My concept of intelligence doesn’t even work that way (I think there are different forms of intelligence, that intelligence can’t necessarily be measured, etc.). But I do think that some of the actual impostors (not those relating to the impostor syndrome) are using what they perceive as a “status symbol of intellectual prowess” to bolster their self-confidence in contexts which give a lot of prestige to so-called “smart people.”

As dismissive as it ends up sounding, I almost take the “curmudgeon phase” as the wit-focused equivalent to the awkward period of physical changes during puberty. It even reminds me of an exceedingly pointed mockery, by a member of Montreal’s intelligentsia, that a well-known Montreal journalist was “living beyond his intellectual means.” Though the mockery is very nasty, I happen to think that it encapsulated something of the journalist’s attitude which is worth considering. That journalist isn’t really that cranky (especially when compared with “professional curmudgeons” in the United States) but he clearly has “an attitude.” And I really don’t perceive that attitude as a sign of intellectual superiority. (Not that I have a clear notion of what “intellectual superiority” should entail but, hopefully, ya catch my drift.)

Some non-cranks seem to share the curmudgeons’ association of wits with ‘tude. At least, something similar may have been at stake when Douglas N. Adams, whom I’d have a hard time perceiving as a curmudgeon, wrote neurotic elevators and other technological annoyances into his Guide. Now, neurosis and ill-temper aren’t connected by necessity. But the notion that sentient technology would likely have a very negative attitude toward life (as well as toward the Universe and even toward Everything) seems to me to relate to the idea that it isn’t really possible to be both exceedingly intelligent and unbelievably happy. Slartibartfast‘s distinctions between happiness and truth contributes to my impression. And it seems quite likely that DNA wasn’t that serene a person, despite all the happiness to which he has contributed.

Ok, I guess that’ll have to do for now. It’s actually a relief to be writing this. As I’m becoming much more serene, I want to let go of this negativity which I’ve been encountering in some self-important circles.


“If you’re so smart, why ain’t you happy?” does sound less dismissive than the “if you’re so rich, why ain’t you smart?” that I’d like to level at some ultra-competitive materialists.

7 thoughts on “Curmudgeon Phase”

  1. Wow, quite a set of tags attached to this post! The curmudgeon thing is a plague but nothing new…I’m fairly sure it’s well-known among curmudgeons.

  2. @RS Thanks for the comment and for letting me know who wrote it! 😀
    To be honest, there are times when I feel a bit isolated in my conception that wit and happiness aren’t incompatible.

    BTW, one thing I find quite interesting is that most of the “Possibly related posts” that assigned to this post do cover similar issues to the ones I’m describing here. I know it’s just because of keywords and tags but it’s fun to see when it works.
    Speaking of tags, it isn’t even as extreme as some of my usual posts. Quite frequently, I use these tags as an extension of the blogpost. Especially when I want to revisit a topic.
    Before allowed for tags, I had this very unwieldy list of “categories.” Now that tag support has not only been added but improved, I “go nuts” adding as many tags as I want with almost any blogpost. I’m sure some of my posts have more tags than words within the post.

  3. Harrumph. Balderdash. You whippersnapper.

    I like the defense mechanism analysis. I’m at my most curmudgeony when I feel under attack. Another great metaphor that captures the feeling is from boxing: ‘punching out of your class’.

    However, I’m also familiar with a similar-sounding kind of attitude that springs from another source, which is ignence overload. When you’ve heard the same stupid crap from (n) people (especially when they should know better), (n+1)’s version is likely to provoke disproportionate attitude from all but the most accomplished bodhisattvas. And even the zen masters have bamboo canes to hit the clueless with.

  4. @Carl Dude! You’re good!
    You put my post in perspective, added your own, teased me, and provided food for thought all in a matter of 94 words. Congrats!

    Now, about what you call “ignence overload”… A friend recently made me understand how it worked. I inadvertently and unwittingly “stepped in a puddle” when I made a comment which he had heard twice during that same night. His reaction did appear quite disproportionate and we ended up talking about the situation for quite a while. It’s only after numerous interactions (over the course of several weeks) that we were finally able to fully acknowledge the situation: my comment was relatively harmless but it was understood in a broader context that I probably should have known about, given our contacts to some of the same people.
    As for Buddhist serenity, I haven’t had the opportunity to observe it directly but I did enjoy some of the teachings of Ki-duk Kim’s movie treatment.

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