Monday, October 15, 2007

Intellectual Masturbation

Intellectual Masturbation Rubs Me The Wrong Way

Intellectual masturbation is a big problem on campus. Every class I go to, there’s one or two people with no shame. They don’t hesitate doing it in front of everybody who is there trying to learn. The time has come to take a long, hard look at intellectual masturbation and examine how it affects our campus.

Intellectual masturbation can be defined as: 1. The act of satisfying one’s ego through statements intended only to show off one’s intelligence. 2. Acting like a know-it-all jerk that no one likes to listen to and everyone wishes would just shut up.

The most common form of intellectual masturbation comes in class discussion. Students will be exchanging ideas on a topic. Most listen and respond to what others say. It seems that real academic dialogue is taking place. Then, without warning, the intellectual masturbator intrudes with a five-minute rant on something remotely related to the topic. He will bring in outside reading that has little to do with the subject area and certainly didn’t appear anywhere on the course syllabus. The other students will sit in pain and watch as the student continues for what seems like hours. When the act of self-satisfaction is finished, the class is incapacitated, and the professor struggles to connect what was said back to the class discussion. Sometimes the professor succeeds in retaining the class’s focus, but more often than not, the class discussion never reaches the same level it had been before someone decided to turn it into an ego-stroking session.

The truly talented intellectual masturbator doesn’t need a class discussion to satisfy his urges. Even in a large lecture class, he will find a way to show everyone else in the class how smart he is. The most common technique is what I like to call the “Trojan Horse.” It works like this:

Professor: “Does anyone have any questions about this, anything they need cleared up? Yes Mr. Jones, you have a question.”

Student: “I’ve always thought that … [five minute dissertation entitled ‘Look at me, I’m smart.] … would you agree?”

I’m sure we’re all familiar with this technique from freshman year. It appears to be very popular with the more experienced practitioners, as it requires a higher level of skill and carries more risk. Yet at the same time, it seems to be much more pleasurable for the student, most likely because he has a much larger audience. Intellectual masturbation is inherently exhibitionist in nature.

This brings us to the third common type of intellectual masturbation. It requires by far the most hubris, presents the greatest danger and clearly provides the optimum level of pleasure for those who do it. It is a close cousin of the “Trojan Horse” technique but occurs on a much grander scale. I speak of the “Prove to the famous person that they’re wrong and you’re smarter than they are” technique. As its name implies, this technique requires the presence of someone famous, and at Georgetown that means it can only be done during the question and answer session that follows a speech by a major figure.

After the speaker is finished, the student will be one of the first in line at the microphone. When his turn comes, he will indeed ask a question. However, the question will approach 10 minutes in length, include every possible counter-argument to the speaker’s position and usually be quite rude and unoriginal. Yet, when the student is finished asking the question, self-satisfaction flows over him as he basks in the warmth of his own genius.

What makes this form of intellectual masturbation the most painful to witness is not so much the audacity or arrogance of it but its inherent futility. Just what does the student expect to accomplish?

Student: “ … [After eight-minute presentation of every imaginable pro-choice argument] … So how can you possibly be pro-life Mr. Keyes?”

Alan Keyes: “My God, you’re right! The fetus is not a human person! And to think I’ve spent the last 16 years of my life working to take away a woman’s right to choose. I should be ashamed. Thank you, sir, for enlightening me.”

It’s like trying to persuade the Dalai Lama that he should start a violent Tibetan resistance movement. Did students really think that Larry Flynt would stop publishing Hustler because they showed him how pornography objectifies women? Did they expect Charlton Heston to hold a press conference the day after speaking at Georgetown to announce the NRA was now backing handgun control?

I don’t mean to be so judgmental about intellectual masturbation. I respect your right to tell yourself how smart you are. I don’t honestly care if you stand in front of your mirror late at night and contrast Plato’s Republic to the liberalism of J.S. Mill. I just don’t want to watch.

Quietly Making Noise appears regularly in The Hoya.

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