Impostor Syndrome & the False Idol of Intelligence

*I want to thank Meghan Schrader and Neil Levy for commenting on earlier drafts of this post.

Neil Levy recently published an interesting take on impostor syndrome, explaining why it’s so common. He says that “pretense is an unavoidable element of coming to occupy a professional role.” So, in a sense, we’re all faking it. I agree with this sentiment, but I think there’s something missing, especially (but not exclusively) when it comes to academic jobs. In academia, people feel like impostors because they’re not “smart enough.” Levy alludes to this in his essay: “You probably worked hard to get where you are, and you may be smarter than most, but for every person who succeeds (in landing that tenure-track job, say), there are dozens just as smart and who worked just as hard.”  This hits on a widely-held belief in academia, one that produces a climate of insecurity and self-doubt. To be a “real academic,” you need to be smart, and smart in the only way that matters in higher education: “intelligent.” Not insightful, not creative, not sensitive, not compassionate, not courageous. Not a good mentor or colleague or friend or ally. INTELLIGENT. None of those other qualities amounts to a hill of beans if you don’t have the one thing that hiring committees and administrators care about.

In fact, it’s best not to have those other qualities, since they’ll just make you angrier and more outspoken about the injustice, chicanery, and general fuckery going on all around you – political problems that the administration will go to great lengths to deny, obfuscate, and litigate against. The “best” academics are the ones who publish a lot of research and win a lot of grants, but don’t make a fuss about how universities have been hijacked by the private sector and stacked with hacks and corporate shills due to policies stemming back to the Reagan administration. Do we need more intelligent people, the same people who have been running higher education into the ground for decades? (In comparison, how many jobs are going to crip theorists or Marxist feminists?) 

Meanwhile, disabled people with mentally disabilities that affect their performance on standardised tests are seen as “unintelligent” and unfit for academia (and society in general). Never mind that they have privileged insight into oppression, diverse ways of knowing, and a vested interest in dismantling the culture of eugenics. Never mind that “intelligence” is and has always been linked to white supremacist, patriarchal, and neoliberal standards of cognitive performance, standards used to perpetuate social injustice. Never mind that some of the highest-ranking Nazis scored high on intelligence tests, yet held absurd beliefs about biology, sociology, politics, and every other humanities subject. Never mind that the most educated colonizers subscribed to a “race science” that most children today can recognise as total rubbish. Incidentally, these “scientific frameworks” ascribed the highest “intelligence” to neurotypical white males, the very people who designed them. And intelligence tests still reproduce classist, racist, and ableist hierarchies today. If being smart is so important, then why are the smartest people always the most mystified about everything, the very worst at running society? 

These legacies continue today. Academia places little importance on privileged insight or lived experience or integrity or courage, or any other virtue that doesn’t translate directly into impact factor, citation count, and external funding. This can be seen in the continued lack of diversity in academia. What “real academics” need is intellectual ability and the institutional markers of this cognitive achievement. Is it any wonder that academics feel like impostors? It’s not just that we’re anxious about not being “intelligent enough” to deserve a job. The problem runs much deeper than individual capacities. The real issue is that the ideal of intelligence itself is a sham. More specifically, “intelligence” is a contingent biopolitical construct that was designed to protect “the master’s house” – in this case, the Ivory Tower – by excluding marginalized cognitive subjects and the alternative epistemologies created and preferred by those subjects. Impostor syndromes comes from worshipping at the false altar of intelligence. 

Even if you manage to be recognized by as “intelligent,” you’ll never feel safe and secure, since the concept of intelligence itself is a contingent biopolitical apparatus rooted in contested hierarchies of power. That is, “intelligence” itself might change to exclude you. Let me explain this as briefly as I can. First, intelligence is not a fixed and eternal essence, but rather a cultural artefact that justifies and reproduces hierarchies of power. In Nazi Germany, you weren’t seen as “smart” if you didn’t endorse the pseudoscientific bullshit of the Nazi elite. If you were Jewish or gay or disabled or otherwise oppressed, you were unintelligent by definition, and that label justified your extermination. The working definition of intelligence was used to suppress dissent and rationalize state-sanctioned violence. Today, the notion of intelligence is still tied to racial and able-minded privilege, and continues to legitimize eugenic hierarchies of power (which is why disabled people, especially those with a mental disability, are marginalized in the labor force in general and academia in particular).

Secondly, being “intelligent” doesn’t necessarily correspond with being good at anything of value. The most “intelligent” people are typically those who invent and promote the pseudoscientific bullshit of the day, while the “unintelligent” huddled masses are the ones who deconstruct these systems and create their own counter-hegemonic values and epistemologies of resistance. Being intelligent as such doesn’t equate to contributing to the kind of society that we should want to live in.

Third, even if “intelligent people” are sometimes good at things of value, as they surely are, it’s not because of their intelligence per se. It’s because they have other qualities, like insight into oppression, or relationships of solidarity with oppressed people who are at the forefront of political activism (including dismantling the system of compulsory able-mindedness that lionizes intelligence). Intelligence isn’t an architectonic value. As Rosemarie Garland-Thomson agues, we should not be trying to promote a culture of “intelligence,” but should seek to “conserve the human variations we think of as disabilities, because they are essential, inevitable aspects of human being and because these lived experiences provide individuals and human communities with multiple opportunities for expression, creativity, resourcefulness, relationships, and flourishing.” Academia categorically fails to do this; it values intelligence above diversity and insight.   

