Something interesting about the Olympics is that people can be plucked out of relative obscurity and changed into national heroes and celebrities in the space of a few seconds. Why is that? Surely these people were outstanding at what they do all their lives. Why does it take a few seconds of intense scrutiny by the world’s media to bring about their appreciation? Yesterday, we had never heard of them. Today, we carry them aloft on our shoulders. Why don’t we, as a species, recognise that each and every day we probably mingle with genuine genius, without even knowing it?
I remember seeing Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, two of the most outstanding jazz guitarists that ever lived, play an obscure, poorly promoted, under-attended gig in a college auditorium, located in far flung Newcastle, NSW, Australia. There was no fanfare. The crowd clapped politely. My goodness! They came to play and they played brilliantly and yet they were regarded as just another obscure act, playing to a niche audience, in a small, out of the way place. Lonely Planet describes this town as one of the top ten places to visit that nobody knows about. No tourists. Yeah, because nobody comes.
I heard the tale of an old man, in a nursing home, being treated without dignity, as if he were some cantankerous old fool – a blithering idiot waiting to die and embarrassingly making life difficult for the nursing staff. What nobody knew was that this man had achieved incredible things in his lifetime, which had benefited all of humanity. Yet here he was being treated with condescension, disdain and disgust. Why?
Archimedes of Syracuse, a man who single handedly advanced Helenic civilisation beyond measure, was run through by a Roman soldier, who the great philosopher had asked to “get off my diagram”. Ignorance and violence, in a moment of self-righteous, power-crazed anger, had quenched one of the most original and technical spirits ever. Who was going to teach the soldier how to calculate the volume of a sphere now? The Roman didn’t care a jot. Who’d ever need that knowledge anyway? We seek to minimise that which we do not understand. I think that is vanity. It is a means of trying to pretend that you are the equal of somebody whose boots you are not fit to shine.
This morning, on what is supposed to be the leading radio programme for intellectuals, BBC Radio 4’s breakfast programme, the presenter, John Humphries, when discussing the case of a software upgrade that had resulted in the near bankruptcy of a Wall St trading house, asked the software expert “so what are these logarithms that run?” He meant algorithms, of course. The interlocutor patiently explained, in sound bite sized words, what that meant. Humphries entirely misunderstood the answer and proceeded to ask for a definition of the millisecond in terms he (and his listeners, of course, for he believes he speaks for them) could readily understand.
Humphries cannot understand. He doesn’t care to understand, or he would have by now. He thinks that sort of knowledge isn’t worth his time or effort to obtain. He speaks on technical and scientific matters with detached disdain. His whole supercilious presentation and overbearing manner is supposed to give himself the air of authority, as the probing journalist that cannot be fooled, who is guarding the public interest as a commander of the fifth column, and who has the wisdom of ages. In reality, his questions reveal him to be a pompous, arrogant and ignorant fool. It is precisely this intellectual dishonesty that leads a Wall St trading house to allow a software algorithm to sell everything it buys at a fifteen cent loss per share, for an entire hour, before anybody has the wit or intelligence to unplug it. This isn’t a software problem. The problem is turning over such a powerful tool to imbeciles.
Do we stop to learn the stories of our fellow human beings? When they tell us what they know and what they have done, always in a self deprecating and minimising manner to avoid accusations of gloating, arrogance or worse still, lying, do we truly appreciate the magnitude of their achievements, or do we join in and minimise their life’s work too, in our blasé, oh-so-cool, yeah-I-could-have-done-that-too manner? Are our egos so fragile that we cannot acknowledge the presence of people that have amazing talents and knowledge? Why, instead, do we have to pretend that we are their peer or superior, at all costs? How many bosses and supposedly higher ranking colleagues have you worked for that bludgeoned your creativity and innovation into submission, for fear of being upstaged? I can count many, personally.
The fact is that we are all good at something and that we daily walk amongst great minds. We just turn a blind eye. I wonder why and I wonder if that will ever change?