The following essay originally appeared as the final section of the 1970 Annual Report in the May '70 Mensa Bulletin. It has been slightly edited here and is being published separately because the issues raised have dogged Mensa down to today. It is my belief that a major underlying reason for the troubles of Mensa in recent years has been the elevation to positions of responsibility (and authority) of too many members who engage in the sort of destructive rhetorical behavior that I criticize in this essay. It is one thing -- and bad enough -- that "ordinary members" mock those who do make contributions to the common good of our society. It is far worse when those who have responsibilities as trustees for the society mock those who are the beneficiaries of their trust.
A Personal Note
When I joined Mensa [in 1961] I had already begun to see, dimly but definitely, some of the crises that have shaken many of our institutions in recent years. [This was written after the changes that followed the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the civil rights and black power movements, and the radical escalation of the U.S. Viet-Nam involvement.] I had come to feel that any concept, no matter how appealing, when enshrined in an ideology, in an institution, or even a categorical sentence, loses its validity and becomes destructive of other important values. I had hoped that Mensa, with its egalitarian [internal] tradition and lack of formal structure, might be a means to explore new modes of social relationships and new methods of government which might reduce the rigidities and contradictions of traditional institutions.
Needless to say, I did not find Utopia. There was pride, arrogance, jealousy, selfishness, and even stupidity among the intelligent as among everyone else. And the legal requirements for interfacing even as nebulous an institution as Mensa with the rest of the world made insistent demands for formalization. Nevertheless, I went to work quietly to see how far I could move Mensa in the direction of my hopes. Although I will never arrive at my goal, for it keeps moving away, now is a good time to stop and reflect on how surprisingly far I've come and to share with you some thoughts that have previously been quite private.
[Principles & Laws]
Here are some generalities that have repeatedly been confirmed by my Mensa experiences.
- Sticking to a principle may win logic points in a debate but loses touch with reality and leads to a kind of falsehood. Reality is somehow composed of a balance or a compromise among different, or even contradictory, abstractions we call principles. It is the failure to adjust one's thinking to the complexity of reality that can lead one to the false security of logical consistency at the price of contradicting the world as it really is.
- We pride ourselves on having a government of laws, not of men, meaning, of course, that all [persons] are equal before an impartial law, not subject to the whim of a personal sovereign. Yet it is clear that the reality is otherwise. Good laws have been used by evil or ignorant or ill-advised men to make injustice, and bad laws have been turned to good ends by good men. Ultimately, it is not the clear abstractions we call laws that count but fuzzy concepts like integrity, fairness, or justice that determine the quality of our society.
- Each of us owes something to society and has a right to expect something from society. We are all interdependent. The political chief, or capitalist, or military leader needs the coöperation of the farm laborer, the truck driver, and the carpenter for his health , comfort, and well-being. When each of us is contributing to the best of his ability to the general welfare, he has a right to share in that general welfare and to expect others to make their contributions. yet society cannot make unlimited demands upon its members. We are not creatures of society and have rights to be ourselves, to be free to examine and exchange ideas, to have privacy.
I trouble you with these thoughts for two reasons, one highly principled, one personal, and both bearing on the government of Mensa. As chief executive of American Mensa, I am no longer free to move Mensa in my own direction. Mensa is not my own property but that of its members, and I am no longer simply another member, for as an officer of the society I could make commitments in your collective name. I have responsibilities of office; it is my duty not to con you into coming my way but to tell you frankly what is on my mind and to seek your advice and consent.
The key problem for Mensa (and perhaps for other societies) is the selection and encouragement of people to contribute the best they can to the society. How can this best be done? Laws, at least in the traditional sense, are not the answer. I suspect that a solution may lie in the mutual recognition of our obligations to one another and not begrudging our fellow a chance to make his contribution. How can ideas like this be put into currency? Your answer is earnestly sought
The personal reason for raising these matters can only be explained if I mention some unpleasant facts. Most people take an interest only in those things which touch them closely. There are very few heroes, definitely outnumbered by a small band of vocal villains. What do villains do?
- They put words in other's mouths.
- They take others' words out of context and give them a meaning never intended.
- They falsely attribute motives or intentions to others.
- They state as facts things that are not so.
- They juxtapose to unrelated facts to imply a false inference.
- When all else fails, they use bad language or personal abuse.
- They treat a difference of opinion as a dereliction.
- They assert or repeat derogatory opinions without checking supporting facts.
- They indulge in irrelevant personal characterization.
This sort of villainy has appeared with distressing regularity in the local Mensa press in recent months. I have been given contradictory advice:
- "Ignore irresponsible accusations."
- "You'd better defend yourself."
- "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
- If you leave the kitchen to firebugs the house will burn down."
What is [most] disturbing, however, is less the appearance of such kinds of articles, which have been on the whole few, but the readiness of so many to accept such articles as at least substantially true and the total lack of balancing views or of self-policing by responsible peers.
Let me be clear. No committee or officer is above criticism or advice. What we are talking of here is irresponsible abuse against which any committee or officer is defenseless. It is the sort of writing that destroys communication. Good people who have offered much to Mensa have, in the past, been driven away by this sort of thing. The present administration has been doing its best for Mensa and has opened the door to those who think they can do more or better. This report has been in partial fulfillment of its obligation to keep the membership informed about their society, but there is no obligation, or even a possibility, for self-defense against irresponsible attack. In a very real sense, the quality of your fellow members who stay in Mensa and serve your society depends on what each of us does as an individual.
Go to Directory Page
Posted 5 July 95