Great, Average, and Small

“Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”
Henry Thomas Buckle

This quote (or its variants, popularly misattributed to Eleanor Roosevelt) can be put down to intellectual snobbery (brought to you from the country that prefers judging people quietly), but probably derives from far older traditional advice on having a good (or at least, more fulfilling) conversation:

“…let me recommend, that, in company, even with your most intimate friends, you avoid the discussion of PERSONAL CHARACTER AND CONDUCT as much as possible; and that you prefer dwelling on those principles, doctrines, and facts, which are always and to all classes in society, interesting and instructive, and the discussion of which, moreover, is always safe.”
Letters on Clerical Manners and Habits, by Samuel Miller, 1827

Perhaps we’re interpreting the quote the wrong way around? It’s not that ‘small minds discuss people’ and ‘great minds discuss ideas’, but rather that discussing ideas is great for your mind, and discussing people can make you look small-minded (in the dictionary definition of being narrow-minded, petty, and uncharitable).

I suspect it’s also because it’s easier for us to talk about people or events than more abstract ideas. We are drawn to telling stories and creating narratives with emotional hooks, and storytelling makes it easier to connect with others.

Applying this to a smattering of examples:

  • It’s easy to talk about Louis XVI being guillotined (a vivid, visceral story) from a horrified, sympathetic perspective, or from a satisfied, vengeful one. It’s also easy to talk about the storming of the Bastille and subsequent Reign Of Terror and warfare; a matter of remembering the events in the right order. It requires greater knowledge and understanding to make sense of the social and economic upheavals in the decades leading up the the French Revolution, and the competing ideologies behind it (and why it led to dictatorship instead of an elected democracy).
  • It’s easy to share images of dead children washed up on beaches. It’s easy to talk about the numbers of refugees fleeing war, and which countries they’re going to. It’s a lot harder figuring out how to assimilate them into their new homes (accommodation, supplies and aid, education, employment, and how to pay for it all) and what, if anything, can be done to stabilise their former homelands (is it more costly to intervene or to leave alone? Why?).
  • It’s easy to talk about the foibles of particular politicians and why they attract or repel you. It’s easy to talk about how well they’re doing in the polls. It takes a lot longer to explain why particular parties or candidates did well or poorly, the vagaries of the voting system and just how popular they really are, compared with the outcomes of elections. The simple explanations might be more appealing, but appearances can be deceptive.
  • It’s also easy to talk about famous (or infamous) personalities and how their opinions infuriate you. It’s also easy to talk about the self-perpetuating Twitter-storms, or all the column-inches, spent on describing the Twitter-storms and column-inches they generate. Expressing your outrage and profound disagreement is easier than explaining why they’re wrong, and far easier than trying to understand why they think they’re right.


I think this helps me understand why I’ve turned off being a news junkie, and why I’m not particularly engaged with Twitter (or social media generally; I tend to put this down to the fact that I still have a very 1990s mindset when it comes to the internet; it’s something I feel I can walk away from, rather than take with me). It’s not that I have a great mind (far from it); it’s that I’d rather be presented with something that expands my understanding of what’s going on.

The news – people and events – dominate social media and traditional media. But to what extent do they reflect or shape popular opinions? That’s something I’m going to have to read up on a bit more; expect a proper blog post soon!


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