We can trust the public intellectual – the voice of the zeitgeist, so to speak – to be clever, witty, sometimes rather sexy (because they’re clever and witty), and male.
Though it seems that lately being male is a crippling impediment to being the voice of the zeitgeist. Recently, Stephen Fry caused the chattering classes to gasp in shock when he mused rather publicly that women don’t enjoy sex very much. Trust an openly gay man to be the expert in female sexuality. But why the shock? Why did planet intelligentsia brake to a screeching halt on its axis?
Well, to begin with, Stephen Fry is royally endorsed as a kind of British national treasure. He is the repository of wit, middle-class bourgeois ideals, and unthreatening intellect. Therefore, everything that passes through his venerated lips is certified to be right and wonderful of the pristine order. But why did he think he could get away with talking about something he clearly has no personal engagement with?
Maybe it’s because he’s rather unofficially a public intellectual, and as a public intellectual he shares his sagely views on worldly issues based on his celebrated intellectual capacity, even when they’re stretched beyond his experiential limit. Public intellectualism is mansplaining par excellence. Liberal and enlightened male thoughts have the passport of privilege not to be examined first for sexism and misogyny. It’s only when they’ve made an ignorant gaffe that they’re called out and reprimanded with a velveted slap on the wrist.
This brings me to discuss Farish Noor’s recent talk on the changing concepts of modesty in Southeast Asia last October at the Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur and his status as Malaysia’s “sexiest” public intellectual. Although I was sad to have missed out on what is a typically thought-provoking Farish Noor lecture, my heart sank to new uncharted depths when I found out that the lecture included a fashion show with “babes in Peranakan corsets”. This is particularly sexist and disgraceful for a cerebral warrior like Farish Noor. To his credit, however, Farish Noor has successfully made public lectures accessible and trendy. His well-received critiques on religion and politics traverse effortlessly across the Facebook universe making him an intellectual star of the social network age.
But by sexing-up critical thought for the Malaysian public, women become objectified as bodies to gaped at as they parade around in tight-fitting costumes. Women’s bodies become the vehicle through which Farish furthers what I believe are his political claims against hegemonic notions of modesty. The lecture on modesty thus becomes an exercise in irony and intellectual farce, as it appeases the unchallenged male gaze that underpins the very notion of modesty.
Should the sexist failings of public intellectuals come to anyone’s surprise at all? Certainly not. Public intellectualism is a male preserve disguised as a form of cerebral enjoyment for all. The views of public thought-artists like Stephen Fry and Farish Noor should not be seen as entirely objective or supremely above the biases of their androcentric perspective. But problems contravening their “rationality” arise when they inadvertently claim expertise in women’s experiences and gender.