Je vais te faire l’enfer… Should we look to academia for public intellectuals? #auspol

Last week, Alecia Simmonds wrote an article for Daily Life which got the chattering classes all a-chattering.

My problem is not that our public sphere harbours ill-educated members (like the imbecilic Andrew Bolt who never made it past first-year uni). I think we need commentators from all walks of life. The problem is that as a country we are hostile to those who are well-educated. We prefer home-spun wisdom to years of research. Our language is peppered with vitriol reserved for those who think for a living: “chattering classes”, “latte-sipping libertarians”, “intellectual elites” and now Nick Cater’s most unlovely term “bunyip elite”. If we want to emphasise the importance of something we say that the issue “is not just academic”. Any idea that takes longer than a nano-second to understand is howled down. Or perhaps, more precisely, any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy. I’ve never heard Tony Abbott be told that his Rhodes scholarship and privileged tertiary education meant he was out of touch with the common man. Calling someone an “intellectual elite” is simply a way of ridiculing those who think for a living about how the world can be a fairer place. [Source: Simmonds, ‘Why Australia hates thinkers’, Daily Life, 15 May]

There have been a number of responses to the article already.  The main debate thus far appears to be about why Australia’s academics are not prominent as public intellectuals, but there have been alternative narratives.  New Matilda published an a stunningly good piece from Jeff Sparrow about how the left needed to start fighting for ideas instead of complaining that they’re not shielded from criticism:

Instead of dismissing polemicists like Bolt, the Left might do better to ask why we lack anyone of a similar calibre. Simmonds praises Slavoj Zizek. But, in the public sphere, what distinguishes Zizek is not his scholarship about Hegel and Badiou but his persona as a provocateur and his willingness to fight for his beliefs – in, dare we say it, a very Bolt-like fashion.

It’s a tradition that the Australian Left seems to have entirely lost. Think back to Hazlitt and his condemnation of “sensitive thinkers” who refuse to battle for ideas that matter. “They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked,” he says, “tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse.”

Zizek gets that. How many Australian academics do? [Souce: Sparrow, ‘Why Andrew Bolt is not an imbecile’, New Matilda, 15 May 2013]

But what if Simmonds’ central point is just wrongheaded?

Although my first reaction to Simmonds’ piece was general agreement, it occurred to me that there are a number of academics who are frequently in the public debate — it’s just that they’re not terribly good.

Peter van Onselen (declaration: I caused him to delete his Twitter for an afternoon) is a journalist with Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd.  He is something of a vanity journalist — often coming into the public consciousness as a character part of the political story.  Most recently, he wrote about things he kinda-sorta-maybe overheard while attending a party with various political figures.  He writes ‘analyses’ of Australian politics, but these analyses rarely hold up to any kind of scrutiny and he becomes absolutely vicious if you challenge him.

He’s also a Professor at the University of Western Australia.

Michelle Grattan is a former journalist with Fairfax.  Towards the end of her career with Fairfax she was repeatedly criticised for erratic analyses of politics.  She’s now a Professor at the University of Canberra.

Robert Manne is perhaps one of our most shallow public thinkers.  He’s been haunting various media outlets for decades and is currently a Professor at La Trobe University.

The list goes on.  Julian Burnside is an Adjunct Professor at the Australian Catholic University.  Bob Birrell holds a position (senior lecturer, I think) with Monash University. Richard Denniss was an Associate Professor at the Australian National University.

So it’s not like academics are shut out of the mainstream media.  If anything, you can’t swing a cat without one of these clowns being all up in your face with their opinions about everything and anything.

Further, since The Conversation started publishing, we have more ‘academic’ content than ever.  The problem — as I’ve pointed out before — is that there are systemic problems with its quality, often confusing academic opinion with the opinion of academics.

On the other hand, senior academic positions are increasingly filled with people who have tenuous academic credentials.  The New York Times ran an article about how people who flameout in public life are able to get comfy positions in academia, a trend that we’ve also seen (though to a lesser extent) here in Australia.

But what if Simmonds is incorrect in a more fundamental way?  Take this line here:

any idea that threatens conservative orthodoxy is consigned to the divine irrelevancy of the academy

It turns out that Simmonds’ left-right dichotomy isn’t quite as solid as our intuitions would make us believe.  In an attempt to break the back of the highly politicised and emotive asylum seeker debate, the ALP commissioned three experts — Angus Houston, Michael l’Estrange, and Paris Aristotle — to review the evidence and make recommendation on Australia’s asylum seeker/border protection policy.

