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In defence of pseudo-intellectualism

Published in The Malaysian Insider

By the time you read this, I’ll be away from the city enjoying my honeymoon, probably reading Greg Epstein’s Good Without God and pondering on a Nietzschean thought or two. If that makes me a pseudo-intellectual, I guess you can call me one.

Recently, lawyer Syahredzan Johan wrote in The Star and called on everyone to stand up against pesudo-intellectualism: Down with it, and long live honesty.

A response by feminist writer Alicia Izharuddin, published in the blog LoyarBurok, had his defenders and supporters claiming that the article was just a poke against the pretenders, not the “real” intellectuals.

My opinion is that they are both related, and an attack on one means an attack against the other.

Syahredzan used the definition of a “pseudo-intellectual” to mean “a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship, or a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status.” I find that a desperate slur, and nothing illustrates this more than the reaction that his article elicited.

We see in the wake of the article individuals claiming to be more intellectual than others, not unlike the aftermath of Dina Zaman’s story on the Bangsar bubble. A circle jerk — if I may use such a crude word — ensued as some praised their close contemporaries as a “bona fide intellectual”, while others in the crowd were just pseudos.

To paraphrase a friend, this is akin to the moment when goth and emo kids accuse each other of being posers.

Much as detractors of pseudo-intellectualism do so out of disdain for pretentiousness, in reality they look like apologists for mediocrity. They cannot handle long sentences, high-brow thoughts or philosophical quotes, and they do not believe any kind of pseudo-intellectual pretensions belong in an everyday conversation. They admit to not knowing much, and are proud of it.

Perhaps this is a form of “tall poppy syndrome”, where the general public cannot bear seeing those who stick out from the crowd — the overachievers, the quirky ones — and promptly want to tear them down, back to the ground. We can see this cultivated in school-children who shun those who can speak English a bit more fluently, as foreign devils. We see this in bullies who shoot down academic show-offs.

We treat people who are different badly and neatly label them “pseudo-intellectual” to perpetuate this behaviour, minus the guilt. After all, they’re fakes, aren’t they?

However, we cannot afford to do that anymore. We as a people are increasingly becoming docile and conforming, no thanks to the many censures we face. Our minds are stunted by a media that puts emphasis on mindless gossip — whether in the entertainment business or politics — in order to distract us from more thoughtful issues.

We are becoming boring. It can be then posited that this purported rise of pseudo-intellectuals is in fact a response to this mind-numbing atmosphere we are currently in. When others are devoting considerable time at the altar of Melodi, celebrity ustazs and the like, surely it’s exciting to explore philosophical thoughts and inspiring writings?

You see, one does not become an intellectual overnight. One does not simply graduate from a School of Intellect. Somewhere between the naive “katak bawah tempurung” and the learned orator, you would get that insufferable serial quoter trying to make sense of what he reads.

It is true that those who read and regurgitate esoteric sayings or obscure stats are incomparable to those who truly understand them, but how would you understand if you do not first consume? There will always be the young ones, and to dismiss them outright is to nip one of those “bona fide intellectuals” in the bud.

There is no reason why a verbose writer should be worse than a simpler one (there are bombastic literary masters and terrible concise novelists, after all). There is no reason why a fact-backed argument should be worse than running one’s mouth. Don’t we have enough empty cans in the Parliament already? We could do with more concrete facts.

There is no reason why contrarian and cerebral views should be dismissed as out-of-topic, no matter how annoying they might be. In fact we should celebrate this.

We need more arguments; we need more dissent; we need more people who go against the current. If indeed they are on the rise, then more power to them.

Published inTMI column
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