Okay, yes:  I’ve been watching a lot of TV lately.  I used to watch a lot of movies, but I feel like there’s not a lot of interesting stuff happening there and I wonder if culturally we need a little break from the 90-120 minute format for storytelling.  So I’ve been watching TV shows, where the plot arc is long and filled with potential for character development.  Character development is just about the only thing I’m interested in watching these days.  Well, okay, character development and shirtless men.  I have facets.

I was a kid in the 80s, when TV (and fashion) was awful.  Characters had one dimension; plots were hackneyed and predictable.  Characters didn’t develop, and the end of an episode was like a magic reset button; nothing changed, everything went back to how it had been at the beginning of the episode.  How it had always been.

Online, I’ve noticed that people of my generation seem to be doing this to themselves: casting one facet of their personality in the role of The Interesting Thing About me so they can blog about it and (eventually, I assume it’s hoped) get a book deal or a television show of their very own.  Tech blogs, political blogs, movie blogs, mommy blogs – if you can name it, there’s someone out there blogging about it to the exclusion of all else.  It draws an audience of like-minded people, and soon you get a marvelous infinite recursion*, where the only change is that opinions get more extreme, entrenched and isolated from the rest of the world.

This kind of specialization bores me to tears, and it’s for the same reason that 80s TV did – no character development.  Nothing moves forward.  Once you’re a political blogger, you keep doing that forever, and if you stray from the subject or your opinions change or develop, you risk losing your audience.  So you shore up their opinions and yours, endlessly re-creating the self you were when you started the blog.  I started blogging ten years ago, and if I was the same person I was in university (or playing at being the same) it’d be the tragedy of my life.

Oh hey, Daniel.

Oh hey, Daniel.

If I turned this website into the Blog of Shirtless Men, I’d have a much larger audience.  I can imagine how I’d optimize the SEO (yes, I’d optimize my optimization) and what my markets would be; that’d be the easiest sell of all time besides shirtless women.  I’d probably end up as a “Sexpert” on Tyra giving women (and gay men) questionable relationship advice.  And every day I did that, I’d be ensuring that my mind atrophied and all the things I value in myself withered and died.

Did that seem judgmental or cynical?  I fucking hope so.  Because developing one facet of your personality to the detriment of all else is bad for you and bad for our success as human beings.  And you don’t need to trust me on this one; I’ve got history to back me up.

Seriously, I love this guy.

Seriously, I love this guy.

Consider our good friend Genghis Khan (that’s a great book, btw), who was frankly totally awesome.  Aside from conquering more territory than Alexander the Great (another hero of mine), he also did this marvelous thing where he allowed the people of each place he conquered to (usually) keep their culture, religion, and essential body parts.  He took the best and the brightest people of each culture, and brought them together.  The ideas behind Chinese fireworks and European cathedral bells cross-pollinated and became a major advance in warfare technology – canons.

Or think about the Kingdom of Sicily in the middle ages, where the mingling of Muslim, Christian and Jewish ideas, culture, and people brought about a  distinct flowering of arts, sciences, and culture.  When they started doing stupid things like kicking out all of the Jews, they floundered, financially and culturally (okay, that’s a generalization, and you could argue with me on it, but it was a big part).

Or consider Gavin Menzies’ assertion (in his book 1434) that the Chinese visit to Europe ignited the Renaissance.  The book, like all of his work, is not very well-written but his ideas are kind-of earth-shakingly wonderful.  The central idea is that the Chinese introduced to parts of Europe ideas and learning that were foreign to  European thought, and when those collided they opened new channels that lead to massive leaps in technology, arts, learning and culture (though I think that the Arabs, who preserved copies of the ancient writers and had added substantially to the store of knowledge should get a lot more credit).

Or how Picasso’s exposure to African art completely changed and influenced his style – and all visual art in the 100 years since, around the world (I don’t like his work, nor a lot of Modern art, but I appreciate the change and the ideas behind it).

When different ways of thinking collide, crash, or sit side by each, there is opportunity to move forward, to develop.  This is usually uncomfortable; our assertions get challenged, our sense of what is right and wrong gets upended, people fight, and you often have to admit that the ideas you used to passionately defend were wrong (that’s the hardest part).  For a society, it’s a vital process that leads to financial and cultural success; for an individual, it’s growing up.  It’s character development.

