What are we thinking about?

October 11, 2002

Brenda Gourley says shallow soundbites have replaced considered opinion when we need it most.

We are at a serious time in our history - a time when we should be thirsting for the considered, informed, disinterested, profound, and all the best that a public intellectual can bring to us, a time when the issues are so large and so important that they demand serious and disinterested research by our best intellectuals.

Yet this is a time when we routinely use the term "intellectual" in a pejorative way. The word "academic" has come to have much the same low value, and we reinforce that by paying academics as little as possible, thereby ensuring that fewer and fewer of our brightest young people aspire to their ranks - certainly in the western world.

Instead, we have succumbed to a "celebrity culture", in which our media celebrates the rich, the beautiful, the strong - but certainly not the serious and intellectual. The writer Susan Sontag has commented that our most intelligible and persuasive values seem to be drawn from the entertainment industries.

What role should "public intellectuals" such as Sontag, Onora O'Neill and Edward Said play? The most exemplary of such intellectuals would offer discerning, disinterested comment on issues of the day and thus contribute to a well-functioning democracy and informed public opinion.

This contrasts with how so-called experts or "pundits" are often brought in to perform in media debates but are given little time to explain and almost no time to explore the issues properly. The soundbite mentality, combined with the fashion to call in random opinion via telephone or emails from listeners or viewers with no expertise at all, renders any intellectualisation around an issue an impossibility.

There is an important distinction between the non-intellectual and the anti-intellectual. The three pillars of anti-intellectualism highlighted by Richard Hofstadter in his seminal work on the issue remain true: evangelical religion, practical-minded business and populist political style. It is difficult to avoid comparing these influences with the present White House administration and balk at the unprecedented power it exerts in this way.

However, individuals who may well be non-intellectual rather than anti-intellectual nevertheless end up feeding the anti-intellectual end of the spectrum. They are overwhelmed by the information explosion, the complex technological culture, shaky economic structures, ecological complications and so on, and they retreat under the weight of all this. Retreating, in fact, amounts to opting out of a responsibility imposed by being a member of a democratic state. More than that, it is also retreating from membership of a global citizenship that demands we understand our interdependence and act accordingly.

All is not lost. There are still ways in which our public intellectual life can be revived. Remember what Aldous Huxley told us in Brave New World : what afflicted the people was not that they were laughing instead of thinking but they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

I cherish the hope that we will rally to the cause, understanding that the capacity to be exemplary intellectuals is given to only a few of us and that the rest of us should be only too happy to come to their defence.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor of The Open University. She delivered the Robbins lecture "In Defence of the Intellectual" at the University of Stirling this week.

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