Rise of the Pseudo Intellectuals

This article first appeared in The Star’s iPad edition on 28 June 2012.

Is faux smart today’s faux pas?

My initial idea for the column this week was to write about Article 5 of the Federal Constitution — whether the right to life provided for by the Article included the right to die vis a vis suicide and euthanasia. I had conducted the research and prepared myself to write the article. I would have embarked upon the article if not for an intervening event that occurred between my original plan and the writing of this article.

That intervening event was a series of e-mail exchanges. The topic of the e-mail thread is of little importance for this article; suffice to say it was about some highbrow matter of national and global importance. You know the sort; global warming, racism, meaning of religion and the like. Matters which the everyday Joe would not normally discuss.

But you see, those who are part of that e-mail thread pride themselves to be quite above the normal everyday Joe, even if they will not admit it openly.

As usual, pseudo-intellectuals ruled the discussion. When I say ‘ruled’, what I mean is ‘sent enough e-mails to annoy everyone else and turn them away from contributing to the discussion’.

Oh, you don’t know what is a pseudo-intellectual? My apologies, I launched straight into it without attempting to define the phrase. According to Dictionary.com, a ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is ‘a person exhibiting intellectual pretensions that have no basis in sound scholarship or a person who pretends an interest in intellectual matters for reasons of status’.

(For the rest of this article, I am going to refer to pseudo-intellectuals as ‘pseudo’ for the sake of brevity and because ‘pseudo-intellectual’ is far too long.)

Pseudos lurk in cyberspace. Armed with Wikipedia, they wait until a topic surfaces and pounce upon it, unleashing a barrage of sentences aimed at presenting themselves as intellectuals.

How to spot a pseudo? Well for one, they love to quote. For every highbrow topic out there, they have an accompanying quote for it.

So you have a topic, say on the concept of justice (yes, I know), and they will without fail quote from Indian writer Amartya Sen or American John Rawls.

If the topic is economics, you will see quotes from John Maynard Keynes or Friedrich Hayek.

Pseudos love dead German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. They adore the man. They will try to overwhelm you with der Wille zur Macht (for you commoners, that means ‘The will to power’), as if they are some sort philosophical Übermensch (‘super-human’). But most of them have never read a word of Nietzsche. Even if they did, they probably would not understand him.

No, I have not read Nietzsche either. But at least I am honest enough to tell you that I got those German words from the internet.

Pseudos tend to quote figures and results from obscure studies or research conducted by some scientists in some remote part of the world. This is to give the impression that they are well read and have deep knowledge in just about anything. Doing so also purportedly reinforces whatever they say.

Another trait of pseudos is to bring ‘intellectual’ matters in matters where intellectualism is not asked for nor required. For example, a group of people would be talking about the Avengers movie and all of a sudden, the pseudo in the group will talk about what is ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and how our views regarding these concepts are relative to our own experiences. As if this was something novel which the pseudo thought up on his or her own after watching the Avengers movie.

A pseudo’s best friend is the thesaurus. It allows them to say the same thing but with fancier words. They will talk of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘utopian free market’ as if they understood what these concepts mean. Pseudos tend to take the contrary view because to them taking the same view as the masses is anti-intellectual and therefore abhorrent to their image as ‘learned persons’.

Pseudos also tend to be argumentative in nature. The most frequent offenders are pseudos posing as socialists, feminists and atheists; capitalists, men and religious types can never be right because they are always the oppressors. They will challenge opinions or views as a way of making a personal attack and simply will not rest until they obtain an imagined victory in their pseudo-intellectual minds.

So they quote, pluck figures and pretend that they actually have an opinion, all the while using words like ‘ad hominem’ which is something which no normal person would use in a conversation. But hey, it is Latin, and everyone knows using dead languages is a sure way to make one appear clever. If pseudos could, they would probably quote Aramaic phrases with reckless abandon.

Make no mistake about it; pseudo-intellectualism is on the rise. Before this we could avoid them as we would only have to deal with them face to face. Then, the internet gave them blogs yet we could still avoid reading anything that they post. But with social media, we unfortunately have to read their inane tweets. Their status updates about how capitalism is the source of world’s woes will somehow appear on our Facebook timeline.

Social media has revolutionised how we communicate with each other. With it, we have uncovered some bone fide gems, those whose intellect are a degree above the rest. Unfortunately, we must be able to sieve through the many pretenders. Anyone can sound intellectual. All you need an ability to speak English, an internet connection and Google.

The rest of us may not read the works of dead Germans or be able to spell ‘existentialism’ or know what the word means, but at least our views are our own. No amount of Malcolm Gladwell references can beat honest opinions, foolish or shallow though they may be.

Down with pseudo-intellectualism. Long live honesty.

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Syahredzan Johan adalah seorang peguam muda dan seorang rakan kongsi di sebuah firma guaman di Kuala Lumpur. Dia melihat dirinya sebagai seorang pengkritik politik dan pengulas sosial. Tetapi dia sebenarnya hanyalah seorang warga Malaysia yang mempunyai terlalu banyak pendapat. Dia adalah seorang yang patriotik, walaupun bukan dengan cara biasa seperti mengibar bendera. Dia percaya Malaysia mempunyai potensi yang hanya dapat direalisasi sekiranya rakyatnya belajar bersatu-padu dan bukannya berpecah-belah. Ikutilah Syah di Refleksi Minda.

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

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