If Garland-Thomson is right, then there’s no reason to value intelligence per se, much less to make it a condition of hiring, promotions, and institutional status. Yet we’ve decided to stack social institutions, especially academic ones, with “intelligent people,” those with the most privilege and prestige. This has led to a culture of fear, insecurity, and competition, where no one can live up to the perfectionist ideal of “intelligence,” where those who try will always (justifiably) worry that their intelligence isn’t as objective or valuable as they’ve been led to believe, where members of oppressed groups will always feel left out because their identity was definitionally excluded from “intelligence” from the start, and where so-called unintelligent people will always push back against the ideal of intelligence and the norms of inclusion.

Levy isn’t wrong when he says that we should admit that “we’re all fakers,” but that advice leaves the system intact. It doesn’t challenge the ideal of intelligence that inspires so much dread and insecurity that we feel the need to indulge in pretence, fakery, and make-believe. It doesn’t expose intelligence as a strategic fiction, a tool of oppression used to uphold able-minded privilege and keep “undesirables” out. It doesn’t identify intelligence as part of a eugenic system of classification that, much like sex, gender, and race, functions to discipline, rank, and sort people into hierarchical positions within a broader capitalist order. People ranked more highly reap the rewards of capitalism in the form of money, security, and status. The problem with academic culture, then, isn’t (just) that academics are pretending to be smarter than they are. It’s that they’re invested in a eugenic standard of inclusion, an ideal of “intelligence,” that hurts everyone. Do we want to live in a culture of insecurity and make-believe? Or do we want to challenge the standards that make us feel like we’re not good enough, like we all have to be the same, like we all have to produce the same type of knowledge or we don’t deserve a platform.  

The hegemony of intelligence demands able-mindedness and punishes mental disability. It also punishes Blackness and queerness insofar as these categories are positioned as disabled. As Robert McRuer puts it, “queerness… is regularly understood or positioned in contemporary culture as always a bit disabled.” So is Blackness on Sabrina String’s analysis. Historically, Black people were seen as “savages” with lower intelligence and lesser self-control, which justified slavery and perpetuated white supremacy. As Stacy Simplican notes, John Locke used the term “idiot” to describe and then disenfranchise Africans, Indigenous people, women, disabled people, and the poor. Terms like “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded” have always been used to dehumanize and dispossess a variety of oppressed groups. Current notions of IQ and intelligence serve much the same purpose; they are useful tools for justifying the apparatus of racial, patriarchal, ableist capitalism and its many institutional exclusions. 

Nick Bostrom’s racist comments on a 1990s listserv, which were recently unearthed, illuminate the connections between the doctrine of transhumanist eugenics (which seeks reduce or eliminate intellectual disability and, by extension, intellectually disabled people) and white supremacy. Bostrom wrote that “Blacks are more stupid than whites,” evoking the classic associations between Blackness and intellectual disability, which Simplican and Strings trace to the origins of slavery and capitalist exploitation. Black people have been labelled as unintelligent as a way of silencing and excluding them. But discrimination against intellectually disability is wrong in its own right. Ableism is wrong not only because it is weaponized against non-disabled people, but also because it is used to oppress disabled people. Its implications as a tool of oppression cannot be overstated. 

Now, a friendly critic might suggest that we should transform the notion of intelligence rather than reject it altogether. But I disagree. Stacy Simplican explains why hierarchies of ability, particularly intellectual ability, should be abolished. She writes that our “allegiance… to an ideal cognitive subject,” an “intelligent subject,” is used to justify the oppression of those classified as “cognitively inferior.” This ranking system doesn’t hurt only those individuals classified as cognitively disabled. It also creates a climate of fear and insecurity in which even “cognitively superior” people worry about falling short of the standard of intelligence (as we all do with age, inevitably). Under society’s “fictional account of compulsory capacity that none of us can achieve,” says Simplican, we all feel anxious and self-conscious, we’re all pitted against each other in a race to the bottom, we’re all worried about losing our “cognitive edge” and “aging out.”

The solution to this problem isn’t to pretend to be smart. It’s to eliminate the ideal of cognitive ability that produces a hierarchy of ableist privilege and domination that makes people feel like they have to hide their human vulnerabilities, disabilities, and uniqueness. This doesn’t mean that we won’t have any standards. There will still be ways of judging who is an oppressor and who is a resistor, who is exploiting people and who is protesting injustice, and other metrics that we ought to care about. But these metrics don’t depend on intelligence, and don’t correspond with academic status or income. If anything, the inverse is true: disabled people are the least likely to get jobs in academia, but the most likely to challenge the ableist standards that are making academics uptight and insecure.   

A friendly critic might also point out that intelligence tests are sometimes used to justify accommodations and diagnostic labels. My response is that they don’t have to be. Institutions should be designed to be universally accessible, not merely “accommodating.” Since I have argued for this position at length elsewhere, I will not elaborate except to say that intelligence tests are rooted in eugenics and are not needed for social inclusion. We can get rid of intelligence tests and still create inclusive architectures that make everyone feel welcome. Indeed, abolishing the ideal of intelligence will allow us to build society around better values and goals that actually matter – things like courage, friendship, justice, and political solidarity. If academics were less ableist, they would be less anxious about falling below their own standards. 

About Mich Ciurria

Mich Ciurrial (She/they) is a disabled queer philosopher who works on intersectionality, feminist philosophy, critical disability theory, and justice studies.

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