Shia LaBeouf as Everyman: What happens when you encourage everyone to be creative

LaBeoufThe Shia LeBeouf plagiarism scandal has gone completely off the rails. He has now been caught stealing content from multiple authors and even from multiple apologies.

I feel I should comment on this, because no one seems to be getting to the ultimate cause of this and other plagiarism scandals in literature, science, and politics. The disease behind these symptoms is the polite Western myth that we are all creative equals, a myth which manifests in a variety of forms.

One of the subtler forms of this myth is the “hard work leads to success” scam. This truly dumb fantasy is one of the most blatant examples of survivorship bias in our culture, because it is utterly blind to hard work that fails to succeed due to lack of resources—resources like capital or, more relevant to the LaBeouf scandal, raw talent.

I guarantee you, no amount of hard work on the basketball court is going to turn Joe Bystander into Michael Jordan. Four people picked off the street who then work really hard at music are not going to become the new Beatles. A randomly selected kid, trained intensively in mathematics, nevertheless will likely not grow up to be the next Alan Turing.

In any field, innate ability is a rare and precious raw material, for which hard work is merely a process of application. The exceptionally talented can casually out-perform the hardest working bell-curver in just about any human activity you can imagine. If you don’t think so, pick an average human to train reeeeally hard for a boxing match against Wladimir Klitschko—then watch the WBA, IBF, WBO, and IBO Heavyweight Champion not even break a sweat while he pounds your contender into oblivion. I don’t care how hard he or she works preparing for the match.

Raw ability is valuable in and of itself; hard work is utterly contingent on talent for its value. A gemstone can be beautiful without a jeweler’s chisel, but no amount of chiseling can turn a dog turd into a ruby. In case you’re missing the analogy, talent is the ruby and hard work is the chisel. Also, gems are rare while dog turds are all over the place.

For the current scandal, however, the more applicable version of this myth is the “everybody has a novel in them” or “everyone is creative” strain. This is the virus that Shia LaBeouf was infected with.

The reality of creativity is just like the reality of any other talent. Nearly everyone can move their muscles, but that doesn’t make everyone an athlete. True athletes are a tiny minority. Does everyone have rudimentary creativity? Sure. But that doesn’t make them all creative types, and pretending that it does smothers the truly creative minority in merit-less competition and gums up the culture in a deluge of faux creativity.

(Which probably explains why American culture has been stuck on replay since this pseudoscientific myth took hold.)

But, despite the fact that mundane, baseline creativity doesn’t make you “creative” any more than being able to get up from the sofa makes you an NBA slam-dunker, we damn sure keep telling everyone they can all be creative artists. Which is, to be blunt, a lie.

But, let’s get back to the victim du jour. LaBeouf’s first-tweeted apology demonstrates that he’s not clear on what creativity is:

Copying isn’t particularly creative work. Being inspired by someone else’s idea to produce something new and different IS creative work.

First of all, copying isn’t creative work, “particularly” or not. Secondly, he didn’t create something new and different with his film; he moved someone else’s work from one medium to another and passed it off as his own.

There’s clearly a sort of Dunning-Kruger veil of inscrutability that makes less-than-creative people like LaBeouf incapable of truly understanding how to be creative and what creativity is. It’s like the workplace anecdote about the office serfs who are told to “think outside the box” and one of them quips: “Those of us who actually think ‘outside the box’ just call it ‘thinking.'”

Folks with typical creativity (like LaBeouf) seem to believe that recognizing the existence of the box empowers you to escape it. Those who can step in and out of the box at will know better.

And as that office anecdote implies, the problem with being honest about the rarity of genuine creativity (or any form of talent) is that the truth often just sounds arrogant and mean. That didn’t stop Melville House from calling LaBeouf stupid, but a sense of etiquette does keep most of us from properly diagnosing the illness that made stupid LaBeouf think he was being creative: the myth that everyone is a creative talent.

The current scandal is particularly high-profile (because the perp is a celeb), particularly egregious (because he did so much of it), and particularly clear (because the theft was brazen) giving it a bigger splash than most cases of plagiarism. But stealing content is not the only symptom of faux creativity corrupting our culture. We have store shelves and ebook catalogs overflowing with cookie-cutter vampire romances, barely disguised Tolkien fan fiction, and drearily hipster “literary” dronework that’s as cliché in tone and content as any of the cliché phrases that Jonathan Franzen ironically condemns.

This is not to give the false impression that genuine creativity never references other works and never plays with tropes. But, there’s certainly a difference between recycling/repurposing ideas and merely regifting them.

More to the point, there’s an critical distinction in every field between the rare person who has a gift and the rest of us who merely have a regift. Deceiving the latter to think of themselves as the former not only dilutes our creative culture with amateur efforts, but it encourages wholesale frauds like LaBeouf who hardly even comprehend the thefts they’re committing.

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  1. Great post. This even has me thinking about “range” of creative talent. The assumption that everyone is equal even among creatives often leaves the biggest contributors getting screwed.

  2. I could hardly claim to work hard, so that option is out.

    Also, I think that connections feed creativity only by bringing new info to the creative person. Studies have shown that, despite what pop management gurus say, group-work reduces creativity and actually causes IQs to drop. Group-work also tends to elevate bad leaders, who then tend to dilute or even suppress genuine creativity.

    Very rarely (as with the Coen Bros) does collaboration produce great creativity. In general, while it might be fueled by interaction, creativity operates best solo.

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