I have more thoughts on characters that read as intelligent. (First post yesterday.) Yesterday I wrote mostly about morally positive, or at least neutral, intelligent characters, and characters who lack the described qualities, and are consequently morally flawed. But super-intelligent villains is a major way that intelligence plays out in fiction. The podcast I was responding to yesterday[1. I did finish it, and they did not ultimately end up talking about intelligence as a way culturally read certain constellations of values.] (Warning for casual ableism) spent more time on evil smart people than good smart people -- and they spent a lot of time on what qualities other than intelligence can provide a hero with a moral advantage and greater sympathy.
So I want to spend a little time on qualities that characters can have, that make them read as intelligent, and also make them read as awful people.
Manipulativeness: Evil or morally complicated[2. Somebody remind me to blog later about my feelings about the word 'complicated.'] intelligent characters often show this quality by arranging circumstances such that other people make pseudo-informed choices that benefit the villain, rather than the person making the choice.
Gaslighting: This is manipulativeness on a more long-term scale. Gaslighting is a form of abuse in which a person routinely and persistently arranges for another person to doubt their perception of reality and ability to make judgments.
I'm pretty sure this is less common among actual villains than among protagonist antiheroes who are meant to seem morally gray but ultimately justified. Which is awful. The reason I don't think it's common in antagonists is that the goal is to diminish a person's agency, and if the antagonist is doing that to the protagonist, they're undermining the writer's ability to progress the story.
I'm not sure about that, though. This is something I'll be keeping an eye out for -- who gaslights in popular media, and how is it portrayed: awful? clever? darkly romantic and edgy?
Performance of intellectual status: This would be hard to make obvious in fiction, I think, but the assholes I know in real life who prefer to be seen as intelligent routinely browbeat other people into agreeing with them; brag early and often about when they're right about things, and explain away or ignore the times they're wrong; make stuff up if they don't know the answer to a question; and pick fights about technicalities and peripheral details so that they can 'win arguments' without engaging with meaningful, provable central points.
Pandering: Characters can score a lot of points within the story by agreeing with and rationalizing for popular prejudices; those who are supposed to come off as intelligent can be shown disagreeing with the prejudice when away from the cameras.
Just generally lying: Everything above so far has been basically this -- the main application of cleverness for evil is lying early, often, and elaborately. There's one more, though, below, that isn't just a form of lying.
Modernist rational certainty: A lot of really dark, horrible, evil things happened in the 19th and 20th centuries. (This stuff is all still happening, but if you go back more than 60 years more people agree about which stuff is the evil stuff.) There were a huge variety of genocides, systematic exploitation of labor, the deliberate erasure of cultures, advances in weapons technology that created a whole generation of nihilists, increasingly comprehensive surveillance apparatuses in every state.
And the people who organized these efforts were intelligent, pretty much in the textbook European standard way. They enacted extraordinary crimes against humanity, knowingly. On purpose. And probably at least as often as not, they thought they were doing the right thing.
It was a common belief in early US history that taking land from the native peoples was the morally right thing to do, because Europeans believed they were failing to use that land efficiently. The scientific institution -- the real one, the one we're still using today -- categorized humans into separate classes, inventing race as we know it and ranking them by intelligence. White Europeans and Americans used populations of people of color and other marginalized groups in non-consensual, harmful medical experiments, rationalized as being a worthwhile sacrifice for the greater good. The Tuskegee Experiment is a vivid example, but it is very much not the only one.
My point is, there is a very strong and very much still alive tradition in Western culture of believing that there is a single, morally correct path of progress towards the 'greater good,' a path that necessarily entails accelerated industrialization and the sacrifice (read: genocide) of human lives, especially marginalized human lives. And the heroic figure of that narrative, the champion of it, is, basically by definition, an avatar of the Western notion of intelligence.
Yesterday I wrote a post that suggested that 'intelligent' is necessarily the same as 'morally good.' I want to make it very clear that (a.) that is not what I believe, and (b.) people who do believe that are a very good candidate for the role of evil intelligent antagonist in stories.