Is it possible to have sensible discussions in public?

Last June there was a kerfuffle in the online magazine Spinoff over attitudes to intellectual activity in New Zealand. It was precipitated by an extract from Auckland retired academic Roger Horrocks’s recently published collection of essays, Re-inventing New Zealand.. The excerpt came from ‘A Short History of “The New Zealand Intellectual”’ which originally was a contribution to Lawrence Simmons’s book, Speaking Truth to Power. In its imitable way Spinoff’s heading was ‘Why are New Zealanders so fucking intolerant of anyone with a brain, i.e. intellectuals?’; I doubt that Horrocks chose it; his essay is remarkably moderate.

A few days later Paul Litterick responded. (He is an ‘Auckland-based blogger, cultural critic’ and PhD student.) Its intemperate headline, catching the tone of the response, was ‘Stick this in your pipe, Roger Horrocks, and smoke it: your ‘anti-intellectual’ essay sucks’.

I am not sure the two were engaging with one another. Litterick makes much play with the French intellectuals Derrida and Foucault, neither of whom gets much coverage in the original essay by Horrocks. (Understandably, for New Zealand is much more influenced by Anglo-American intellectual traditions.) Litterick seems more concerned with portraying a particular group of people attending (or not attending) a book launch than engaging with the issue of the anti-intellectual climate which Horrocks was discussing.

Are New Zealanders anti-intellectual? It depends what one means by ‘intellectual’. It is already used in this column in (at least) two ways. The adjective (usually in front of ‘activity’) refers to thinking and understanding things, especially complicated ideas. Reading this column is an intellectual activity (alas, this cannot be said for all blogs and certainly not of followers of Donald Trump).

The second use of ‘intellectual’ is the noun which refers to a person who places a high value on and pursues things of interest to the intellect in the more complex forms and fields of knowledge, especially at an abstract and general level. In my experience there would be many New Zealanders – not necessarily a majority – who are intellectuals in private, at least some of the time, and there is another – not entirely distinct – group who are occupationally intellectuals.

New Zealand’s anti-intellectualism is largely about intellectuals who go public. What we do in our bedrooms is our own business; when we choose to come out of the closet (bother, a mixed-metaphor) it becomes a matter of public concern.

Not all of them of course. Much public pseudo-intellectual activity is a bit like muzak. It is so fashionable and platitudinous that we hardly notice it but it provides a pleasing, comfortable background while we get on with our lives. It is only when the public intellectual challenges us that we become irritated.

Any response to the challenge tends to be ad hominem, typically creating a persona for the public intellectual which is abused while ignoring the message. Sure, there are some who are ‘up themselves’ but so too are those who criticise them – perhaps the mirror for the reflection is jealousy. But in my experience the public intellectuals I really value do not match the image at all.

Take Bruce Jesson who was the epitome of modesty. Yes, he could be firm over stupidity and judgmental over dishonesty, but always courteously. Nor does Horrocks match the straw man abused by anti-intellectuals. He begins his collection with a biographical essay which, I suppose, reports what anti-intellectuals hate. They would say he keeps changing his mind but it is really that his thinking is progressing as it is stimulated by new ideas and new circumstances.

This progression of thinking and of drawing out the implications is the central role of the public intellectual. And why, ultimately, they are so disliked, because they are pushing us out of the comfort zone of the certainty that what we know is true while things aint going to change (The one exception of affectionately respected public intellectuals are our cartoonists; perhaps because they are not taken seriously.)

Think how unpopular it was thirty years ago to say that Rogernomics was largely founded on false premises and would fail. Today this is the conventional wisdom. Just ten years ago we were warned there was a housing crisis acoming; now it has arrived. Who wants to be reminded that the conventional wisdom they once held was wrong? Who wants to honour those who told them a long time ago they were wrong and who got it right, especially if they are still talking about future difficult prospects?

Better to cling to the anti-intellectualism of the platitudes and fashions of the conventional wisdom abusing those who make us uncomfortable. Prepare to be astonished when the predictable surprises one – you may have to, ever so reluctantly, change your mind (but dont admit it).

Comments (9)

by James Green on September 05, 2016
James Green

If there was a significant number of closet intellectuals your viewer numbers would be much higher. After all you are pretty much the pinnacle of intelligent blog writing in NZ.

by Brian Easton on September 05, 2016
Brian Easton

Thankyou, James. Brian.

by Fentex on September 05, 2016

Who wants to honour those who told them a long time ago they were wrong and who got it right, especially if they are still talking about future difficult prospects?

Better to cling to the anti-intellectualism of the platitudes and fashions of the conventional wisdom abusing those who make us uncomfortable. 