What I’ve been noticing in TV lately is this gorgeous thing where different cultures or ways of being are being shown as doing the uncomfortable dance around how to live together and the changes that happen when they do.  Rome had all these lovely juxtapositions of class.  Deadwood was an exploration of what happens when the normal societal rules are stripped away and everyone – regardless of class – is thrown into a pile in the middle of nowhere.   Glee (and High School Musical, though with a lot less complexity) mostly rests of the tensions between jocks and nerds and whether or not it’s possible to straddle those groups.  True Blood, about humans and newly-outed Vampires explores the tensions between established and emerging cultures.  Heroes, though I feel like it’s gone off the rails a lot, is about internal struggle – what happens when we are changing and challenging the truths that are essential to ourselves – who we are as people, as human beings.

You can’t really say any of that for The Golden Girls or Dallas or Full House.  Sorry 80s TV, you sucked!**

It’s the Generalist who (while they are good at a couple of things) is actively interested in the rest of the world who moves the world forward.  The Specialist might be really, really good at say, graphic design or rocket science, but there’ll be a point where that individuals skill and knowledge plateau, and it’s not really possible to develop any further.   Specialists are great when you have them operating on your brain, not so great when you want your culture to flourish.  There has to be a happy accident, a catalyst of some kind that shakes us out of our complacency, that changes the game somehow.  And we won’t find that if we re-tread the same territory or spend too much time with like-minded individuals.

In the nakedly self-promoting glare of one-topic bloggers the world looks like a pretty terrible place.  Thankfully, I think a sea-change is coming; I believe that Western culture is tuning in to the many blessings of difference, and beginning to reject the extremism that stereotypes and sealed knowledge and an infinite loop breeds.  At least, I hope it’s so.  For my own edification, if nothing else.

*Am I using this term correctly?  I think I am, but I’ve been wrong before.  I mean an endless repetition, like when you point a video camera at a Television.  In any event, recursion is fun to say.  Recursion, recursion, recursion. Infinite recursion is even better; all those tasty syllables! Recursion, from the Latin to run back.

** Am I missing something awesome?  Because I don’t remember liking anything on TV in the 80s, or even most of the 90s. Friends, Beverly Hills 90210, Seinfeld… blech.

Share →

2 Responses to In Praise of Generalists.

  1. Yay, bathos!

    How else could we possibly refer to the dizzying lurch from Genghis Khan to The Golden Girls?

    I think you’re right in praising generalism – someone I very much admire reminded me that the root of “dilettante” is “diletto,” meaning delight – but I’m concerned with the notion that a specialist somehow dwindles or atrophies.

    I’m with Blake here:

    “To see a World in a grain of sand,
    And Heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.”

    And I don’t think you can do that without being still, and engaging with infinite depth rather than limitless breadth.

  2. Candace says:

    I think I should have written this article more clearly; I may go in and do some editing.
    I’m not anti-specialist. But I know people who put their head down, their blinders on, and focus on the thing that they do to the exclusion of pretty much all else. Like social skills, or hobbies, or interests. And I do find that they atrophy. I’m not saying they don’t achieve some neato things first, but the people that do things that inspire and excite me generally do so by making connections between things that people haven’t made connections between yet (oh syntax, my old enemy).
    I think people should certainly pick a thing, or a couple of things, and focus on them; but they need to occasionally engage with people outside of their discipline in order to grow beyond their own limits. I’m a generalist to a fault; I never pick a thing, and so I’m pretty good at all kinds fo things, but never really good at any one thing. It makes me more useful, but more difficult to initially find a use for.

    Oooh, another good example is when some Geologists started talking to some Archaeologists about the ancient site at Delphi – the Archs had long been convinced that there was no freaking way that gas actually issued from a fissure in the earth, but to the Geos, it was obvious that Delphi was on a great big honkin’ fault line, and when they worked together they proved that the Pythia (the oracle) was most likely inhaling small amounts of Nitrous Oxide, and overturned like, 80 years of academic denial of the sources, validated a lot of what Plutarch had written, etc. ( a good book about it is The Oracle by William J. Broad, which was so exciting a read that I couldn’t put it down, which sounds like, ‘way dorky, but it’s true).

    Oooh, and in this TED talk Robert Full talks about cross-disciplinary work to move Biology forward (it’s a really Biology-centric way of expressing it, but really he’s moving engineering forward equally).

    I think the focus (especially in academia) has been on specializing, but that you need a healthy blend of generalist and specialist to really move things forward in any serious way.

    Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, but sometimes birds dive to catch fish and fish jump into the air to catch bugs. Getting out of your element might provide you with a tasty dinner!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *