Will the Real Intellectual Please Stand Up?

(This is a response to Syahredzan Johan’s piece, Rise of the Pseudo-intellectuals)

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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Alicia spends far too much time in front of the computer writing her next 1000-word masterpiece. When she's not writing she is seen slaving away over a steaming pot of tasty gruel.

Posted on 29 June 2012. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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10 Responses to Will the Real Intellectual Please Stand Up?

  1. Greg Lopez

    Kudos to both Alicia and Shahredzan for making public their views on a range of issues.

    Thank you to Loyarburok also for being a platform for these discussions to take place.

    For creativity and intellectual curiosity to blossom, we should be able to articulate our views freely in a polite manner.

    More importantly, we should not shy away from making our views known for fear of being ridiculed.

    As more Malaysians begin to engage with each other on contentious issues, knowing full-well that no single person has a monopoly of ideas (or the truth), the sum total of this polite engagement can only be good for all.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Kasvini

    hehe… good topic. Both writers have me quite convinced of their stance.

    When I read Rise of the Pseudos.. I couldn't help but feel guilty..
    My response was : I'm one?? I can't be… wait.. I probably am cause I say stuff to people who have very little chance of understanding it. Oh.. well.. if that makes me a pseudo-intellectual, then ok. Maybe I should look for people who can understand and debate like Alicia has to improve my intellectual "Status".

    When I read this article, my mental thoughts went like,
    "ooo… so there are people who respond so fast to things in civil manner? hahaha… well since I'm young and I should stumble a lot to learn, I appreciate Alicia's opinion that people like me shouldn't be labeled pseudos or whatever. Being labeled as such can make me feel guilty and embarrassed. :( but it's okay I guess… after years of being spoonfed and protected in our education system, I should learn to survive some opinions or labels that may or may not be intended to embarrass me.

    Do I make sense?? alamak… maybe I'm not a real intellectual but aaaaa… it's tihs word Pseudo… it's got this negative connotation but can I not take it negatively?? oh no… Me lost in me own ideas.

  3. Adriana

    I totally concur with your view. There is nothing fundamentally wrong in being an intellectual, pseudo or real. Similarly there is nothing dishonest or worth mocking of for being curious and hungry for knowledge.

  4. ad ke

    "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."

    So unfortunately true. Wonderful article, not only as a response to Syahredzan, but as an articulation of the lack of scholarly and intellectual outlets available to those not in academia.

  5. siewchin-nonpseudo

    hmmm … is there a possibility that Syahredzan was writing about the likes of Alicia? :-D
    as in any situation, subject matter is relevant.
    if it's a matter not every regular joe talks about, then of course it does go into the realm of pseudos and those whose opinions that can go as far back as that of dead germans or dead greeks or dead Ghandi and Confucies et and cetera…
    also let us not presume – that pseudos are the young :-D or that they are without the required knowledge or that their views can only be expressed with hoity-toity big words or that they are intimidating…
    i like Syah's stand – he merely requests for honesty, simplicity.
    honestly – I am intimidated by Alicia. :-))))
    but i like her no less.

  6. Tristan

    Aiyo, don't get your panties in a bunch. Syah's piece is just another one of those rants against a new annoyance on social media. You are really reading too much into it.

  7. Damakan

    Amazing response to a previously horribly thought out article.
    "To denounce ‘pseudos’ is also to dismiss youthful attempts at forming an intellectual identity. It is like stomping on new blossoms in the spring."

    Syahredzan deems himself to be above the rest intellectually doesn't he?

  8. Joe Fernandez

    No need to be an intellectual or pseudo-intellectual on anything. Take an honest position on issues. For example, isn't 55 years too long for one party to be in power?

  9. DNV

    Brilliant!

  10. pepperlim

    Nice!