This does not describe an anti-intellectual attitude but an anti-contradiction one.

And as far as it's relevant to intellectual endeavour and reactions it reminds me of this quote from Upton Sinclair...

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!

Is there not a distinction between the inertia of self interest and the welcoming of thoughtful investigation unpolluted by incentives to ignore and belittle?

It would rather under-mine quite a lot of economic thinking to presume any population is unique in it's ability to be incentivised.

by Moz on September 05, 2016

I suspect that when you ask "who identifies as {slur}" you're never going to get a good response, and likewise when you ask "why are we so anti-{slur}". For most values of {slur}. Why is NZ so down on bogans, wankers and dickheads?

If you asked how we feel about inventors, researchers and whizz-kids you'd probably get a different answer. The problems of having a small country and small markets mean that often those people leave, but I'm not entirely convinced it's because NZ drives them out. How many solid research careers start with a undergrad and run to retirement in only one country, regardless of country? How many of those involve only one university, or two closely linked ones? NZ isn't big enough to have more than one world-leading research department in any given topic area.

The whole "made in New Zealand" pride thing is explicitly pro-intellectual, even sports-wankfests like the America's Cup thing focus as much on the "NZ made a better boat" as "NZ bred a better sailor". From the Hamilton Jet to Zespri, "invented here, ya bastards" is as common an attitude as "geez, glad we kicked that intellectual out". There's even a memorial or two to some obscure physicist boffin back at the dawn of the nuclear age, just because he took his first shit in NZ. How proud we are :)

by Murray Grimwood on September 05, 2016
Murray Grimwood

Is it possible to have sensible discussions in public?

That's the question I've been asking for some years. The answer appears to be 'no'.

It doesn't matter if you consider yourself 'intellectual' or - and its probably the wider-understood measure - intelligent. What matters is how you address issues: it must be done logically, dispassionately and integrated with appropriate weighting. Even if it results in you learning that your contributon to society has been of little/no value, the exercise shouldn't be shied away from.

The majority of self-promoters who probably fancy themselves as 'intellectuals', fail that (logical/dispassionate/weighted) test - making them at risk of being no more than touts.

by Dennis Frank on September 06, 2016
Dennis Frank

I assume your title question is rhetorical, Brian.  I'm 67 and long ago absorbed from our culture that anti-intellectualism is one of its most distinguishing features.  As a teenager in the '60s I even shared the consensus view that intellectuals, almost without exception, were wankers.

I define an intellectual pragmatically:  someone who uses their intellect.  That presupposes three divisions of humanity:  those who lack one, those who possess one but don't use it (normally for fear of ridicule), and then there's (the tiny portion who are real) intellectuals.

Your differential (public/private) is germane inasmuch as intellectual endeavour often contributes to groups which may or may not have a direct public interface.  I've been contributing to several policy working groups for a political party the past couple of years.  Reasoning will only get an intellectual so far in such social environments. People are subjective & few are capable of developing a more objective view.  Being able to internally sense your own subjective thoughts & opinions as separate from the consensual view you are concurrently articulating is a skill few develop.

Online communication seems to polarise people into emotional reactions easily - so intellectual discourse appears rarely.  I like Murray's take on how to participate constructively:  "What matters is how you address issues: it must be done logically, dispassionately and integrated with appropriate weighting."  I think of this as addressing the group mind when I make that effort.  But usually I find blog commentary more satisfying if flippant, elliptical, off-the-wall, satirical, whilst attempting to make subtle nuanced points that elucidate issues.  

Use of the intellect is more likely to be appreciated if not pedantic, didactic, or powered with ego.  Readers seem to have considerable emotional intelligence & they react to the subtext way more than the words, eh?

by Fentex on September 07, 2016

Readers seem to have considerable emotional intelligence & they react to the subtext way more than the words, eh?

Do you not think this undermines your first paragraphs presumptions? If people do react to subtexts because of their emotional (empathic etc) grasp of things why do you presume they're wrong in their calculations of who's a wanker?

by Dennis Frank on September 08, 2016
Dennis Frank

To Fentex:  no, I don't.  Nor do I presume what you suggest.

I agree with your prior point about the relevance of incentives (but it could do with further explanation too).  I'd hazard a guess that Brian was not presuming what you thought he was either - which raises the possibility that you have a tendency to misread other writers.  I have no problem with your inclination to delve into nuance (I share that) but I'm aware how easily any audience gets out of their depth.

We foster the mutual benefits of online discussions if we try to keep our subjective implications internal...

by Charlie on September 18, 2016

Murray - Great comment!  

You summed up my thoughts perfectly.





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