When the panel released its report, left wing commentators went into apoplexy, going even so far as to deny that the panel had the necessary expertise to make the recommendations.

This wasn’t even setting a precedent.  When public servants provided information about offshore processing, Bob Brown called for them to be sacked, saying:

They should be removed from that position and put into something where they can twiddle their pencils without causing so much harm [Source: ‘Brown calls for heads of immigration “turkeys”‘, ABC News, 8 September 2011]

The right does not have a monopoly on rejecting experts when it threatens orthodoxy.  The left hates it just as much when the experts and facts disagree with them.

What if there were a different way out of the labyrinth?  Back in April, I wrote about the value of opinion writing:

Everybody has ethical intuitions.  Everybody has a vague idea of what they think is morally good and morally bad.  The point of applied ethics (and ethicists) is not to be some decider who determines whether some act is good or bad, or even some pontiff who tells people how to think about ethics.  The point is to give language to people’s intuitions and to challenge those intuitions.

Opinion writing – good opinion writing — fits into a similar framework.  The point of opinion writing is not to just express the opinion of the author (every halfwit with an internet connexion can do that) but to give language to people’s intuitions about debates and to challenge those intuitions.

It therefore becomes almost a trivial matter of showing why good opinion writing would not be an expression of outright bias pretending to be objective but, instead, would be more like good journalism simpliciter – presenting a balanced and fair account of an argument without pretending that the account was objective.

Why is good opinion writing as I’ve described important?  We assume that everybody is equally capable of putting together a coherent argument.  ’Opinions are like arseholes,’ I’ve been told, ‘Everybody has one.’  But it’s not actually true.  Some people have much better opinions than other people.  Some people are much better at expressing their opinions than others.  Some people have opinions that would never occur to other people — for example, as a straight white guy, my perspective on the world is very different from a homosexual, a person of colour, or a woman

We should be cultivating a garden of public intellectuals who challenge us to think about our opinions and those public intellectuals might not necessarily be academics or people with an educated background.  So why don’t we have these opinion-crafters feature more prominently in Australia’s public debates?

Far from Simmond’s and Sparrow’s assertions that Australia is anti-intellectual, it could be argued that our intellectuals are anti-public.  Zizek is in the public debate because he is fun (and not necessarily pugilistic as Sparrow seems to suggest).  Hitchens was in the public debate because he was fun (hideously wrong, but fun).  They got people excited about ideas.

Back in the 1980s, Geoffrey Robertson was able to host Hypotheticals, which was a fun (and popular) way of exploring issues.  Mythbusters is still popular in Australia because it makes inquisitiveness fun.  Dr Karl manages to sell a truckload of books on pretty much the same idea.

Q&A was a similar way of exploring issues in a fun way, but the quality seems to have dropped significantly from the early years.  Conversely, Can of Worms has a good format for exploring issues, but seems to get bogged down with vacuous guests.

The problem with those is that there is limited space for voices in those marketplaces.  You might be the most insightful, alternative, fun, and creative thinker out there, but unless you get a break of some kind, you’re never going to blossom in the garden of public intellectuals.

Social media should have created entirely new gardens, but we are not really seeing that happen.  If the same voices aren’t dominating both social and mainstream media, then the people who crash and burn from the mainstream end up as cult icons in social media.  Again, it’s not a partisan thing.  In this post, I showed how a lefty meme about Australia being excised from its own migration zone became indisputable fact on Twitter.  No time to think when you have to be the first, the funniest, and the most in tune with what people intuitively believe.

So what’s my cure?  It’s twofold:

  1. If you’re an intelligent, creative, insightful person, you need to work out how to challenge intuitions and bellyfeel opinions in a way which gets people to tune in.
  2. If you complain about the quality of the public debate, stop rewarding the lazy opinionisti by increasing their hit count, by retweeting their vapidness, or by watching their shows.  Instead, start cultivating your own garden of public intellectuals.

That means a behaviour change away from what’s easy towards habits which are good.  If not, then we will continue to see the same old same old.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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