Scapegoating a Genius Child Can Set Them Free

“Genius Child” is a poem by Langston Hughes, an African-American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, and bona fide genius. (The poem has been put to music by Ricky Ian Gordon and recorded recently by Nicole Cabell, a wonderful lyric soprano whom I recently saw perform at the San Francisco Opera.) As Hughes penned it:

This is a song for the genius child.

Sing it softly, for the song is wild.

Sing it softly as ever you can  —

Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle, tame or wild?

Wild or tame,

Can you love a monster

Of  frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child

Kill him — and let his soul run wild.

During my recent  TEDx talk in South Africa, I spent a few minutes on my own childhood. I was bullied for a number of reasons, being smart among them. And I saw how the world treated my brother, who was and is a genius, as are many of my friends and colleagues. I am attracted to geniuses, perhaps because I grew up with one and saw the problems that being a genius can cause.

Ordinary groups hate geniuses unless they can use (and discard) them. I know about that all too well. I was called “brain,” “4 eyes,” “grind.” I was beaten up, bullied, ostracized, and all for being smarter than average.

I learned to hide my A’s and 99’s, cheat by giving answers to others, write papers for football players under threat.  The usual fare. I didn’t understand it very well. What had I done? I watched my brother socially ostracized, made fun of, derided. What had he done?

As an adult, I’ve heard decent people say angry, demeaning things about Asian and Indian kids who do better in school than their children. “They study too hard. They’re grinds. They have Tiger mothers.”  Yeah, maybe. But maybe they’re just smarter kids, maybe some of them are geniuses.  I spent a lot of my childhood wishing I were more ordinary. I did find groups that gave me that experience. It was easy to be just ordinary at Harvard Medical in 1962! To me it felt good.

President Obama is a brainy introvert. He doesn’t hide it very well, and the average voter finds it unnerving. Being an extroverted bully plays better.

The group scapegoating process in schools and in the workplace searches out the science and math nerds, the eccentric artists, the social activists for unpopular causes, and gets rid of them. In many cases it hurts the group more than the individual. This is especially true in industries which are intelligence-driven — losing brain power and creativity to scapegoating is expensive.

Yet while it also hurts the excluded individuals, it’s a blessing for them, too. It’s what I call positive scapegoating. As painful as being ostracized and excluded from their group is, geniuses and others of their ilk are then free from constraints that limit their range of motion.

Positive scapegoating: It lets their soul “run wild.”


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