Will the real intellectual please stand up?

This is a response to Syahredzan Johan’s article, Rise of the pseudo-intellectuals. First published in Loyar Burok on 29 June 2012.

Is Syahredzan Johan intimidated by people who use big words and may actually be smart?

I am more than certain he would vehemently respond in the negative to the question above. However his recent article has all the implicit cues that point to a feeling of being threatened by smart-sounding people. More than intimidation perhaps is the curmudgeonly and sanctimonious attitude that can cut through the thick smokescreen of intellectual-wannabes and expose a person who, as it turns out, knows nothing.

What does he gain from this?

Notwithstanding the personal exchanges via email that prompted the writing of his article, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is a personal attack on people who read, to varying degrees of depth and comprehension, and synthesise their ideas to produce arguments and opinions. It is an attack on people who are learning to engage intellectually in a culture that denies such levels of engagement from the get-go.

More crucially, ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is an all-to-easy label to use against someone you refuse to engage with on an intellectual level. It’s a label to belittle someone who you disagree with especially when that someone is adept at expressing themselves vividly.

The fact that Syahredzan thinks that ‘pseudos’ “challenge opinions or views as a way of making a personal attack” shows how personally he must take any kind of intellectual criticism and how emotionally fragile he becomes by an onslaught of Nietzschean quotes and valid, deeply thought-out opinions.

Interestingly, he speaks of this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals, but does not care to state the possible reasons for this apparent rise. I myself do not have an answer to explain this phenomenon but I can say a few things to people who are suspicious of ‘pseudo-intellectuals’:

You are lucky if you had the privilege and opportunity to study and travel abroad, talk with people who don’t bat an eyelid when you quote Marx, and being told you are smart without having to read and quote Marx. But if much of your life and intellectual formation remained rooted in Malaysia where you’re not taught to think and think differently, how wonderful it must have seem to discover rebel thinkers like Fanon, de Beauvoir, and Rousseau?

You are lucky if you have cultivated the art of articulating your ideas from your high-brow readings without sounding like a fool with pretensions above your reach. But in Malaysia, we do not have many avenues to articulate ‘high’ ideas and have those ideas validated by arbiters in the intelligentsia. To begin with, our intelligentsia or what we can recognise as one is tiny and institutionally, there is great resistance to a development of one. And we know that much of ‘highbrow’ thinking is suspicious of the state, the status quo, capitalism, and heteronormativity.

In the Malaysian context, we are witnessing some changes in public attitudes towards dissent.

Slowly, a culture of protest and civil disobedience is being developed. It comes to no surprise then that these events and the people inspired by them seek to nourish their minds further with theory and philosophy that chime with their experiences and help articulate raw feelings into bigger ideas. Also, many of these people who quote Sen and Gandhi are young. To denounce ‘pseudos’ is also to dismiss youthful attempts at forming an intellectual identity. It is like stomping on new blossoms in the spring.

What is this ‘honesty’ that Syahredzan speaks of and celebrates? Is it the admission of not knowing anything highbrow and intellectually aspirational and actually have pride in it?

For Syahredzan it seems, only some people can be deemed ‘real’ intellectuals, others not. He plays right into the hands of structural power, privilege and class if he truly believes that. Aside from the narrowly-defined established intellectuals (academicians, writers, artists), what does it take be an intellectual?

I believe that smartness is the sum of perception and institutionalised lore. Perception because you can be perceived to sound smart when you are buoyed by the gift of confident eloquence. Institutionalised lore produces who is ‘smart’ through exam results, intelligence quotients, science streaming in schools, and university degrees for example – there is no consistent evidence that these things actually make you smart, but people say they do.

Of course while smartness and intellect can mean the same thing, intellectualism is quite different; it grants status, respect, prestige, and can be very intimidating.

When you are suspicious of people who engage in an intellectual manner chances are you envious, insecure, despise people who try to be better themselves with their minds, or all of the above?

I just hope Syahredzan will see the larger context behind this ‘rise’ of pseudo-intellectuals should the phenomenon itself be real rather than a figment of his insecurities.

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