‘Are we just a bunch of anti-intellectual hicks who can’t see beyond labels and slogans?’ Journalist John Elder raised this question (is it rhetoric?) in The Age recently about Australians, and growing up during ‘the cultural cringe’ in the 50s and 60s in Melburbia, I do not believe the question is rhetoric as my answer is a resounding No. Simultaneously as offering that answer, I also believe it is not so much anti-intellectualism, circumscribed by too many people’s inability to think, but a prevailing and pervasive fear about ‘thoughts’, critical or otherwise, that challenge the conservative and conformist conventions of our country; be they reasonable or heresy (is there an intrinsic difference?). Political correctness has assumed a self-righteous rectitude that rules all responsibility; a notion that goes beyond labels and slogans simply because people are not concerned about their minds or those of others, lest the latter be perceived as ‘aberrant’ to the mainstream status quo. Our society focuses not on mental application and stimulation, but making money and manufacturing political consent. Few people make time just to think beyond the obvious, living inside the box instead of trying to think outside it; but thoughtlessness per se is not the problem, but the absence of thoughts, ideas and beliefs that might engender change; or at least engage people in discourse about issues that transcend the superficial. It’s the sheep mentality; follow the flock, identity sameness and equality equations that deny individuality and our uniqueness. When someone does try to ‘think’, let alone live, contrary to the approved social norms, they end up in mental lock-ups masquerading as rehab centres for the dangerous and deadly. I know only too well because it’s been done to me; not just once or twice either. In this context, the thoughts are decried as delusional, delinquent and depraved, frightening those adhering to the norms as they believe them. It’s the ‘fear’ of these others who, like me, have never imposed, or tried to impose, or power it over anyone, that is a catalyst for our social prison warders to impose their ‘norms’ on people like me; consciously and unconsciously, projecting their ‘fear’ albeit manifesting as medication, and/or taken as excessive drink or drugs to anaesthetise the controlling behaviour of these warders for those who avoid the prison lock-up. The thoughts we may postulate are harmless to ourselves, and don’t involve behavioural practices to cause harm to others, but they can and do ‘frighten’ people who believe in the status quo and its norms. Indeed, these frightened people are often regarded as ‘intellectuals’ themselves; I know too because I’ve worked alongside many so-called males and females perceived as such, as well as meeting and interviewing many in various jobs over the years. These labelled intellectuals are complicit in the insidious anti-intellectualism as it’s regarded because too often they believe their thoughts and beliefs reign sacrosanct over more ordinary mortals, reducing them to anti-intellectual hicks because they don’t agree with them, or even more daringly, confront them with thoughts different to their own. The intellectual thus labelled champions his/her own superiority, regarded by me as ‘pseudo-intellectualism’, as it operates destructively to thoughts outside of their own box. They regard those postulating different ideas and thoughts as ‘anti-intellectual hicks’, quick to criticise and condemn them for flouting their authoritarian power base, arguing the intrinsic primacy of their views. However, while they often assert their superiority, cleverly camouflaged and disguised by umpteen letters after their name collected from so-called prestigious universities et al, their PhDs can be doctorates in stupidity as much as in science; if you see beyond the obvious and try to hear between the lines. Sadly, too, the supposed anti-intellectual hicks are also affirm their right to differ, maintaining a different voice of dissent that labels more cogent thinkers as up themselves or smart-arses, dismissing them in an anti-intellectual tirade that is of itself, just an inverse snobbery and innate inferiority as much as that of the pseudo-intellectuals. Both groups often fail to engage in exciting and passionate conversations limited by their own superiority or inferiority, both of which emanate from a lack of significant self-belief and sense of personal inadequacy. If you have a rational and fair perspective about the intelligence of most human beings, you neither worship those with PhDs in Physics per se nor dismiss those who follow the highways as a truckie. Furthermore, those with the PhDs in Physics or the truckies don’t discriminate against each other, either; the real intellectuals are commonplace.
It was only in the 16th century with the Copernican Revolution that scientists considered the Earth could be round, not flat, and at the time, much verbal and written contempt was hurled at Copernicus for this new thought; a ‘frightening’ reality for the scientific establishment to even consider in those days. The myriad of ideas and thoughts that have changed mankind’s world, not just in science, but in so many areas, is part of our history; fortunately, still evolving, growing and changing as people posit new thoughts and ideas for us to consider. It is not thoughts or ideas that threaten our cherished notions of intellect and wisdom, but the hubris of frightened people and they exist in all walks of life across the socio-economic spectrum. For a thought or an idea to resonate with others, it must contend with critical analysis, realistic and apposite in its application and intent. At the same time however, some ideas and thoughts do not always seem to, as in the earth is flat notion which existed for hundreds of years, and people who pursue these thoughts, despite social ostracism and often contempt, stand out in our history. It’s fortunate they could persist when others might surrender; succumbing to their fears of ridicule and persecution. It doesn’t imply university qualifications either; some our most creative and imaginative ‘inventors’ are people who are early school leavers with original ideas and thoughts. Being fascinated by new ideas and thoughts and being challenged to think these thoughts through to a logical outcome shapes my intellectual curiosity, without glib dismissals of people in a black and white scenario that does nothing to engender genuine intellectual debate. This debate can be in a downtown pub across a beer with a tradie or a truckie, as much as with a don at a university in his hallowed room behind the cloisters.
To understand the anti-intellectualism extant in this country is to firstly understand the latent snobbery, innate and inverse, that permeates the very word ‘intellectual’; another label with so many implicit assumptions besmirched itself by misunderstanding and fear. Some might wear the word as a badge of respect, I find it loathsome and derogatory; placing people on pedestals of power no one ever deserves. We should instead respect people because of who they are, not where they went to school, what university and by what books or movies they read and watch et alia,. or whether they’re into sport or the arts or how incongruous, both. It’s the same arguments about nationality, race, religion, age and gender; all interest me at different times for different reasons and in different contexts as much as thinking for its own sake. Let’s abolish the idea of intellectualism altogether and replace it with just wanting to think for yourself, however cock-eyed some of those thoughts might be. If they’re open to discussion and debate with others we can all be enriched by the experience.